Strategies For Parents
Communicating with a middle-school aged child is different than communicating with a younger child. The middle-school years are truly defining and challenging times for a family. Younger kids’ (say 6 to 8 year olds) friends are typically friends of convenience. But starting around ages 10 or 11 kids' peers begin to have shared values and perceptions of the world. A child's perception of his or her parents changes around the same time. It is normal for children in this age group to start challenging their parents. There are also many physiological changes, and the brain is changing rapidly. Instead of seeing things in black and white, middle-school kids start seeing things in about 250 shades of gray! Unfortunately, they can't sort all of that out yet. Kids in this age group are not getting all the reinforcing feedback they got when they were younger. Parents tend to back off when kids get to the middle-school years, yet kids are still desperate for information. Parents aren't encouraged to keep communicating and kids might not look like they're listening, but in actuality they really are.
Many parents protest that their kids won't talk to them. From my experience a lot of middle-school kids do openly talk to their parents, but when kids don't or can't, there are usually two types of issues involved: social and sexual. Social and sexual changes are big topics and parents tend to underestimate them. But before kids feel comfortable talking about big ticket items like sex, drugs, and violence, they've got to talk about small stuff, like cheerleading or soccer practice. If we start with the small stuff; it isn't as threatening. Kids this age are socially very sensitive. They're much more aware of losing face than a younger child. Some of the best communication you can have is when you're not squared off at a table looking at your child. Perhaps that sensitive conversation you need to have with your son or daughter could occur when you're making dinner or driving somewhere together. Your child doesn't have to face you, and you both can be doing something else. This is particularly true with boys. Girls feel more comfortable than boys just talking, but boys feel more comfortable talking while doing something else.
The main cause of poor communication is really pretty clear. We are out of practice! The majority of parents and kids spend less than an hour (many less than half an hour) a day talking. Clearly, there's room for improvement. We need to spend more time communicating with our kids. Parents tend to think the most important things in their kids' lives are fun, friends, and physical appearance. When kids are asked that question, they often have completely different answers. Kids are often much more conservative than we think. I have heard many middle-schoolers express that family, school work, and their future are the most important things to them. It seems clear these kids are listening to and retaining what their parents, teachers and other trusted adults are saying. Communication pays dividends!
If you want to foster better communication with your child make sure you listen to the little stuff. There's a difference between "How was your day, dear?" -- kids know that sort of thing is perfunctory -- and really talking every day. Don't wait for the big sex, drugs, and violence issues to come up. Your child might not ever initiate that conversation with you. Instead, listen carefully to them and read between the lines; don't just listen to the words. Kids this age don't always use many words. Make sure you are aware of and acknowledge emotion. Middle-school kids think differently so it’s necessary to ask their opinion, and then listen to it. When you do, you'll find they are more likely to ask back for your opinion and listen to it.