If you’re feeling some strange new distance between you and your once-chatty preteen son, it’s not you! Not exactly, anyway. Conversational pull-back is developmentally normal for boys when they’re on the verge of becoming teens, the same way they start to test boundaries and become more independent.
Your way in: Build up a connection in which your son trusts you to be a good listener and chooses to open up (despite all that tweenage baggage going on), says developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dan Shapiro, who’s also a parent group trainer in Rockville, Maryland, and author of Parent Child Journey: An Individualized Approach to Raising Your Challenging Child.
Try these 5 ways to get your son to talk more and really confide in you. (They work for full-fledged teens too.)
1. Back off until he’s had some “transition time.”
Worst conversation-builder: Asking after school, “What did you do today?” followed by 20 questions.
“Prodding too much is just going to backfire,” Shapiro told me, leading your son to shut down. At best, he’ll brush you off. At worst, he’ll get so frustrated by the interrogation that he snaps at you (especially if something’s actually bothering him but he doesn’t want to talk about it—yet).
Try this: Allow some time for what Shapiro calls a “transition activity”—no pressure, no demands, no teaching, and above all, no questions. It could be listening to music, watching TV, or shooting baskets. An especially effective technique for softening up a growing fellow: a snack.
“It’s a nice way to come home, to be taken care of a little bit,” Shapiro says. “Make it a ritual, sharing a snack together.” If you’re not home when he’s back from school, maybe it’s a snack while you fix dinner. The idea is simply to make yourself available for a review of the day if he wants to go there. When you’re in this nurturing mode, his guard will come down, and he’ll be more likely to open up.
2. Ask specific questions—they’re easier to answer.
No one, not even a tween boy, can resist talking forever. When you finally do ask about his day—whether it’s after a short transition, during dinner, or in the car on the way to practice—it helps to narrow down the scope. A lot of boys don’t like to replay their whole day, Shapiro says, so to get anything from them, it helps to go specific: “Hey, what’s going on with that group project in social studies?”
Keep it a conversation, not an interrogation. Resist grilling about grades or reminding about deadlines. The idea here is just to be talking about something—anything—specific that you know is on his radar, whether it’s a class project, his favorite team, or his buddy’s broken arm.
Try this: To stay familiar with what’s going on in his world (and get good material to pull from) keep in touch with other parents. Get ready; you’ll almost have to consciously force yourself to do this more as your kids get older and arrange their own activities. More good ways: Read those updates from his teacher or coach and keep up with emails from school. The more you ask good questions, the more he’ll share, which will give you fodder for more good questions.
3. Make time for “time-in.”
Being available to do some activity you both enjoy (think: casual, non-threatening) is a golden invitation for tweens to talk. When you’re both somewhat distracted by something else, you almost can’t help having that back-and-forth. Even the lack of eye contact helps boys feel more at ease. “There’s no maneuver better than time-in,” Shapiro says.
Try this: Maybe in your house it’s ping-pong, a game of cards, walking the dog, cooking, or watching a show you both like. Aim for connecting like this once a day if possible.
Even when tweens start acting like they don’t want to be with us, on a deep comfort level, they do. So persist! Even 10 good minutes on a busy day will work. “Quality really matters as much as quantity,” Shapiro says.
4. To invite him in, make it okay NOT to talk.
All this sounds great, you’re thinking, but what about when he’s grouchy or surly? You can raise the odds he’ll let you in on what’s bothering him by the way you approach him. Let him know you recognize how he’s feeling and that it may be hard to talk about it, Shapiro says.
Try this: Start with something like, “It looks like you had a rough day.” Then—this is the hard part!—pause. Give him time to organize his thoughts and respond. Don’t press. Wait until he gives you some signal that he wants to talk.
But also give him permission not to talk if he goes silent: “I can wait, but I’d really like to know what’s going on when you’re ready.” That reassures him you’re available, and lets him know you’ll bring it up again sometime because you care about him. He may not be open to talking yet, Shapiro says, and if you make that feel acceptable and normal, he’ll be more likely to talk to you when the time is right.
5. Make HIS feelings, not YOUR advice, the priority.
Here’s the easier-said-than-done part. When the topic is more than everyday banter—he opens up about flopping a school project or a bigger problem—try not to jump in with advice. Shifting the conversation to a one-way lecture is the best thing you can do to STOP him from talking! Worse, you discourage him from coming to you again.
Try this: Whenever he’s sad, angry, or frustrated, help him figure out how he can manage a situation by being his sounding board, guiding rather than telling him what to do. “Be descriptive, not judgmental,” Shapiro told me. “It helps him put his feelings into words and makes him feel understood.” (And it coaxes the conversation along.)
You can also carefully guide his thinking—his problem solving—with questions: “What did you do?” and “Did that help?” or “What could you do next time?”
What helps as you listen: Reflect his emotion with your own words, body language, and facial expressions. “It’s like holding up a mirror to your kid’s thoughts and feelings,” Shapiro says. “Aim for a calm, it’s-going-to-be-OK tone, not an intense-concern tone.”
The fewer words you use and the more accurately you simply reflect what he’s feeling, the more he’ll feel reassured.
He might never be a chatterbox but…
How much a boy talks, before puberty and after, is an individual thing. To want to talk at all, they need to be able to trust that we’re there for them when they’re ready to open up and that we’re on their side, not poised to judge.