You spoke the same language even when you didn’t speak. You spoke it fluently. And you spoke it as a team. But, that was then.
Around the start of middle school, communication begins to break down. It’s frustrating that at the exact time of life when the world begins to open up for your child — crushes, parties, social media, independence, mean friends — and you have so much advice to share, knowledge to impart and safety to ensure, your child stops listening.
Why does it have to happen now?
Around age 11, your child initiates what I call the Middle School Construction Project, during which they begin to build the three things they need to become an adult: an adult body, an adult brain and an adult identity.
Unfortunately, like most custom builds, you start off believing this project will be efficient and fast, only to discover it’s going to take much longer than expected. Although the Middle School Construction Project starts in middle school, your child will be under construction for 10 years or more.
What does this have to do with them not talking to me?
It’s that third piece of the Middle School Construction Project — identity development — that causes this language barrier.
Building an adult identity means figuring out who you are, what you believe in, what you enjoy, how you want to present yourself to the world and so on, apart from your parents. It’s the first major step in becoming an independent person, which, incidentally, is the foundation for healthy romantic relationships later in life. So, although it may seem as if your child is suddenly a contrarian who rejects you and all you stand for without reason, the reason is actually that they need to practice being a person who thinks for themselves.
Think of this language barrier anthropologically for a moment: It’s the job of language to tie groups of people together. It is the job of adolescents, however, to break ties. Historically, this is why we see slang pop up at this age. It’s a tween’s or teen’s way of bonding with their peers to the exclusion of adults. I know when my mom offered me a warm coat on the way to the bus stop, it “gagged me with a spoon,” and left her standing there, coat in hand, wondering what happened to the little girl who used to be her pal.
As a parent, you can’t — and shouldn’t — fight your child’s biological and neurological need to become independent. What you can do is learn a new way to communicate. The old language patterns you had developed will fall by the wayside, no matter how hard you try to hang onto them, perhaps more quickly the tighter your grip.
Instead, look at this as a natural time to start fresh. And whatever you do, don’t stop talking! I see many parents go silent at this point, reasoning that their kids don’t listen anyway, so maybe it’s easier — or less painful, at least — to wait for their teens to come back around eventually. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Your child still needs your wisdom and guidance, not to mention boundary-setting. This is the time to learn how to build a new connection that fits their age and stage, so you can communicate effectively while still honoring their need to assert some autonomy.
How you start is most important
Parents I work with tell me their biggest challenge is getting started. They know they should talk with their kids about important topics such as pornography, drugs, heartbreak and sexuality, but they fear that once they get a few words out, their child will shut them down, change the subject, leave the room or flat-out beg them not to talk. This leads parents to mistakenly believe they have a tiny window in which to cram the most pressing information they want their child to hear. For this reason, nervous parents often start where a conversation might naturally end: with advice or a warning.
“Hey, um, you know what pornography is, right?”
“GAH, MOM, STOP!”
“Fine! But don’t go searching for it, because you can’t unsee what you might find, and some of those images can ruin you for life! Where are you GOING?”
And … scene!
Let’s rewind. Rather than diving into the deep end, dip your toe in the water. Try starting with a positive, gentle comment about a tangential subject. In this case, you’d need to go very tangential, with something such as: “I love that you have your own laptop now and that it gives you more freedom to choose where you do homework. There are a couple of things we should cover about safety, too. Have a seat. I’ll only need about three minutes, then you can get back to what you were doing.” Having several short conversations, rather than one be-all and end-all, is a good idea, too.
Another way to start peacefully is to schedule a time to talk later. Tweens and teens don’t like to feel ambushed by tough topics they haven’t had a chance to think through first. So, rather than asking them to sit down and go over grades with you on the spot, let them know you’d like to discuss school later, and ask if they’d prefer to talk before or after dinner. Give them the choice to pick the time, within certain bounds.
The way you begin should also signal to your child that you won’t freak out, even if the topic is alarming, and that you aren’t determined to catch them doing something wrong. Start your conversations off with curiosity about a subject, rather than dialing directly into your child’s behavior. Your child will clam up if you begin like: “Hey, I keep hearing kids are still vaping a lot, even though it’s so dangerous. Please tell me you don’t vape. Do your friends vape?” Instead, express curiosity about the topic itself, rather than investigating what your child has experienced. For example: “What is your take on the popularity of vape? Do you think it’s happening as much as the news reports, or do you think it’s being overblown by the media?” A softer entry such as this gives your child a chance to be an authority, shows you respect their opinion and establishes that you aren’t just looking to bust them.
You’ve got thousands of good conversations ahead of you if you can recalibrate your approach and build the trust that signals to your child that, even at this stage when they’re pulling away, you’re open to listening.
Michelle Icard is the author of the newly released book “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen,” which contains more tips for communicating with tweens and young teens.