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Your tween barely utters a word when she comes in through the front door after school, scales the stairs in a blink and shuts her door—and you don't hear from her for the rest of the night. Sound familiar?
Why isn't your tween-age son or daughter sharing anything anymore? "Developmentally, they are beginning to define themselves as separate from their parents, so any discussion may feel like an intrusion or invasion," says licensed marriage and family therapist Bette Alkazian, founder of the Los Angeles-based Balanced Parenting practice. "There is no rhyme or reason to this time period of development, and that's why it has such a bad reputation. It is unpredictable, not only from one kid to another, but from the same kid, from one hour to the next."
As a parent, you need to keep tabs on both your child's life and what's going on inside her head. Here, experts reveal the topics your tween doesn't want to tell you about—and how to break down that communication barrier.
If your daughter's been spending more time with a certain boy at school, she may want to see him after the bell rings, too. She knows she has to bring it up with you, but embarrassment will cause her to beat around the bush. "They will test the waters to see if they can talk about it," says Carin Goldstein, licensed family therapist in Beverly Hills. Pick up on her hints. Is she mentioning a guy's name regularly, or mentioning her friend just "hung out" with a boy? "Read between the lines and follow their lead."
Tread lightly when probing her for details; if you ask a question that makes her shut down, don't press her and don't badger. "They will come to you when they want to come to you," Goldstein says. "Just open the door."
Sitting at home in the living room, looking her right in the eye, is not going to open her up about sex—a topic that's so new, she's definitely curious about it. Instead, switch up the scenery. "Go to a coffee shop, or a pottery class," says psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini, author of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex, or Whatever. "Change the environment. Don't talk much at first. Let her tell you what she thinks, because she does think she knows the whole story from friends and media, but she really only knows bits and pieces."
Avoid the urge to dish as a girlfriend; be a mom. "Kids really want to know what their parents think about sex. State your hope, what your moral belief is, but don't be judgmental if she responds like a typical tween." So, discuss. Let her say as much as she wants. Ask questions, then weave in the ramifications of getting physical, but do so in a way that is not critical of her thoughts, which aren't fully developed on the subject.
Puberty. Their bodies are growing, their hormones are fluctuating, and they're so moody they don't know how to manage it all. "What I tell parents a lot: Adolescence parallels toddlerhood," Goldstein says. "There is so much change, they don't even know what they want to talk about. Their brain is not fully formed yet."
It's not exactly fun for your child to talk about menstruation and sexual development, and you might be uncomfortable mentioning it, too. Try bringing up the subject in the car when you're both alone. You're close, it's quiet, but you don't have to look eye-to-eye. "Be aware of anxiety; you project that on your child," says Goldstein. The vehicle method will take the pressure off.
If your tween is getting picked on at school, it might be affecting his attitude at home. Tap into your motherly intuition if you feel something's off. He may not want to admit he's a target for bullies, so wade slowly into a discussion. "Be really aware of who your kid is," says Goldstein. "Know your audience. Be calm. 'I need to share something with you. I'm not being critical, but I've noticed X, Y or Z. If you need to talk, I'm here.'" Let him chew on that, and he'll often come to you when he's ready.
Grades and Teachers
Whether it's his slip-up, or a teacher is just being tough on him, he fears you're going to exacerbate his existing problem at school by fessing up. "They think parents will go up to the school and make it worse," says Rapini. Resist the urge to immediately react. "Have them write down what is happening, and what they've done to make it better or worse. It helps you, the parent, to see both sides. Don't be critical, look at the letter."
If you can, this is a great opportunity to let him take some ownership in an adult way. "Give advice. Say, 'I'm glad to go with you, but it looks like you can handle this,'" says Rapini. "It will give him a boost of confidence he needs."
Drugs and Alcohol
You want your tween to refrain from narcotics and alcohol, but this isn't a PSA, and you shouldn't lead with outright demanding it. "Lecturing is not going to work," Rapini says, suggesting you pull from outside sources to bring up a subject like drugs. "Say, 'I read an article on this. Do you know anyone at school who's doing this?' Confidence is built when you ask how they feel about something."
Let your tween weigh in with his own ideas, allowing him to comment on something—like an article on marijuana use—other than himself. This may gradually lead him toward his own ideas, plans and current activities. And really listen. Make him see his feelings are important and substantial. State your wishes, but avoid overt criticism of his thoughts, which may cause him to shut down or rebel.
Parties. Hangouts. Dances. After-school activities are starting to heat up—and your tween wants to keep the details private. But as a parent, you still hold the power to make sure she's OK. Emphasize the long-term fringe benefits of letting you know the whos, whens, wheres and whats. "If I know information, I'm more likely to be willing to let them attend an event, party, dance," says Alkazian. "The less I know, the more my imagination goes crazy and the less I trust that my daughter is safe. So I tell my daughters that information is their friend. Share it, and see how much more I will trust."
You want to know what's on her mind—and peer pressure is something that weighs on her heavily, everyday. So carve out regular mom-and-daughter meetings. "I really encourage moms and daughters, especially, to schedule long walks, early Saturday coffee runs, secluded time," says Rapini. "Make a date every week to talk, even if it's just a ride in the car."
With your son, make sure you get active with him. "Men are kinetic," Goldstein says. "Do something physical. When talking to my son, I literally throw a ball around with him." The movement alone will make him more comfortable sharing his thoughts.
Does she seem down, or extra irritable? Just mention it casually. "If she seems down, say, 'How can I help?'" says Rapini. Maybe she needs to unload, or do something fun. Approach it in a caring way. "She'll appreciate it."
One big key? Don't jump to the conclusion that it's a medical emergency; just be watchful. Rapini says all tweens are depressed, in the sense that they can be irritable and moody sometimes. "Depression is very common, so don't look for the symptoms, look for a change," says Rapini. "Whether your child is depressed or has low self-confidence, it's really the coping mechanism that's important." Is she suddenly apathetic? Is he gaining weight? Is he refusing to go out with friends? If the behavior keeps up for more than two weeks, get your tween in to see the doctor.
It's a whole new world out there in terms of technology, and your tween is feeling pressure from multiple sources. She might be monitoring the "likes" on her new Facebook picture and engaging in Twitter warfare with frenemies. Make sure she doesn't get sucked into the social-media bubble, which can destroy her confidence. "There are anonymous sites out there dedicated to bashing other kids," says Goldstein. "It's sad. Girls might be a little more open to talking about it; boys retreat more."
Try to gauge how much your kid is using social media, and casually check in on what accounts they have. Then, be cognizant if she's spending too much time on her phone or online. If your gut says something's up, ask if she's doing OK. The subtle buildup of stress might spill over into words. "Look for signs," Goldstein says, like retreating to her room all night or snapping whenever you mention a friend she no longer seems to spend time with. "Kids don't verbally communicate, so they will act it out."