“How was school today, honey?”
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
“Did you play with anyone?”
If the beginning of the conversation sounds familiar then you know what it feels like having a child who finds it hard to communicate what happened to him at school. What can make it worse for you is if you have another one, who – in stark contrast to the word-scrooge – tells you every single detail of her day (sometimes maybe even too much).
It feels like you only know half of the life of your child: only what happens after school, and really only the moments you live together. Every single answer is brief, and communicates the message “I don’t want to talk to you. I’m not enjoying this”.
In those conversations after a while you feel like you’re conducting an interrogation. But stop and think for a moment, if that’s the way you feel about these conversations, your child probably feels the exact same way, because he is the one expected to answer. “The spotlight is on me. They’re asking me questions I don’t want to answer”.
The situation is even worse if your child suffers from nightmares and wakes up crying in the middle of the night. You go to his room and after consoling him you try to find out what he had dreamed about and you get no answers. You start to suspect that something is not right, but you really have no clue: is he excluded from the group? does he have real friends? is he bullied? does he feel rejected or inferior? At home he seems to be fine, but what about school?
You go to the teacher and ask her how your son is doing and she seems to be a bit surprised by the question. She tells you “He’s doing great. I see him playing with friends all the time, but I’ll keep an eye on him today and I’ll write down the names of the kids he plays with”. At the end of the day you receive a piece of paper with two names.
But somehow, in another random conversation he hints to you that he feels lonely, and without friends. You’re not quite sure, but you suspect that it may be the case.
Where do you go from here? You know that asking the same question tomorrow will bring the same answers.
You’re consumed, because you want to help him, but you can’t seem to be able to provide him with tools to deal with his negative experiences. And you know that unless you get to the bottom of this, tomorrow’s going to be the same. Trying to help your son is becoming an obsession at this point and almost a reason to be depressed. You feel guilty for the difficulties he has.
“What have I done wrong? How do I find out what causes the problem? Does it happen because of him or because of the other kids at school? Does he lack social or communication skills? Would changing school make things better for him?”
If only there was a magic wand to wave in order to solve the problem of non-communication! The bad news is that such wand doesn’t exist. There is no overnight solution to a complex problem. This doesn’t mean though that you can do nothing to help him open up to you.
You may be familiar with the serenity prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
There are certain realities in life that we can change, and others we can’t. Steven Covey calls these realities the circle of interest and the circle of influence. Your circle of interest contains things you care about and it can range from politics through sports to family affairs. There are many things in this circle that concern you, but you can do nothing about. Your circle of influence is a smaller circle within the the circle of interest, and they are the things you can change. The main things you can change are your own attitudes and actions, which in turn, will influence your greater circle of interest to some degree. The more you concentrate on those things in your circle of concern that fall outside your circle of influence, the more negative energy you spend and the more you diminish your circle of influence. On the other hand, by concentrating on those realities within your circle of influence, you will actually expand it.
Internal attitudes to face the problem as you experience it
In order to break this vicious circle you must first take a step back. If you realize that this is a cause of tension in you, then you’re one step closer to the solution of the problem. Many people, who have a similar experience get frustrated every day, but can’t formulate the why and therefore they suffer and make others suffer without ever trying to do anything about it.
You must then realize that the fact that you care so much about your child makes you a good parent. Wouldn’t it be easier to remain detached and not even ask the question? Instead you chose to care, because you love him. So, rest assured that even if you find yourself in the exact same situation tomorrow and your child cuts you short with brisk answers, he will feel loved.
Having said that, should you work on tweaking the system in order to communicate better and try to help him? Absolutely.
The things you should change in your situation depend very much on a variety of factors: your relationship with your child, your personality and that of your child etc. A sculptor needs to take into account the type of material he works with in order to sculpt the statue he wants to achieve. Not only is there a difference between wood, bronze and marble, but also there are no two identical pieces of marble. Each piece has its own characteristics, and there isn’t a single right or wrong way of sculpting out a David or a Pieta. How much more complex is the human soul than a piece of marble! There is no magic bullet here, and making long-lasting changes takes time and effort.
What are the most important things you need to consider?
Your relationship with your child. With every single word, deed and interaction you communicate to your child how much you value him and build your relationship with him. Just like a beautifully written symphony with its high and low notes. There are parts that in themselves sound quite scary or maybe even awful, but in the context they make the music beautiful. However, if a member of the orchestra plays off tune, it becomes immediately noticeable, and it ruins the music. Similarly, in your relationship you can have better days or worse days, and can get more easily annoyed at certain moments. Children understand this for the most part as long as you communicate the right message. “Look honey, I’ve had a really difficult day because [of authentic reason, e.g. I arrived late at work and had to do a presentation to my boss, which went really bad]. I will do my best to be patient with you, and I need you to be really helpful today by not needing to be told several times to [whatever makes you tick, e.g. tidy up after playing].” This way you make an alliance with him and show to him that you’re as human and vulnerable as he is.
On the other hand, if you have an authentic reason that makes you tense, but you don’t communicate it to your child, but you raise at him, it will be perceived as a personal attack and an injustice. [Shouting] “Put your clothes away at once! I can’t believe I must remind you of this every single day. Will you ever grow up and show responsibility?!” What has this to do with your child not sharing his day with you? It’s about building trust. If you have more bad days than good ones and fail to communicate the right message, your child will find it hard to feel confident to share his innermost world with you.
Don’t make it sound like an interrogation. This sounds so obvious, but if you pay close attention to how you communicate, you may actually notice that the way you ask questions may actually make your child feel uncomfortable. The words used as well as your tone of voice make a big difference. There are some very creative ways of asking your child “How was your school today?” without actually asking that question.
In asking questions, make him understand that it’s not about you, but about him. Instead of perceiving “I want to know” you should communicate “You can tell me, because I’m listening to you”. If you’re too eager to know, you can easily give the impression that your child must tell you what happened in his day, because you want to know. In reality this is far from truth, because your real motivation is that you care about him. Consider the difference between the following two questions. “Why did you not eat your lunch today?” vs “I can see that the banana hasn’t even been pealed. You mustn’t have been hungry if you didn’t eat your favorite fruit.” The latter is not even a question, but it is a much better conversation starter than the former, because it’s about him and not you.
Timing is key. It matters a great deal when you ask questions. For example, as much as you may love your spouse, you may find it difficult to engage in a more than superficial conversation while one of you is doing the dishes or feel really tired. Or try to have a chat with a man who’s watching his favorite team play on TV. It won’t work, because the timing is not right. It is similar with children. They have different timings because they have different personalities, interests, energy levels throughout the day etc. My daughter can’t wait to sit in the car after school and she begins to talk about her day, but my son would be happy to say nothing or just ask questions himself, but I notice that he is more willing to talk after arriving home and having played for a while. The moment they are both willing to share their days and they are both willing to listen to each others too is at night prayer, when we give thanks to God for all the good things we received that the day.
Do activities with your child that he enjoys doing. Take him out on a hike or on a ride on the bike, fishing, play Lego or a board game… whatever it may be. Not only are those moments powerful ones for bonding, but also present an opportunity for him to talk to you about his life. It is impossible and unrealistic to aim for this every day, and even finding one-on-one time with your child may be difficult if you have more children, especially if they are smaller. Talk to your spouse and involve him/her to make it logistically feasible to find special moments spent together or find other ways to make it possible. You’ll be surprised by how it can affect your day-to-day conversations as well.
Read the signs your child is giving you that he’s ready to talk. Your word-scrooge child has a need to be listened to, and at times he’ll give you certain hints as to when he’s ready to talk. These moments may not align with the perfect moment for you, and if you’re not attentive enough you can miss them easily. When the moment presents itself, be ready and willing to leave whatever you’re doing and focus on him. This is also a very powerful way of building a strong relationship with him, because he knows that you are there for him when he needs you. More often than not he’ll want to talk about something else than school, and that’s fine. Remember that you’re laying down foundations.
Satisfy your child’s curiosity first. You may not notice this, but he may be as eager to know what you did while he wasn’t with you as you are. One of my son’s remarks in a different context cast some light on the importance of this for me. We live in a valley and on clear days we can see a mast on top of the hill our window faces. One foggy day we couldn’t see the mast we hiked up the hill. When we arrived at the mast we looked down and we could only see fog everywhere. He said to me: “This is strange dad. How come we can’t see our house and we can see the mast when it’s supposed to be the other way around?” In his little head on foggy days the mast was invisible, but our house was visible. It was a revelation to him that the mast didn’t turn invisible, but we couldn’t see it because of the fog. When your child is away from you it’s like the fog between the window and the mast. For him it’s nothing special to talk about the obvious (what happened to him), but anything you did or happened to you is mystery in a way that needs to be revealed. When you answer the questions of curiosity, you reveal what happened to you while you were apart and lift the fog. He will find it easier to share his day with you too.
Be patient and understand that the fact that your child doesn’t let you in on his day is in itself a way of communicating. He’s not ready yet. In can’t help but think of The Little Prince, whom the fox asks when they meet: “Please, tame me!” He responds: “I want to, very much! But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.” When he finally asks the fox what he must do in order to tame him, the fox prefaces his reply: “You must be very patient…”
Be grateful for even the little he tells you and show it to him as well. Even if there’s only one thing that he tells you about his day. “Son, I’m glad you scored a goal today and than you for sharing your happiness with me.” Little by little he will understand how much it means to you that he tells you about himself.
If you have more children, pay attention to their conversations at the table or at play (don’t spy, just be attentive). You’ll be surprised by how much you can find out just from those chats. Often they will even let you join in and you can ask follow-up questions.
Pray for your child and trust in God. Don’t forget that you and your spouse aren’t alone in raising your child(ren), and don’t underestimate the power of God. You collaborated with Him in the creation of a new life. He knows your child better than you do and can give him the necessary graces to overcome hurdles in life.