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When your kids are really young, they’ll inadvertently tell you about every single bump, bruise and boo-boo. When they get a little older, all you have to do is tuck them into bed and, as if they’ve been administered truth serum, all of the day’s confusions seep out of their mouths. But by the time they get to their tweens or teens, single syllable answers like “fine” and “OK” can easily replace the nuanced details they used to share about the day’s interpersonal dealings.
“Between 11 and 14 there definitely is a shift,” says Joshua Srebnick, a child psychologist in New York City. “It’s a profound time of identity formation, where they start to rely on their peer groups and pull away from some of the ways of the past to become their own person.”
Around the age of 12 and 13, Srebnick says this can mean your kid no longer feels the need to give you the play-by-play of the day. “The birth of self-awareness can spark this desire to disconnect a little from your parents,” Srebnick explains. “They need their parents so much in some ways yet want to go out there and do their thing. And so this is the birth of one-word answers. The idea of having to explain all the highs and lows of their day seems impossible.”
Yet, it behooves parents to know something of their kids’ business during these years. According to a 2015 study, kids who have positive relationships with their parents are less inclined to engage in risky behavior. And teens are prone to risk-taking because the frontal lobes their brains — the part that rules reasoning and risk mitigating — simply isn’t developed yet. “A child’s brain develops from back to front. They don’t have the judgment to moderate their impulsivity,” says Frances Jensen, MD, FACP, Professor of Neurology at Penn Medicine, and author of “The Teenaged Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.”
So how’s a parent to keep the lines of communications open when their kids start shutting them down?
It’s much easier to keep the lines of communication open with your child if open communication has always been big in your home, Srebnick says. Besides, the way kids are wired supports this kind of learned behavior. “The neurons in various brain areas connect with synapses, which are pruned into adulthood,” says Jensen. “They start with a lot of brain cells and, their experiences (doing something through repetition) strengthen the synapse. This is why children can learn things faster than adults. Adolescents are learning machines. The more they use their brains, the stronger the connections get,” she explains.
Go where they go
“Text, Snapchat are great ways to have a quick catch up with your kids and even talk about sensitive topics they may not feel comfortable talking to you about in person,” suggests Yalda T. Uhls, child psychologist, author of Media Moms & Digital Dads, and UCLA Adjunct Professor.
Don’t offer solutions
When our kids open up, solutions or comparisons to our own lives can fall on deaf ears, says Srebnick. “When we do that, we stop the flow of communication because we tell our kids they aren’t allowed to have their own feelings,” he says. “Whatever they’re upset about, in that moment, it’s the worst thing in the world.”
That’s because strong emotional reactions are, quite simply, part of the adolescent brain make-up. “By the teenaged years, the limbic system — the emotional center — is lit up, even in an MRI,” explains Jensen. “Their emotions are in technicolor and it activates their urge to take risks. It’s good for parents to know this is to be expected. Don’t make fun of them for overreacting. If you were to look at your child’s brain, it’s as if they actually feel an international incident is happening,” she says.
And to have someone tell you it’s going to get better doesn’t really help, says Srebnick, who suggests, take a Zen “rock in the river” approach by acknowledging them and offering support without trying to project any outcomes, point out their role in their situation, or fix things.
Ask open-ended questions
If your kid has something to confess, or something a little more serious than the everyday social scuffles, what your child needs most is an advocate. Srebnick recommends entering this kind of dialogue openly, by asking questions, to keep the conversation flowing. “They already feel bad and scared. Ask questions, but not loaded questions, about what they’re feeling, not what they did. Create a world of acceptance for them as a person, not what they did,” he says.
Get out on the open road
If you’re feeling a disconnect with your kid, Srebnick says a road trip can do wonders to get them chatting. “If confined to a car, at some point, your child will talk to you,” he says. He also advises to make these little sojourns a regular occurrence when things are fine, not just in those moments when your kid is stressed or heartbroken.
Have their back
Occasionally, a normally clammed-up kid might feel compelled to let their emotions loose with an outburst, but Srebnick says this doesn’t necessarily mean your kid is going through an awful time. “Sometimes, something happens or something is activated in our tweens and teens where they really need to talk and the levee just breaks,” explains Srebnick. “If you talk to any preteen or teen, they feel so good when they’re good, and so bad when they’re bad. It’s hard for them to self-regulate and find lukewarm water.” Just be warned this might not be the new normal and your kid might resume their typical reserve, and that’s OK, too.
We aren’t going to always be there to fix things for our kids, but if given a chance, they’ll eventually learn how to themselves. In the meantime, like Srebnick says, be a rock in the river. “Sometimes, we need to give our kids a frontal lobe assist,” says Jensen, sagely. “Count to 10 and appreciate the biology.”