Parents MY CHILD'S ACADEMIC SUCCESS
Communication -- Helping Your Child Through Early Adolescence

How can I communicate better with my child?

Young adolescents often aren't great communicators, particularly with their parents and other adults who love them. Emily Hutchison, a middle school teacher from Texas notes that young teens "often feel they can talk with anyone better than their parents–even wonderful parents." "They tend to be private," explains Patricia Lemons, a middle school teacher in New Mexico. "They don't necessarily want to tell you what they did at school today."

Many psychologists have found, however, that when parents know where their children are and what they are doing (and when the adolescent knows the parent knows, what psychologists call monitoring), adolescents are at a lower risk for a range of bad experiences, including drug, alcohol and tobacco use; sexual behavior and pregnancy; and delinquency and violence. The key, according to psychologists, is to be inquisitive but not interfering, working to respect your child's privacy as you establish trust and closeness.

Sometimes the less you offer advice, the more your young teen may ask you for it.

It's easiest to communicate with a young teen if you established this habit when your child was little. As school counselor Carol Bleifield explains, "You don't suddenly dive in during the seventh grade and say, 'So what did you do with your friends on Friday night?'" But it's not impossible to improve communication when your child reaches early adolescence. Here are some tips:

  • Realize that no recipe exists for successful communication. What works for getting one child to talk about what's important doesn't always work with another one. One middle school teacher and mother of two says her daughter is open and talkative; her son is quieter. But because her son likes to listen to music, to write and to read, this mother often goes with him to a local bookstore. Here, in a place where he's comfortable, the son describes stories and book characters as a link to what he is thinking and feeling. By listening to music with him and proofreading his writing when he's willing to let her this mother encourages her son to open up.

  • Listen"You need to spend a lot of time not talking," suggests Diane Crim, a middle school teacher in Utah. To listen means to avoid interrupting and it means to pay close attention. This is best done in a quiet place with no distractions. It's hard to listen carefully if you're also trying to cook dinner or watch television. Often just talking with your child about a problem or an issue helps to clarify things. Sometimes the less you offer advice, the more your young teen may ask you for it. Listening can also be the best way to uncover a more serious problem that requires your attention.

  • Create opportunities to talk. To communicate with your child you need to make yourself available. Young adolescents resist "scheduled" talks; they don't open up when you tell them to, but when they want to. Some teens like to talk when they first get home from school. Others may like to talk at the dinner table or at bedtime. Some parents talk with their children in the car, preferably when the radio, tapes and CDs aren't playing. "I take my daughter to a mall—not the closer one, but the cooler one that is an hour and a half away," says a middle school teacher and mother. Many of the best conversations grow out of shared activities. "Parents try to grab odd moments and have this deep communication with their child," notes Sherry Tipps, an Arkansas teacher. "Then they are frustrated because it doesn't happen."

  • Talk over differences. Communication breaks down for some parents because they find it hard to manage differences with their child. It's often easiest to limit these differences when you have put in place clear expectations. If your 13-year-old daughter knows she's to be home by 9:30 p.m.—and if she knows the consequences for not meeting this curfew—the likelihood that she will be home on time increases.

  • When differences arise, telling your cild your concerns firmly but calmly can prevent differences from becoming battles.

    Differences of opinion are easier to manage when we recognize that these differences can provide important opportunities for us to rethink the limits and to negotiate new ones, a skill that is valuable for your child to develop. For example, when your daughter is 14, setting a later curfew for some occasions may be fine. Such negotiations are possible because of your child's growing cognitive skills and ability to reason and consider many possibilities and views. Because she can consider that her curfew should be later on the weekend than on school nights, your insistence that "it doesn't matter" will only create a conflict.

    When differences arise, telling your child your concerns firmly but calmly can prevent differences from becoming battles. Explaining why your child made or wants to make a poor choice is more constructive: "Dropping out of your algebra class will cut off lots of choices for you in the future. Some colleges won't admit you without two years of algebra, plus geometry and some trigonometry. Let's get you some help with algebra."

  • Avoid over–reacting. Responding too strongly can lead to yelling and screaming and it can shut down conversation. "Try to keep anxiety and emotions out of the conversation—then kids will open up," advises eighth-grade teacher Anne Jolly from Alabama. Instead of getting riled up, she says, "It's better to ask, 'What do you think about what you did? Let's talk about this.

  • Middle school teacher Charles Summers adds, "Kids are more likely to be open if they look at you as somebody who is not going to spread their secrets or get extremely upset if they confess something to you. If your kid says, 'I've got to tell you something. Friday night I tried beer,' and you go off the deep end, your kid won't tell you again."

    At a time when they are already judging themselves critically, adolescents make themselves vulnerable when they open up to parents. We know that the best way to encourage a behavior is to reward it. If you are critical when your teenager talks to you, what he sees is that his openness gets punished rather than rewarded.

  • Talk about things that are important to your young teen. Different youngsters like to talk about different things. Some of the things they talk about may not seem important to you, but, as school counselor Carol Bleifield explains, "With kids, sometimes it's like a different culture. You need to try to understand this, to put yourself in their place and time." She cautions against pretending to be excited about something that bores you. By asking questions and listening, however, you can show your child that you respect his feelings and opinions. Here are topics that generally interest young adolescents:

  • Childlike drawing of a parent and a child having dinner and talking

    School. If you ask your child, "What did you do in school today?" she most likely will answer, "Nothing." Of course, you know that isn't true. By looking at your child's assignment book or reading notices sent home by the school, you will know that on Tuesday, your 10–year–old began studying animals in South America that are headed for extinction or that the homecoming football game is Friday night. With this information, you then can ask your child about specific classes or activities, which is more likely to start a conversation.

    Hobbies and personal interests. If your child loves sports, talk about his favorite team or event or watch the World Series or the Olympics with him. Most young adolescents are interested in music. Barbara Braithwaite, a middle school teacher in Pennsylvania notes that "Music has been the signature of every generation. It defines each age group. Parents ought to at least know the names of popular singers." It's important, however, to tell your child when you believe that the music he is listening to is inappropriate—and to explain why. Your silence can be misconstrued as approval.

    "Music has been the signature of every generation. It defines each age group. Parents ought to at least know the names of poplular singers."

    Emotions. As was pointed out earlier, young adolescents worry about a lot of different things. They worry about: their friends, being popular, sexuality, being overweight or scrawny, tomorrow's math test, grades, getting into college, being abandoned and the future of the world. The list goes on. Sometimes it's hard to know if a problem seems big to your child. School counselor Carol Bleifield says that if she is unsure, she asks, "Is this a small problem, a medium problem or a big problem? How important is it to you? How often do you worry about it?" Figuring out the size and importance of the problem helps her decide how to address it.

    Family. Young adolescents like to talk about and be involved in plans for the whole family, such as vacations, as well as things that affect them individually, such as curfews or allowances. If you need back surgery, your child will want to know ahead of time. She may also want to learn more about the operation. Being a part of conversations about such topics can contribute to your child's feelings of belonging and security.

    Sensitive subjects. Families should handle sensitive subjects in a way that is consistent with their values. Remember, though, that avoiding such subjects won't make them go away. If you avoid talking with your child about sensitive subjects, he may turn to the media or his friends for information. This increases the chances that what he hears will be out of line with your values or that the information will be wrong—or both.

    Sharon Sikora, a middle school teacher from Colorado, explains that middle scholars have wrong or inaccurate information about many important subjects. They will say they know about certain sensitive topics but they really don't. Discussing a sensitive subject directly may not work, Ms. Sikora notes, "You can't just sit down and say, 'Today we are going to talk about marijuana use.' That shuts down the conversation before you ever start."

    Parents' lives, hopes and dreams. Many young adolescents want a window to their parents' world, both past and present. How old were you when you got your ears pierced? Did you ever have a teacher who drove you crazy? Did you get an allowance when you were 11? If so, how much? Were you sad when your grandpa died? What is your boss like at work? This doesn't mean you are obligated to dump all of your problems and emotions into your child's lap. You are a parent not a peer and an inappropriate question may best be left answered. However, recounting some things about your childhood and your life today can help your child sort out his own life.

    The future. As the cognitive abilities of young adolescents develop, they begin to think more about the future and its possibilities. Your child may want to talk more about what to expect in the years to come—ife after high school, jobs and marriage. He may ask questions such as, "What is it like to live in a college dormitory?" "How old do you have to be to get married?" "Is there any chance that the world will blow up some day?" "Will there be enough gasoline so that I can drive a car when I get older?" These questions deserve the best answers that you can provide (and those that you can't answer deserve an honest, "I don't know.").

    Culture, current events. Ours is a media-rich world. Even young children are exposed to television, music, movies, video and computer games and other forms of media. Remember, though, that the media can provide a window into your adolescent's world. For example, if you and your child have seen the same movie (together or separately), you can ask her whether she liked it and what parts she liked best.

    However hard your child pushes your buttons, it's best to respond calmly.
  • Communicate with kindness and respect. Young teens can say or do things that are outrageous or mean-spirited or both. However hard your child pushes your buttons, it's best to respond calmly. The respect and self-control that you display in talks with your child may some day be reflected in her conversations with others.

  • How you say something is as important as what you say. "Stop picking at your face" can reduce a young adolescent to tears. "Your room looks like a pigsty" isn't as helpful as, "You need to spend some time picking up your room. The job will be easier if you spend 5 minutes right now picking the clothes up off the floor—putting the dirty ones in the hamper and hanging the clean ones up. After lunch you can spend 5 minutes straightening up your bookshelf." Youngsters also pay attention to the tone of your voice. A 10-year-old can easily tell a calm voice from an angry one.

    Kindness goes hand-in-hand with respect. As Joan Lipsitz, a nationally recognized authority on educating middle-grade students and the mother of two grown children, explains, "When I was an active parent and teacher, I had a rule that grew out of a classroom experience: 'I will never knowingly be unkind to you and you will never knowingly be unkind to me.' That turned out to be the most powerful rule I ever set, either in the classroom—it changed the culture—or at home."

    Communicating with respect also requires not talking down to adolescents. They are becoming more socially conscious and aware of events in the world and they appreciate thoughtful conversations. Jerri Foley, a middle school counselor in South Carolina, tells the story of a trip she made with a group of adolescent girls when the state was debating whether to continue flying the Confederate battle flag from atop the state house. "We were driving along the highway when we got into a big discussion," she recalls. "We got so intense talking about it that we missed the exit to come home."

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Last Modified: 09/11/2003