Keep the Lines of Communication Open

As parents, we all know the day will come when our teenager would rather stick needles under her fingernails than have a meaningful heart-to-heart with us after school. She will get behind a locked bedroom door, blast some music and call her best friend to cry about the embarrassments of the day.

If you could prevent this, would you? Of course you would. Below are 10 ways to encourage school-age children to be open and to discuss what is on their minds, but you have to start early. Don’t wait until her 13th birthday to start.

Connect. Make an after-school ritual. Whether it is the June Cleaver variety of cookies and milk at the kitchen table or simply taking the dog for a walk, anything that puts you face to face is a good catalyst for conversation. Do it away from the TV, radio and video games.

Ask. Always ask your child open-ended questions. It is too easy for your child to answer “How was your day?” with “OK.” Don’t give the impression that one word answers constitute a conversation. Ask questions like, “What was your favorite part of the day?” or “Tell me something funny that happened.”

Remember. Don’t forget the things that are important to your child. Events that carry over to the next day are not always easily brushed off by a school-age child. Fights with friends and embarrassing moments shape their personalities and this is your chance to teach them how to make the wise choice. If you have to, make a list of things you want to remember to ask them the next day. Think of it as follow-up questions: “How did everything work out with Abby?” and “Tell me how you feel about your decision.”

Write. Send notes of encouragement in their lunch boxes or book bags. Let your child “feel” your presence while you are apart. You don’t have to be super creative and write stanzas of poetry; a simple, “Good luck on your Spelling Test!” will encourage her and remind her that you are always rooting for her. Be aware though that this is sometimes a better idea for girls than boys. Boys who get notes from their mom may be poked fun at. Be discreet and use your best judgment.

Empathize. Don’t belittle their worries and concerns; do you remember how horrifying it was when you threw up in class? It IS a big deal to her and everyone her age. If she feels you will laugh off her concerns, she will stop coming to you with them. Take the time to let her vent, offer your advice . . . NOT “It will be OK” and reassure her.

Listen. Make bed time another time to connect. When children have had time to slow down long enough to run through the events of their day they will open up with things they wish they had handled differently, things they feel guilty about, etc. Allow time for these confessionals. The last thing she needs is someone watching the clock and making her feel rushed.

Play. Let them have play dates even if they are very short and stuck between after-school and dinner time. It is amazing what you will find out about the day when other children are involved in a conversation. Just welcome the friend to munch on cookies or take the dog for a walk. Having another viewpoint on what happened or what was said is helpful in getting your grip on the situations that transpire at school.

Date. Make a date night. Go out for dinner, to a park, on a bike ride — somewhere where you can talk and laugh and not be in competition with things that will steal her attention. Make this a regular occurrence and make it special. Get manicures and chat like old girlfriends. Take your son to the ball field and play catch, stop for ice cream afterward. It doesn’t have to cost a lot and it doesn’t have to last for hours, just let your child know she is worth your time.

Tell. You don’t have to be a published author to be a storyteller. Children love to hear about times in their lives that they don’t remember. Tell them your favorite memories from when they were little. Their story is the best story. Knowing that you captured these moments in such detail helps to bring them closer to you emotionally.

Discuss EVERYTHING. Whether your child heard about a school shooting or a frightening detail of the war, brushing it off with rosy comments like, “That happened far away, you don’t have to worry about it” does not put her mind at ease. She has questions and concerns that you may not be able to anticipate. It is certainly more frightening to let her mind and imagination take over than sitting down and discussing the event and following it up with facts. She needs to trust that you will do what you can to come to her rescue and sometimes that simply means putting her fears to rest.

Growing up is not always fun or easy. Today’s headlines of school shootings, drugs and eating disorders are enough evidence to make me want to stay connected to my children. Yes, it does mean there will be uncomfortable conversations and sometimes unanswerable questions. We can handle it much better than they can trying to go it alone. Don’t be afraid to open up to your children about what you worried about or struggles you overcame in your early school years. Let them know that they are not alone in this world. Cry with them and vent your frustrations, but, above all, never stop supporting them. It’s a battlefield out there. Keep the lines open and you will win the war . . . together!