A lot happens to children between the ages of 9 and 12. During this weird, in-limbo stage of life, they're definitely not little kids any more (just ask them!), but they're teetering on the brink of adolescence, and they're still a long way from being adults. Alongside all the obvious physical transformations they're going through — it can seem as if they morph into completely different beings overnight — come some pretty major internal changes. Often, one of the hardest for parents to deal with is an abrupt lack of communication from their tween. Suddenly, your chatty, happy kid wakes up with the inability to offer anything more than a grunt in your general direction.
This can be tough, but it's totally normal, says Christine Schneider, a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Integrative Mind Institute. And your kid is likely to be just as thrown as you are by the changes, even if they act like they couldn't care less. "The pre-teen phase is confusing for both kids and parents," Schneider says. "Puberty typically sets off a process of developmentally appropriate tasks, such as having peers become as important as parents for guidance/emotional support, and developing a sense of identity separate from parents."
In other words, your tween does want to talk — just not to you.
This can be difficult in a couple of ways. First of all, as soon as your little chatterbox — the one you used to wish would just ease up on all the questions already — actually does keep schtum, you suddenly want to go straight back to fielding those interrogations. And then there are all the issues you know you need to talk about, whether you want to or not, like social media, alcohol, drugs, and puberty. Yes, it's unfortunate that just when you need to start having Big Talks with your kid, they seem to want to keep their bedroom door firmly closed — with you on the other side. But during this transformative pre-adolescent stage, your kid needs your guidance and support more than ever, so you gotta try to nudge that door open.
Schneider has some tips for how to keep those precious lines of communication open — without sending your kid running at full speed in the opposite direction.
Ditch the screens, and eat
It's important to have structured family meals with no electronics, two to three times per week, Schneider says. It sounds simple, but we all know how easy it can be for everything else to get in the way of proper, sit-down family meals. This is a great opportunity to tackle some of those tricky topics that may be starting to catch your kid's attention (or weigh on their mind), like puberty, changing friendships, gender stereotypes and pressure to fit in. "Talking about these issues during family meals can let you add your own points of view without it coming across as a lecture," Schneider says.
Do whatever your kid wants to do — together
Whatever your tween is into — sports, crafts, or something else — make yourself a part of it. Schneider recommends letting them invite a friend along to ramp up the fun factor, and give you the chance to influence both of them (two pre-adolescents for the price of one, if you like) without having direct confrontation.
"Play in all forms, from throwing a ball back and forth to a family board game night, enhances a sense of belonging and strengthens positive emotions," explains Schneider. "Families that play together tend to be better bonded and able to work through confrontation while staying connected."
Get on board with the text chat
You might not want your kid to spend any more time glued to a screen than they already do, but if they feel most comfortable communicating with you through text, just go with the flow, Schneider says. If there's something on their mind that they don't know how to articulate, giving them the space and freedom to do it indirectly can help them start a dialogue they might otherwise shy away from.
Email and good old-fashioned letter-writing are other options for indirect communication; basically, keep an open mind and don't rule anything out. "Many parents find that their pre-teen will be more open and honest, and more willing to take feedback, when it's done indirectly," Schneider explains. Of course, if something comes up that you're concerned about, calmly request a face-to-face. You're still the parent.
Learn how to recognize when things aren't ok
It can be tough to know when to give your tween space and when to keep pushing, so being aware of the common signs of depression is crucial. These include isolating oneself from others (including peers), having difficulty sleeping, and displaying general signs of hopelessness or helplessness. And if your kid won't talk to you, they might talk to someone else: an aunt or uncle, an older peer, a school counselor, or a therapist.
"Dropping grades, isolation, sudden changes in peer groups, and excessive phone/video game usage may all be signs for concern," Schneider says. Take advantage of all support networks you have available, and offer them up informally — like arranging for an older cousin to take them out for an ice cream — rather than forcing something. And never, ever, make support sound like a punishment. Telling your kid, "if you don't start telling me what's going on in your head, I'm going to make you see a counselor," is highly unlikely to encourage them to open up to you any time soon.
Rethink your "listening"
It's common — and normal — for parents to struggle with the thought of their child growing up, but your response might be partly to blame for your tween's sudden reticence. If you're still disciplining your child in a way that's no longer age-appropriate — reacting with confrontation when they do something wrong, giving little or no positive reinforcement when they do something right, or constantly trying to "fix" things — this might be at the root of them pulling away from you, says Catherine Jackson, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Dr. J's Holistic Health & Wellness.
"Sometimes, kids just want someone to listen," Jackson says. "Not judge, or condemn, or fix anything."
Let them go, just a little
If you still have those apron strings tightly wound around your fingers, it's time to ease up on the grip. "Kids begin to pull away from their parents as they search for who they are as individuals," Jackson says. "It's hard to figure out who you are as a person if you're constantly influenced by a group (i.e. your family)." Throw in your pre-teen's natural desire to question authority and societal standards, and it's no wonder they want to make more decisions on their own — for better or worse. At this stage, their peers' views start to carry more weight — they're all on a similar journey of self-discovery, after all.
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