By Deborah Gilboa
“So, how’s everything at home?” I asked a patient yesterday.
Her answer nearly exploded from her lips. “My son won’t speak to me! What do I do about a 12-year-old who just doesn’t want to talk to me anymore? Nothing ‘happened’ that I know of, but we used to talk about everything for hours and now when I sit down to talk, he just clams up!”
A little later in the same day, I saw an 11-year-old from a different family for a well check. In answer to the same how’s-it-going question, she asked, “Why do my parents want to talk all the time? Can’t they just give me some space?”
My Son Won’t Speak to Me!
Super frustrating for tween boys and girls and their parents, this impasse is developmentally totally normal. Knowing that, though, doesn’t keep me from banging my head against a wall when my own 12-year-old son answers me with one word sentences and makes it clear he’d rather be left alone.
Why do kids who used to be incredibly chatty start to get a lot more private at home? Psychologists call it re-centering. As a child’s body and brain go through the huge changes of puberty, they become more inwardly focused. Often this manifests as stronger social attachments (friends) and a more critical eye towards their own environment (family).
Just like the toddler years, when similarly big changes are happening inside and out, tweens experience strong emotions and the sharp desire for autonomy.
And, just like the toddler years, tweens are often frustrated that they’re not in charge of most of the decisions in their lives, so they look for opportunities to approach us on their own terms. One of the things that tweens can control is communication.
It’s tempting for me to yell at my son that he has to talk to me. But that rarely works with anyone. Worse yet, it models disrespect, which is the opposite of what I want from him. Keeping communication open is incredibly important, especially as he spends more time away from us. That means I have to separate out when we have to talk from when I just want to hear what’s up.
Remember when your child was a toddler and you needed her to get dressed but she wanted to stay in her tutu and bathing suit? You gave her choices, like, “Do you want to put on the red shirt or the blue shirt?” or, “These pants or those?” In that same way, give your tween all the autonomy you can about when and where and how to communicate. One dad told me his solution is texting. “My son doesn’t speak to me. He walks in the door and barely grunts at me, but he’ll tell me long stories if I text him.” Another parent I know says that her daughter only wants to talk after the lights are out for bed.
A big difference between toddlers and tweens is that tweens are worried about being judged. As their parents, we often have to judge them by their behavior, but that very important part of parenting can make them more closed off. So an inroad I’ve found is to look for all the chances I can to talk about totally safe, positive subjects. Humor, hobbies, what’s on Netflix are all topics that will open up conversation. If you’re trying to get a tween to engage, try:
What’s the funniest meme you’ve seen this week?
What’s making you happy these days?
Tell me the best thing that happened to you today?
What’s a job you would never want?
Tell me a story about the most ridiculous thing you heard in school.
That mom I saw in the office yesterday? I did ask her first to do her best to make sure that nothing had happened. When tweens experience something traumatic, they may not know how to bring it up, or if they should.
So if your parent alarm bell is ringing, don’t ignore it. Once you’re comfortable that there is nothing truly worrisome going on, just be persistent. Tweens and teens tell me that they want to be in good communication with their parents, but they’re not always sure how to manage it with all the new pressures and feelings they are experiencing.
You can find great lists of questions online that will start a fun, funny, or meaningful conversation in ways designed to appeal to tweens and teens. The tricks are, 1) ask something that can’t be answered in just one word and, 2) don’t be hurt when it doesn’t work. Keep trying, your tween does want to talk to you. You both just have to figure out how and when.
Deborah Gilboa, M.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. G”), is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior Your Want . . . Without Being the Parent You Hate. Follow her on Twitter @AskDocG or learn more at AskDoctorG.com.