By Olivia Pitkethly, MA LMHC
Somewhere between elementary and middle school, your tween will stop talking to you. One day she might have been giving you every last detail of the latest gossip at school, and the next day she completely shut down, giving only single-word responses to your questions.
It is frustrating as a parent, but this is normal tween behavior. They are experiencing new feelings that they want to keep private as well as asserting their independence by withholding information. It is a new stage of life for them and they are figuring things out.
While they may not be expressing themselves to you, it is important they have a healthy outlet of communication while in this stage. Keeping a diary or a journal is a useful tool for your tween to communicate her feelings without repercussions, such as getting in trouble with parents or friends breaking her confidentiality.
Fletcher Eaton, father of three, said that two of his children enjoy expressing themselves through personal and creative writing and art. He said if he or his wife have concerns, they will access the journals. Eaton said they have not really needed to do it yet, but their children are aware that they might.
“We don’t want to stifle their creativity or openness, so we incorporate it into the overall openness of communication in our house,” Eaton said. “We try to foster a healthy balance between openness and respect for each other’s privacy. We are fortunate that all three of our children talk pretty openly about their group of friends or issues at school.”
Maintaining that balance can be tricky to navigate, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Gifting a journal
Bookstores and craft stores have a wide variety of journals available. Peruse the shelves and find one that “fits” your tween — favorite color, interest, or style — and present it to your child as a gift. Let him know that it is good to get things off his chest, and writing or drawing in a journal is a great way to do it. If you kept a journal as a kid, you might want to share that with him, giving him a peek inside your world at his age.
Reading the journal
Let your child know that although it will be mostly private, if you have serious concerns about him, you will be reading it. It is important that you are honest from the start so there are no surprises later on. Define “serious” concerns with your child — signs that your tween is using drugs or alcohol, engaging in sexual behavior or showing symptoms of depression are all important issues that need to be addressed.
If your child states they will not keep a journal because you might read it, have an open conversation about it. Ask what they believe the repercussions will be if you read something you do not agree with. Take this as an opportunity to explore your different opinions and experiences. You may end up learning something about each other and improve your communication. If in the end your tween does not want you to read her journal at all, consider implementing weekly talks, emphasizing your willingness to listen to her problems without judgment, as an alternative.
Continuing to communicate
While communication with your tween may have slowed down, it is still important to let her know she can always come to you with anything. Continue to validate her feelings and explore how she feels about certain situations. For instance, if she says that a friend of hers was caught drinking alcohol, ask how she feels about that. Does she think it is normal to be curious about alcohol? What were the consequences of her friend’s behavior? Does she think the parents over- or under-reacted?
It is both frustrating and sad when your child seems to be growing “away” from you. But, be patient with him. Know this is an important time in his life as he prepares for adulthood, and remember it will eventually get better. Talk to parents of older children for support during this time. Always make yourself available so when your tween is ready to talk, you are there to listen with open ears, an open mind and an open heart.