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Silence Is Not Golden: Teaching Communication Skills in Middle School

Around the time my twins turned 13, they stopped talking to me. After a mumbled “Hello” when they got home from school, they would scamper off to their rooms and close their doors, practically in unison.

I know I’m not the only parent getting the silent treatment.

A lot of us experience this kind of shutting down from our kids, and we’re all looking for ways to bridge the gap.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg, pediatrician and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says, “It is important to build a foundation of communication skills and establish two-way dialogues early so your teens will feel comfortable coming to you as they mature.”

Kids enter a complex stage of development in middle school.

“They’ve still got one foot planted in childhood, and the other foot stepping into adulthood,” says Ginsburg. “Their bodies are changing and their emotions are in flux. Plus, they are working to figure out where they fit in with peers, friends, and their communities.”

During this development phase, kids need to learn how to:

  • cooperate with others
  • negotiate peer situations
  • resolve conflict
  • empathize with other people’s feelings
  • notice nonverbal cues
  • learn how to appropriately express their own emotions in a variety of situations

But how do we help our kids develop communication skills when they rarely communicate?

How to Teach Teens to Communicate:

1. Take time to listen.

Ginsburg recommends maintaining a consistent presence in your child’s life. Show curiosity in their interests by asking questions about their latest sports event or dance class, and make yourself available when they need to talk.

Even though it may seem like they don’t want to talk to you, it’s important to make the effort to engage them in conversation. When your teen does talk to you, listen carefully to what they say and demonstrate your understanding by rephrasing what they’ve said.

2. Model communication skills.

Even when it seems like your teen is in their room most of the time, they are still paying attention to what you are doing. So make sure you’re modeling the behavior you want to see in them.

“Model skills you want to pass along,” says Ginsburg. “Let them see how you resolve emerging conflicts, bounce ideas off others, and seek help when needed.”

3. Role play.

One way to help your child develop these important communication skills is through role play. They might resist, but encourage them to treat it like a game. Try acting out a situation that may be difficult for them, such as which lunch table to sit at, and then offer some suggestions for what they can say in that situation.

When your child isn’t up for talking, try talking about yourself or your daily activities. Taking the pressure off them to communicate may lead them to ask questions and show an interest in what you’re saying—which is one way to help them develop their skills.

There are times when your child may experience peer pressure but is unsure how to navigate the situation. Ginsburg recommends establishing a code word with your child that they can use when they’re feeling pressured. If your child is with friends and uses their code word in a phone call or text to you, that is your cue to tell them, “It’s time to come home now.”

“Having a code word gives them a safety net while they are still developing social skills,” says Ginsburg.

4. Remember they love you, even when they don’t talk.

Most kids learn communication skills through trial and error. It can be frustrating when your previously chatty child turns into a silent teen who doesn’t want to talk to you—or prefers talking with their friends instead. But it’s a normal part of their adolescent development.

“Peers may seem more important, but no one is as valuable as parents,” Ginsburg says. “They still need your love, support, guidance, and structure.”

Looking for more on middle school?

So I’m doing my part to model the communication skills I want my teens to develop and I’m confident they will find their way, one word at a time. Until they do, I’ll try not to take their closed bedroom doors too personally.

Cheryl Maguire

Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Parents Magazine, Upworthy, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings and Twins Magazine. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05