Terry is a 12 year old making the transition to middle school whose worry about going into 7th grade developed into a fear of crying in public and panic attacks, which led to separation anxiety. His parents are worried sick because Terry is having a hard time now even going out to play with friends. His older brother thinks Terry is weird.
Jennifer, an 8 year old, developed separation anxiety in 3rd grade, making school mornings a nightmare for the whole family. Jennifer’s parents face screaming, crying, begging and outright, “I won’t go!” whenever they try to get her out the door to catch the school bus. Jennifer’s anxiety has generalized to play dates and parties, she’s even run out of the classroom. Her sister, in the same school is embarrassed by Jen’s public behavior.
What is Separation Anxiety and Why is My Tween So Afraid?
Parents whose tween develops separation anxiety, an emotional condition where a child experiences distress and anxiety when separated from the primary caregiver, often become worried, frustrated, and even angry in trying to deal with their anxious child’s behavior. It’s hard for a parent to understand and deal with their child who freaks out over going to play at a friend’s house. A normal occurrence during childhood development, separation anxiety generally occurs between the ages of eight months and two years old, though separation fears also develop during other life transitions such as, beginning kindergarten and entering into pre-adolescence.
Parents with anxious tweens ask, “What in the world is happening to my once happy child?” “Why can’t he go to birthday parties anymore?” “Why can’t she let go?” This is a time of explosive growth and change from childhood into pre-teen. Many children have a hard time stepping out into the world and try to cling to the safety of home. Following are some of the reasons:
- Tween bodies are developing and awareness of body image becomes an issue; the flood of sex hormones affects emotional centers of the brain making it tough for tweens to control feelings and behaviors; areas of the brain that house impulse control and rational thought are still developing.
- School work becomes harder, homework and testing increases; “fitting in” is suddenly very important; more individual responsibility is expected from parents and school.
- If anxiety develops it packs a wallop with symptoms that include: racing heart, hot flush and sweating, stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, feelings of dread and of being trapped, the inability to concentrate, think or reason, and panic attacks.
A child with separation anxiety is a child who feels distressed, frightened and out of control. Anxiety is a complex condition, and there are many aspects to helping your child. How you communicate your concerns, respond to your child’s behaviors, and talk about what’s happening will play a large part in helping your child.
Can We Talk?
Communicating effectively can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to talk to your anxious pre-teen who says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And who can blame your child who wants the disturbing feelings to just go away? It’s not just the words you use, but the volume and tone of your voice matters too. And your body language speaks volumes: Are your head neck and shoulders tight? Is your facial expression one of frustration, worry or anger? Is your posture sagging with fatigue about the situation or rigid with tension? Do you wring your hands without realizing it? Having trouble making eye contact because you feel like crying?
It’s hard to communicate to your anxious tween that you are in control of the situation though he feels out of control much of the time, and when you feel anxious about his separation fears yourself. But that’s what you want to do, and here are tips to help you communicate effectively:
- Stay Calm-no matter what your child says, no matter how he is behaving you must remain calm, regardless of how you feel. Your composure communicates to your child that you are his “rock” and in control. Learning easy belly breathing will help you to do this.
- Check Your Body Language-keep shoulders back but relaxed, relax facial muscles and hands, make and maintain eye contact to show you’re engaged and interested.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions-you want to connect with your child and find out how she feels. To keep the conversation going, keep away from closed questions that only require a yes, no, or a head nod. Say things like: “How does it make you feel?” “Tell me more about that.” “What do you think will happen?”
- Tone of Voice Matters– speak softly and kindly to show your child how much you care. This will ease any guilt (a common occurrence) your tween may have about his anxiety disrupting the whole family, and will help your child open up to you.
- Listen-show your child you are interested in his feelings, his problems by: making eye contact, give your child your undivided attention, don’t’ interrupt–wait your turn to speak, nod when appropriate, lean forward slightly and keep hands still, paraphrase what he’s said to make sure you’ve heard correctly and to show that you’ve been listening.
- Honor Your Child’s Feelings-don’t downplay your child’s fears. For example, never say things like, “It’s silly to be afraid of going to your friend’s house.” Though irrational, your child’s fears are real to him. Anxiety makes kids feel different, isolated from others-judging his feelings adds to that. Telling him it’s okay to feel afraid supports him. Say, “I’m here for you and you’re not alone in this.”
- Make it Brief-anxiety is hard to talk about, so limit the conversation. Watch your child’s reaction, if he gets upset, end it, comfort him, and say, “Honey, it’s okay, we can talk about this later.”
- Believe-tell your child you believe in his ability to overcome anxiety and that together you’re going to make things better for him. Your belief that he can succeed is projected onto your child (in the same way your worry is) and will empower him.
For several years now, critics of our educational system and parenting culture have been saying that at the same time the academic performance and morality of American youth plummet, these same children and adolescents carry an outsized opinion of themselves. The shorthand goes that they have too much self esteem. However, if you understand the definition and source of true self esteem, you’ll see that our kids are sorely lacking in the stuff.
First, let’s fix on a good definition. Authentic self esteem is based on the self respect that emanates from external reality. It does not come from internal fantasies fed by well intentioned parents showering their kids with unearned praise. Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as child psychiatrist Jack Westman points out in our new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, they are not. A child’s self-esteem, Dr. Westman explains, can be low or high based on a fantasy he holds about himself, whereas self-respect is based on reality. You can have high self-esteem, and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person.
Kids who have been “spoiled,” whose parents consistently tell them that they are smarter, more creative, athletically gifted, and all around superior to others, can have high self-esteem. But this form of self esteem crashes when they are frustrated or don’t get the sort of approval they have come to expect.
In contrast, self-respect is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself and having that view validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem. This internal feeling is based on external reality.
Because these two words have been conflated in general use, we’ll refer to self respect (as we’ve defined it here) as self esteem but please understand that we are referring to the authentic meaning of this over-used, misunderstood term.
Why Does Self Esteem Matter?
Authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child’s emotional, social, and-now the research makes clear-also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:
- A child’s innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.
- When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children’s self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.
- Parents’ consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: “You are important to me.”
- Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.
- Self-esteem comes from a child’s emerging “belief system” which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.
The Problem for Tweens
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that the children most vulnerable to low self esteem are 9 to 12 year olds. When measured by psychological researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. In a study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of this age group had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.
Why is it so tough to be a tween? First they’re undermined by vast hormone-driven body and mind changes. They literally don’t feel like themselves anymore. To add to their emotional challenges, the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the “bottom of the pecking order.” It’s also the age when many are pulling away from their parents, not confiding all their thoughts and feelings, and not allowing as many kisses and hugs as they used to. Still, by understanding the source of true self esteem, and then helping guide their tweens to adopt attitudes and engage in activities that will give them cause to feel good about themselves, parents can help them navigate this difficult transition.
How to Give Praise
Authentic self-esteem in children does not come from adults offering unearned rewards or praise-simple, right? Apparently not, because in one national survey 85 percent of parents said they think it’s important to tell their kids-early and often-how smart they are.
The problem is this approach backfires. Kids as young as seven know when they’re hearing an untruth about themselves. For instance, if an adult tells a child how fabulously he just did at bat after he struck out, he’ll sense the adult’s false praise.
So what is effective praise? What works with children is the same as with adults. Praise works when it is:
- Specific to an accomplishment
A child can get addicted to false praise. The reward system of the brain will anticipate it and begin sending out dopamine when praise is received. Not receiving praise then becomes a problem for the child. The child who depends on unearned praise will not take risks and will care only about getting good grades. He is more likely to cheat on tests. In other words learning loses its intrinsic value; it’s all about performance and how good he looks to those whose praise he covets.
Meanwhile, the ability to sustain a task and accept a certain amount of frustration and failure is essential to learning and creating in school and in life. When a child is too afraid of failure and too dependent on false praise, she is at greater risk for failure. Praise should be given for sustained effort and rewards should come only with success, not a near miss. From these experiences a child will develop authentic self-esteem and a solid core of emotional resiliency-the all important ability to bounce back from failure or adversity.
Have you noticed your preteen spending more time away from you when just a few years ago they were asking you to stay longer at drop off? Now they are preoccupied with the dramas going on between friends, spending more time with each other on the computer, and telephone. (Texting of course; no one seems to talk much any more!)
While you might feel that your preteen is moving away from you, it is important to know that this is normal and a vital part of their development. Toddlers do this thing called ‘refueling’. They go back and forth, physically, from the parent. You can literally watch them move away, then come back for a hug or a sit on the lap, and then to turn back once again to the outside world after they have ‘refueled’ on comfort.
Your tween needs to ‘refuel’ as well. They need you to be able to adapt to their growing world and recognize that the ways to remain close to you are changing, but the need to do so remains the same. If you find new ways to connect, you will be able to help their growing sense of identity and strengthen their feelings of competence and mastery, all aspects of good self-esteem. At the same time, learning how to communicate and adjust to their changing needs will help you set the stage for the teenage years, when the time away from home increases, and the issues get trickier.
Staying connected requires ‘tuning in’ and ‘active listening’. By being aware of what your preteen is going through, you will know how to ask the right questions, or offer them comfort so that they can build confidence in themselves. Following are some tips to improve that skill:
- Observe your child’s face or listen to their tone of voice. If it is very upsetting to you when you see your child upset or anxious, try to calm yourself down and trust that they will be okay. It is your job to let them know that you are there to listen, while remembering that it is okay for your preteen to manage their unpleasant feelings. They need to know that you have confidence that they can handle powerful emotions. This is a big part of soothing and will help them remain open to speaking up about what is upsetting them without worrying that you can’t handle it or will need to ‘fix’ it.
- If they aren’t speaking, but you can see that they seem upset, you can say, “You look a bit down; what’s up?” Take a moment to observe their reaction. If they don’t seem to want to talk, but aren’t going off to be alone, you can ask them to help you with a task. Offer an activity where they can feel close to you without feeling like they have to talk. By doing this, you “hear” that your preteen wants comfort, but needs to work out their feelings on their own first. After some time, they may be more open to talking about what is going on, when their feelings are less hot.
- Ask open-ended questions instead of questions that end in a “yes” or “no”: “What was recess like today compared to last week?” What did you guys do?”
- We often feel that we have to “teach” our kids things. Try to listen without being judgmental. Our kids need to feel that we are their allies and understand their position. Validate their responses. You can always help them problem solve later.
- Mirroring and identifying with how your preteen feels is an important part of active listening. By repeating back what your child says, you can gain a better understanding of the problem that your preteen is trying solve and help them clarify their feelings. It often helps to start your sentences with, “It sounds like you feel…”
As we get less ‘face time’ with our kids, the challenge becomes to adapt and find new moments to connect. Here are some tips on seizing these ‘golden moments’:
- If you are the one who picks your preteen up from school, observe their face. At pickup time you will get a lot of information by simply observing their expression, tone of voice, and how they interact with their teacher and friends.
- When you take your preteen and their friends to activities be a “fly on the wall.” Listen to the chatter. Pay attention to your child’s behavior and how they act around different friends. You will get a lot of information about how they experience different people. Do they change? Do they tend to be assertive at home, but deferential to certain friends? This is a stage where it is common for girls in particular to become less self-assured as they worry about being ‘left out’ or hurting other people’s feelings.
- Mealtime is key. Even though many families can’t eat together until the weekend, try to find at least two times during the week when you can get home early enough to enjoy dinner with your kids. Rules about meals should include no television and no cell phones, adults included. Use this time as an opportunity to unwind, share a laugh, and talk about the days’ events. You will be amazed at how much comes out and how this can keep you ‘in the loop’!
- You may no longer be reading a book to your child at bedtime, but you can still spend that time together, each enjoying your own books. The bonus of a foot or backrub are ways to offer comfort and connection without talking.
Finding new opportunities to connect with your preteen and giving them space to work out their problems says that you respect and trust their growing ability to figure out their own issues while allowing you to be there if they need you. The ‘back and forth’ of “refueling” may look different from when they were toddlers, but their need for connection and comfort, remains the same.
One of the many tightropes we walk as parents of preteens is determining where to draw the line to encourage independence and how much independence to encourage. This challenge can apply to many situations including parental involvement in homework. We can all conjure up the picture of the frantic parent racing to school to bring some coveted item that was inadvertently left at home. Or, taking too key a role in getting a project completed. We might have even embraced an excuse to ensure that our tween wasn’t penalized for an assignment that never quite got finished.
Some would point out that this is giving our tween “too soft of a landing;” others would submit that giving their child every chance to succeed models resourcefulness. Like many choices, it’s personal and likely to be loaded with judgment on all fronts! With even the best of intentions, taken to extremes, involvement can become a hindrance. At what point is that line crossed?
Homework involvement on a parent’s part can vary in scope considerably, ranging from guidance, to co-authoring, to ownership! In the long run, most experts agree that rather than doing their homework for your tween or even over-guiding them, the emphasis should be placed on parents helping children do their own homework. When you think about it, taking over the task and over-directing homework activities may send the wrong message — that getting to the “correct” result is more important than the learning experienced along the way; or more significant, that you don’t have confidence in your preteen.
How Parents Can Be Involved (In a Supporting Role!)
1. Have a conversation with your tween about the importance of homework. Emphasize the purpose – that it’s not just a way of making them miserable! You can point out the value of homework as a means of reviewing what they learned in class; helping them prepare for the next day’s class; learning to use resources, like the internet, to research topics. They might even want to learn more about a topic they didn’t have time to fully engage with at school.
2. Make it relevant. Compare the homework process to work that we do as adults; for instance, “Mom goes to work each day and….” If your child is a sports fan, highlight the amount of practice that goes into becoming a sports success. Point out that few of us have a gift to be good at an endeavor without practice. And the truth is, like some aspects of life, we have to commit to certain activities that aren’t always fun. As we know, cultivating perseverance is a wonderful attribute that will pay off in many of life’s circumstances.
3. Review their assignment(s) with them. Try to resist the temptation to share your strategy, but instead pose the question, “How do you think you’d like to approach this?” Hear what they have to say and make use of the word “Why?” to get at their thinking. If you believe their logic is unfounded, you might pose a possible strategy at that point, “Do you think it would help if you…?” In general, get them on board with the expectation.
4. Make sure to give your tween a great starting point by establishing a homework routine and a distraction-free setting. Set a regular time, have an agreed upon location and have supplies easily accessible. Once they get started, unless you’re staying with them while they complete the assignment, have an agreed upon check-in procedure to monitor progress and offer guidance. Timed right, the payoff of free time can be a nice “carrot”!
5. Speak with your child’s teacher to determine school expectations. Some teachers will appreciate parental involvement; others will want to get a full understanding of where your tween needs help by seeing their independent work. Either way, develop an open discussion with your child’s teacher; determine his/her preferred communication method (i.e., email, phone call, note, etc.) and make use of it.
6. Speak with other parents to get a sense of how involved they are in the homework process. You can exchange points of view and tips to see if there’s something you’ve overlooked. Like many topics, hearing divergent points of view can help us sort out what we believe to be important. You might even suggest a meeting with fellow parents and your child’s teacher to be more efficient in the overall information sharing process.
7. Reinforce school learning by getting a preview of topics to be studied at school. With this information you might dig deeper into the subject matter by pursuing extra-curricular learning activities (e.g., educational games, dvd rentals, book reading, books on tape, trips to the zoo or museum, family excursions, etc.).
8. Make a Homework Calendar available to your preteen to record and structure more comprehensive assignments, especially as their homework encompasses a need for planning (i.e., there might be assignments that are broken into phases with different parts due on different dates). The value of organization can’t be underestimated.
9. Get involved at school to the degree you can by showing an interest in schoolwork, attending school functions and even volunteering on a project. Make a point to ask your tween about school each day and what he/she’s learning and studying. Connecting within the school will help build an informal support network that you can turn to when you need help figuring out a learning dilemma.
10. Set a good example. If you can, join in the homework process by engaging in a quiet activity nearby. That way, you can model the need for focus while your tween is busy with schoolwork. And, you can be available for help when your preteen needs assistance.
On top of everything, be sure to praise your tween’s efforts in getting their homework completed and ready for school!
“How was school today?”
“What did you do?”
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:
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
If your tween is upset and willing to talk to you about what’s going on, these steps can help you help him/her calm down and figure out the next best move. If your teen is not yet ready to talk, respect that and check back with him/her later. If your son/daughter is unwilling to talk to you for whatever reason and your gut tells you they need to talk to someone… get the help of another adult that you and your child trust.
- Encourage your tween to ACKNOWLEDGE what he’s feeling and what triggered it. He doesn’t need to tell you, “I’m stressed/pissed/worried, etc. and here’s why.” You certainly don’t want to pressure him by insisting he puts feelings into words. More stress is not what your tween needs right now! What matters most is that your tween tells himself the truth, AKA “I’m upset about _______.” That’s much better than pretending he’s not upset when clearly he is. Also, naming the emotion and the trigger helps to move your child from a purely reactive place into a more reflective (thinking) place. Exactly where you want him to go.
- Your tween needs to STOP. Tell her calmly and firmly to put on the brakes. This is especially important if she’s in the middle of an argument on the phone, online, or in the real world. Continuing to fight will only escalate the situation (on both sides). No good will come of it and your tween is more likely to do or say something she will later regret. You are more likely to do the same. So stop yourself from reacting then tell her to STOP. If she won’t, you may have to take away the phone or computer for an enforced time out. If she’s arguing with you, simply remove yourself from the situation by saying, “I need a break. Let’s talk about this later when we’ve both calmed down.” Then make sure you revisit the conversation soon.
- Tell your tween to CALM DOWN. Assuming he’s put on the brakes on his behavior, he now needs to chill in the emotion department. If your tween asks “Why should I?!” The simple answer is: “Because it’s the best thing you can do right now for yourself and the people around you.”
- Take a BREAK. Or take a walk. Take a nap. Take a shower. Breathe. Count to 50. This advice works for you as well as for your tween. Make sure your tween knows that whatever it takes to calm down is good as long as it’s legal, healthy, respectful, and not against your core values. Make sure you model those rules in your own life. Explain that if your tween won’t calm down, stress will control them and they won’t get to Step #5 where solving their problem really begins.
- THINK about your goal. Ask your (now calmer) tween: “What are you trying to do?” In other words: “You’ve got a situation here… what’s your idea for the best outcome?”
- Ask: “Does someone need to change in order for you to achieve your goal?” If someone else must start doing something different then your tween’s goal is out of her hands. To pursue it is to set oneself up for more stress! Remind your tween that all we can ever control in life is our own response to what’s going on. When your tween can identify something she personally can work on, she’s ready to proceed to #7…
- Ask: “What are your OPTIONS for reaching your goal?” Help your tween make a list of all the options for improving the situation. For each option, encourage him to predict what might happen as a result of choosing that option. Don’t evaluate your tween’s options! Keep your mouth closed unless he asks for your opinion. Guide him by asking: Will what you’re thinking of doing create more or less stress? In you? In a friend? In a group? Important questions to consider before any action is taken! This is an exercise in critical thinking. Let your tween take the lead, think through his options and come to his own conclusions. Your job is to facilitate the process not run it.
- Ask your tween to CHOOSE the option that best HELPS the situation.Advise her that options which intentional hurt or embarrass other people, anger them or put you in danger will only make things worse. They’ll also create more stress and will bring your tween back to Step #1. Instead, encourage her to move forward. HINT: The option that makes the best sense for improving the situation is usually accompanied by feelings of empowerment and increased self-respect, if not immediately, then in the long run.
- TAKE ACTION. Your tween should be ready to act. A viable (and mature) course of action may be to opt out of an ongoing argument. In other words, to choose “not take the bait.” In many tween social dramas, this is often an excellent move for your child to decide on. On the surface, it may look like doing nothing, but it actually is accomplishing a lot. And it often takes tremendous courage and/or self-control.
- CONGRATULATE your tween for calming down and thinking things through. That’s so much healthier and more mature than reacting without thinking.
We all do it at times: nag, preach, go on and on whilst getting tired of listening to our own voices. But there are lots of easier and more effective ways to communicate with our kids to get them listening, chatting and engaging with us more positively.
As you know, a major part of discipline is learning how to talk with and to your children. The way you talk to your child teaches them how to talk to others. Here are some simple but really effective talking tips to try out with your kids:
Connect before you direct
Before giving your child directions, look into your child’s eyes and engage your child in eye-to-eye contact to get their full attention. This helps them to know you are talking directly to them and helps to focus their attention on what you are telling them to do.
Be aware of your body language and your tone of voice so your child knows you mean what you say – be clear – be firm – be calm and be specific.
Address your child clearly by using their name
This makes sure your child knows that you are actually talking to them and gets rid of any misunderstanding. Often children are really engrossed in what they are doing so using their name grabs their attention quickly and easily. So start your request with your child’s name, “Charlie, I want you to…”
Use the simple but effective one-sentence rule and put your main point in the opening sentence. The longer you ramble, the more likely your child is to become parent-deaf!
Too much talking is a very common mistake parents make when talking with kids about an issue. It gives the child the feeling that you’re not quite sure what it is you want to say. If they can keep you talking they can get you sidetracked. Also it cuts to the chase and stops the whole situation from turning into just a nagging session.
Ask your pre-teen to repeat the request back to you
This way you can be sure that they’ve heard you.
Always speak in the positive, so instead of saying “no running,” try: “Walk around inside the house, but outside in the garden you can run.”
Begin your instructions with “I want.”
This works well with children who want to please but don’t like being ordered about. By saying “I want,” you give a reason for being obedient rather than just giving an order.
“When your homework is finished, then you can watch TV.”
“When,” implies that you expect obedience, and works better than “if,” which suggests that your tween has a choice when you don’t mean to give them one.
Legs first, mouth second
Instead of shouting, “Turn off the TV, it’s time for dinner!” walk into the room where your child is watching TV, join in with your child’s interests for a few minutes, and then, during a commercial break, get your child to turn off the TV. Going to your child conveys you’re serious about your request; otherwise children interpret this as a mere preference.
Keep your expectations high
Kids shouldn’t feel manners are optional. Speak to your children the way you want them to speak to you. The earlier you start the easier it will turn into a natural habit.
Be aware of the language you use
Threats and judgmental remarks put children of any age on the defensive.
“You” messages make a child clam up. “I” messages are non-accusing.
So instead of saying “You’d better do this…” or “You must…,” try “I would like….” or “I am so pleased when you…”
Instead of “You need to clear the table,” say “I need you to clear the table.”
Don’t ask a leading question when a negative answer is not really an option. “Will you please pick up your coat?” Just say, “Pick up your coat, please.” It is more specific and kids know where they are with clear instructions and will respond to what you want them to do faster.
Constant reminders can evolve into nagging so easily, especially for preteens who feel being told things puts them in the slave category!
Without saying a word you can communicate anything you need to say. Talk with a pen and paper for a new approach.
Leave humorous notes for your kid to find. I used this approach with my teenage son who had a mountain of drinking glasses by his bed and it really worked. “I’ve heard the dishwasher is a really exciting experience just like going on Space Mountain – Love Your Glasses” Then sit back and watch what you want happen! Just don’t patronise – aim to be humorous and light hearted and see what happens.
Empathising with your child
Sometimes just having a caring listener available will really calm your child down as they feel heard and understood and their anger or tantrum melts away. If you come in blaring too you have escalated the problem and you’ve got two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for your child.
Settle and calm down the listener
Before giving your instructions, bring back a sense of calm and emotional equilibrium and balance, otherwise you are wasting your time. Nothing sinks in when a child is an emotional wreck.
Let your child complete and process their thoughts
Instead of “Don’t leave your mess piled up,” try: “Marc, think of where you want to keep all your football stuff so we don’t all fall over it all the time”
Letting your child fill in the blanks is more likely to create a lasting lesson.
Use “When you…I feel…because…”
This strategy works with any age kid as it expresses how you feel but also explains why you feel the way you do and takes the blame from the situation.
“When you don’t phone when you say you will I feel worried becausesomething may have happened to you.”
Close the discussion
Sometimes you have to be the adult in the situation as you have your child’s best interest at heart and you are there to guide, nudge and teach them. If a matter is really closed to discussion, say so. “I’m not changing my mind about this. Sorry.”
You’ll save wear and tear on both of you so reserve your “I mean business” tone of voice for when you do and your child will know that’s it non negotiable and behave accordingly.
It’s puzzling and scary for Ryan’s parents. It seemed as if overnight their once happy, social 10 year old did not want to leave home to go to school, or go out and play with friends the way he used to. Ryan can’t explain it himself. “I just get nervous about it and then my stomach hurts, I get cramps, and feel like I have to go to the bathroom.” Now Ryan worries about getting a stomachache whenever he’s away from home.
Tiara who is 11 was always a shy, cautious child who had separation anxiety every year when school first started, but managed to eventually adjust. But this year, she’s having a tough time with math and the homework load often overwhelms her. Tiara worries almost all the time about school and that she may be called on to go to the board to do a math problem, or that she’ll never be able to understand the homework. Though she goes to school without complaint, Tiara suffers in silence.
Symptoms of Anxiety Pack a Wallop
Both Ryan and Tiara are developing chronic anxiety. And once a child experiences the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, and it happens over and over again, it’s understandable why they don’t want to go out the door. First the physical symptoms of anxiety are powerful and disturbing:
- It starts with a heart-pounding adrenaline rush which includes other stress hormones.
- Breathing becomes rapid and shallow making it tough to catch your breath, often leading to feelings of being smothered or trapped.
- Dizziness, numbness and feeling faint are common symptoms.
- Muscles tense causing headaches, or chest pain and body aches.
- Voiding of bowel and bladder occurs, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Sweating occurs as the body cools itself, a hot flush may occur too.
The mental symptoms pack a punch, too, playing havoc with cognitive functioning making it difficult to think clearly, reason and learn. Anxious children may complain about feeling frightened, helpless, and out of control. Some kids feel like they are having an out of body experience, others get angry or feel ashamed and isolated.
Symptoms vary from mild to severe, but even milder symptoms can be distressful. Avoiding places and situations often seems like the only option for an anxious child. Look at it from Ryan’s point of view. He says to his parents, “If I go to school or a friend’s house I may get a stomachache, but when I stay home I feel better.” Tiara feels better on Friday afternoons. . “On Friday after school I can take a break and not have to think about math or school at all.” But when Sunday afternoon comes around, Tiara begins to worry about Monday morning and her anxiety starts to build.
Worry is a Culprit
A main ingredient of anxiety is worry: thinking or obsessing about past experiences and worrying that they will happen again. When Tiara thinks about being in school she replays embarrassing moments in class when she couldn’t work out a math problem on the board, or failed a math test. Then she projects those memories into the future: “What if my teacher calls me to the board?” “What if we have a math quiz again?” Ryan worries too. “What if my stomach hurts and I feel like diarrhea in class and I can’t leave the room?” “What if it happens at a friend’s house?” And it’s worry that jump starts the fight or flight–one ounce of worry and the symptoms are raging.
What’s Happening to Me? It’s the Fight or Flight
A first crucial step in helping your tween is to explain why the symptoms are occurring. Symptoms occur because of something called the “fight or flight response” that is an alarm system located in the nervous system. It warns the body of physical danger and activates a reaction to avoid injury or death. In anxious children, this alarm goes off when a perception of danger is present, for example a math test. It’s only a false alarm though because the brain cannot distinguish between a real physical threat to life and limb, or to the fear of something benign.
The fight or flight has allowed humans to survive to this day. But its purpose is to act as a short-term response to a physical threat, not as a continuous state of mind and body leading to chronic anxiety. And when your child’s fight or flight revs up while she’s taking a test, or sitting in the classroom, there’s no outlet for this response, no relief, no running away, no battle to win. Your child has to sit there trying to deal with an internal hurricane.
The False Alarm Explanation
An easy way to explain the fight or flight is by using a home smoke detector. Show your child that you can set off the smoke detector either by frying something in the kitchen or by pushing the button on the detector. Say, “See, the detector thinks there is a fire and the alarm is going off, even though there is no fire. But the detector doesn’t know we’re fooling it. It gets the message that a fire is occurring and does its job. That’s what happens to your brain, it thinks the math test (or other fear) you’re worrying about is a real physical danger and the alarm goes off to protect you.”
When Ryan understood what the fight or flight was, and he began to make his way out to play with friends again, when he felt anxiety begin he learned to say to himself, “I don’t like the way I feel but it’s nothing more than an adrenaline rush.” This helped him to take control of his fears of the symptoms. Hearing the false alarm explanation helped Tiara too. When she felt anxious she pictured little firemen (or firegirls) running around inside of her, seeing no fire, and turning off the alarm.
In the end, for many children it’s the fear of the symptoms that turns anxiety into a chronic condition and makes kids want to feel better and safe by staying home. Also tell your child, “I know that what you feel is disturbing and can be frightening, but these are just feelings and they can’t hurt you.”
Why Don’t Boys Talk?
- Boys don’t talk because they think it’s safer not to talk.
- Boys don’t talk because they don’t want to reveal their vulnerabilities and be perceived as weak.
- Boys don’t talk because they have not learned how to label or express their feelings in words.
- Boys don’t talk because of their fear of being misjudged and permanently labeled.
Boys create a shield to protect themselves, to hide any appearance of having “soft” emotions. This shield takes the form of boys’ maintaining a veil of apparent competence, which makes it difficult for them to communicate freely and effectively about their fears or feelings, or even to ask for help. For boys the biggest insult is to be called a “wuss,” “fag,” or “mama’s boy.” Boys have a profound fear of failure and discomfort with intimacy that comes from their need to avoid being identified with such labels. For fear of being perceived as soft, boys reject qualities that they think will call attention to their feelings.
When parents do not teach boys the language of feelings, they are placed at a disadvantage in their ability to attach labels to experiences. By failing to ask questions that may reveal a boy’s fear, parents give their sons a non-verbal message that fear is not an acceptable feeling for a young boy to have or admit that he has. A fascinating study by Robin Fivish shows that mothers use fewer words, particularly words that describe feelings with their sons than they do with their daughters. Parents omit many feeling words while they talk to their sons, and what we don’t say can be as or more powerful than what we do say. The absence of a vocabulary describing a range of feelings makes our attempts to talk to our sons in adolescence even more difficult.
So what can parents do?
Parents must get the message across to their boys that understanding their inner lives empowers them, rather than makes them weak in order to help them to create a road map to guide their inner life. Boys need to learn the nuances of what they are feeling, for example, to be able to distinguish between anger and sadness or anger and frustration. Parents should provide their sons with the skills they need to connect with their feelings and channel their anger into productive alternatives. It is not difficult to see how boys, without these skills and vocabulary, turn to violence as a means of expressing themselves and proving their competence.
This narrow definition of masculinity places boys inside a box that limits their emotional and relational development. Healthy psychological development is typically marked by progressive acquisition and integration of new skills and qualities. In contrast, traditional male socialization, as described by psychotherapist, Terrance Real, reflects a process of disconnection marked by successive “disavowing” and loss of qualities essential to boys’ emotional and psychological well-being. This lack of emotional connection can influence boys to behave in disrespectful and antisocial ways toward their parents, teachers and peers.
If you are at all concerned, check out your observations with another adult/or a mental health professional. Don’t dismiss what you see. We need to call attention to the dangers inherent in “shrugging off” inappropriate behavior. One school administrator told us that instead of having “metal detectors” in school, they would be better off investing in “depression detectors.” An antidote for depression is understanding your emotions. This understanding has a protective value against depression.
Every family has operating principles and values that are unique to it and will affect what strategies work and which do not. We encourage you to be confident in teaching those principles and values that are specific to your culture and heritage. Even with those strategies that do work, flexibility, variety, and a sense of humor are critical to getting through to your sons during these turbulent years. Trust your instincts, and initiate and maintain emotional connections with your sons.
Where do we go from here? Strategies to Teach the Language of Feelings:
- Label a feeling from an early age and interpret experiences from a feeling level to promote emotional intelligence. Teach the impact of behaviors and actions on others- for example, ask your son, “When you did that, how do you think I felt?”
- Teach your boy to handle toughness and tenderness. Work to harness his energy in a way that includes his sweetness, vulnerability, loyalty and commitment, protectiveness, honor, and integrity. These are also genuine characteristics of boys. Praise them and acknowledge their acts of kindness.
- Early on, parents need to try to teach their sons empathy, and they need to mentor them on relational skills. Initially, you do this by talking about your own feelings and theirs. Your personal stories will reach your child in a way that lecturing never can. No one listens to a sermon.
- Teach by example. Try to resolve disputes calmly and reasonably without yelling. Talk about the reality of their lives and your own personal experiences. Share with them your successes and your failures. As our sons watch us handling our own challenging situations, they are learning how to handle theirs.
- Share your feelings about the day, issues, and relationships. Remember regardless of what they may say, our sons still care about what we think. Discuss openly with your partner his or her feelings so children know it’s okay to express feelings out loud without feeling shame or embarrassment.
- Remember that depression in boys may look different than what you expect. Pay attention to symptoms of male depression, such as losing interest in activities that he has previously enjoyed, increased isolation or agitation, and/or harsh self-criticism and self-medication with alcohol or drugs. If you are at all concerned, check out your observations with another adult/or mental health professional.
- Be careful to avoid putting permanent labels on our sons because they have shared one particular comment or displayed one type of behavior. Instead, we need to give them the message that what they tell us they feel today will not forever define them.
Anyone who says these years are easy has never lived or worked with an adolescent boy. However, we believe that these years are also filled with wonder, tenderness, and opportunities for personal growth for parents. They contain experiences and moments to be treasured for those who stay involved, who stay connected.