May 28, 2010

10 Ways to Help Your Preteen Son Open Up and Talk

“How was school today?”
“Fine.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing.”
Is this how conversations usually go with your preteen or teenage son? If so, this is typical. The little boy who used to talk your ear off has suddenly given way to a young man who won’t open his mouth — except to shovel in food! Don’t take it personally. A greater desire for privacy is perfectly normal at this age. However, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t encourage your son to communicate with you. It just means that you have to learn a new approach. (And it has nothing to do with nagging!) Following are ten tips for getting your preteen or teenage son to talk:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Pose a question that requires more than a one-word answer. Instead of asking, “How was school today?” ask your son, “What projects are you working on in art?” To your son who’s reading Huckleberry Finn in literature class, say, “I haven’t read that book. Can you tell me what it’s about?”
  2. Don’t lecture; just listen. When your son is sharing something with you, listen without judgment. Don’t tell him that he didn’t handle a situation well or launch into a story about how you did a similar thing as a child. Pay attention to his cues. If he starts shutting down mid-conversation, chances are you’re doing too much talking and not enough listening.
  3. Timing is everything. Pouncing on your son as soon as he walks in the door will usually not get him talking. Gauge his mood. Look for signs that he’s happy and willing to interact. Talk to him when he’s not distracted by a TV show or video game. Many parents find that discussions can be more easily initiated in the car on the way to soccer practice.
  4. Seize the moment. If your son comes in the room and starts talking to you, give him your full attention. Get off the computer, turn down the TV set, and be grateful for this opportunity to connect with your son. These moments probably don’t happen very often, so cherish them.
  5. Don’t grill him in front of friends or siblings. Your son might be responsive to you at home, but turns into a stranger when he’s with his friends. That’s okay. It’s important for a preteen to be accepted by his peers. He doesn’t want to be labeled a “Mama’s boy.” Save the heavy discussions for when you have no witnesses.
  6. Respect his privacy. When I was a young girl, I remember hearing my mom discuss something I had told her with a friend on the phone. Do you think I opened up to her again? No! Your son has to feel he can trust you with his thoughts or he won’t reveal them. If he knows you’re a blabbermouth, forget it. And don’t snoop for information in his room unless you have a legitimate reason to do so (such as realistic suspicions of drug use). If your son catches you reading his emails or digging in his backpack, he will never open up to you again.
  7. Respect his opinions. Your son is probably not going to be a “mini me.” His interests will be different from your own, and that’s healthy. If he thinks a certain band is awesome, ask him what he likes about them. Don’t launch into a discussion as to why their music is terrible. (Of course, if he consistently listens to music that’s racist or sexist, a different kind of discussion is in order.) Honor your son’s taste in clothes, music, movies, etc., as long as there’s no harm done. You grew out of your passion for bell bottoms, and your son will move on eventually, too.
  8. Don’t get mad when he clams up. Oftentimes, when a boy won’t talk, it’s not about you. Perhaps someone said something negative to him at school. Or his favorite team lost. Young men often need time to themselves to process a disappointment before they’re willing to talk about it. Give him that space and try to get him to talk later.
  9. Communicate like he does. Whether you agree with it or not, kids talk to each other today through their phones and computers. Learn how to text and send emails. If your son’s out with friends and you text him, chances are good that he’ll respond. Instead of nagging him to work on his science fair project, send him a friendly email! (And always reflect before you send. A nasty email or voice message may come back to haunt you later and will cause him to ignore the next one you send.)
  10. Love him anyway. Private hugs and pats on the back are still important. Your son may seem less approachable now, but don’t give up. Your “I love you” as he walks out the door may not get a response at this age, but it builds up a sense of security in your child because he knows that love and acceptance are waiting for him at home.

The preteen and adolescent years can be frustrating for both parent and child as they struggle with new ways of relating to each other. Excessive conflict, extreme personality changes, or talks of suicide warrant a call to a family counselor. But most of the time, your son’s sudden lack of communication is a very normal sign that he’s officially a preteen! You do have to accept this new reality, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t make it better. By using these techniques, you have a much greater chance of encouraging your son to talk with you, as well as keep the lines of communication open throughout the teen and young adult years.

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