This summer, my son had a growth spurt. He had always been skin and bones, and now he started filling out. His hips and shoulders widened. His face got rounder, his features stronger. His grown-up teeth didn’t look as clownish anymore.
He’s almost nine, and I think actual puberty is still years away. But I see it beginning in these subtle ways. I daresay he is entering his tween years. Gulp.
But it’s more than what’s happening on the outside. He’s drifting out of childhood and into a world that I no longer recognize. He seems sullen, absorbed in his thoughts. The things that brought him joy just a few months ago are shunned. Toy are for babies. Parks are boring. Bookstore too. Even the carnival lost its appeal.
He just wants to have playdates with his friends, or curl up on the couch with a book, an iPad, his computer. Once in a while he’ll agree to do the things that we used to do together — baking, science experiments, art projects — but a lot of my ideas are rejected.
This is a phase like so many, where he is needing to withdraw in order to become more independent and figure out who he is outside of the framework of his family. Yet sometimes I feel like I’m losing my little boy, the one who used to be my buddy, my sidekick, my excited dreamer.
As we’ve gotten deeper into the school year, his moodiness and distance have become a source of bickering, especially in the evening rush of homework, dinner, bedtime. Even when my husband comes home, it feels impossible to meet the needs of my children — especially my tween son.
I spend the hours of 4 to 7 p.m. standing in the rectangle of our kitchen: cooking dinner, doing dishes, making lunches, doing more dishes, serving dessert, making evening snacks — and barking out orders that are not listened to. My tween is the hardest to get through to, his nose always in a book or a screen. Even when he’s doing his homework, or chasing his brother around, he won’t listen to me and he flat out refuses to do the smallest tasks. “Please put your socks away,” is met with a grimacing stare.
I yell more than I want to, but it’s often because I think that’s the only way to break the spell he’s under. I just need to be heard. I need to be sure the stuff of the evening gets done, and the kids get to bed at a decent hour.
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with my son for being temperamental and unresponsive at times, and I know it is normal for parents and children to butt heads. Still, I had been feeling disconnected from my son, frustrating me and making me incredibly sad. I mourned the loss of the close-knit bond we’d always had. I wanted my sweet boy back.
Then an idea kind of fell into my lap. I don’t remember if a Facebook friend shared it, or if it was something I read about weeks before, but I started changing how I talked to my son, and it’s made a world of difference. Basically, instead of talking to him from the other room, or standing above him as he sat on the couch, I began sitting down next to him wherever he was, and resting a hand on his arm or shoulder while I spoke to him. I’d ask him the same questions, give him the same directions, ask him to complete the same tasks.
But now he LISTENED.
It’s the most basic thing in the world, and seems obvious when I say it out loud. There is a lot of parenting advice that instructs you to “get down on your child’s level” and that the power of touch can help you reconnect.
In the past few weeks, I have been making efforts to do this, and the results have been tremendous. Not only does my son finally stop what he’s doing and listen to me, but he’ll often rest his head against my arm, and start to just chat with me about whatever’s on his mind. I begin to feel more relaxed too, and truly listen back. Often, I’ll have to get up again soon to do the next thing, but we’ll have connected for that moment, and my son will be able to walk to the kitchen table and do his homework, eat a meal — without an eye-roll, a protest, or a fight.
It’s not fool-proof, of course. Sometimes his crankiness overpowers my gestures of connection. And perhaps the biggest problem is simply how busy I am, and the fact that I don’t always have the option to stop and sit with him. But just being able to do it a few times during the busy hours of our lives has made a huge impact on our communication and closeness.
My son and I have a longstanding bedtime ritual — I almost always squeeze myself into his little bed and lie with him for a few minutes before he goes to sleep. We’ll cuddle a bit (when he’ll let me) and just talk (sometimes about the deep stuff; sometimes just something funny that happened at school that day). Those few minutes before bed have always been a saving grace, especially as both of our lives have become busier over the years.
I see now how important it is for me to do that for him at other times too, even when it feels completely impossible. In fact, the most hectic and busiest of times are when he, and I, need that closeness the most.
I often say that the baby years were the easiest times of parenting. The baby is hungry: feed him. The baby cries: pick him up. Problem solved. Things have gotten stickier and more complicated as my childrens’ wants and needs aren’t one in the same anymore, when their bodies and souls crave individuation at the same time they need guidance and boundaries.
But maybe in some ways it is as simple as it used to be.
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