I is for ‘I dunno’…And That’s Good Enough for Me
Remember the days when your little ones were just babbling their first ma-ma-ma’s and da-da-da’s and Cookie Monster was the only adult conversation you heard all day? Remember feeling a bit at sea as you tried to figure out what each grunt and cry meant and how relieved you were when your tiny tot began using actual words to communicate, even if you had to really work to translate “Mender tmowow I wost my dowie?” into “Remember yesterday when I lost my dolly?”
Well, don’t drop anchor in port just yet, parents of middles and teens, your days of feeling at sea aren’t quite finished! Yes, their vocabulary may be nearly as large as yours and they may talk enough to drive you batty, but their ability to process, analyze, and articulate their emotions, especially the negative ones, is still far from mature.
Expecting them to be able to use words as easily and with as much insight as adults is like someone handing us a box of computer components and expecting us to be able to assemble, program, and operate the computer like an expert, but without the expert’s knowledge and experience!
Our middles and teens still need help communicating their inner world to us, and that takes patience and understanding on our part while we give them time to process without adding the pressure of unrealistic expectations. Stress just increases their cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress-hormone associated with the ‘fight-freeze-or-flight response’ which essentially drains their brains of the ability to think just when they need to think the most!) which results in less communication, not more.
Case in point…a couple of days ago My Renaissance Girl injured her ankle while playing on the back porch with our new kittens. (Yes, you read that right, first of my six to end up in the ER from playing with kittens!) She’s newly thirteen, and the hospital staff all directed their questions to her instead of to me. I stood back quietly and let her navigate this new ground as long as she was comfortable, but when she started shooting me panicked glances, I stepped in and helped her out. One of the doctors rather rudely said that she should be able to answer all of their questions herself, and I literally watched her shut down. The next question was her birthday, and she couldn’t remember it. She was already in pain and embarrassed (mainly because self-consciousness and the resulting embarrassment is just a fact of life at thirteen, poor thing) and the doctor putting pressure on her like that just sent her stress level soaring. If he’d have been standing next to me, I might have Gibbs-slapped him. (Not really, but it did irritate me and my fellow NCIS fans will appreciate the reference, lol).
When he left, I just quietly waited to give her time to process. After a few moments, she said, “All those eyes looking at me…I couldn’t think!” We chatted for a moment about it, and I told her about my absolute refusal to walk up to the counter at McDonald’s and ask for a ketchup package one day when I was her age. I remember not being able to explain why it made me so uncomfortable, but looking back it was probably a combination of worrying about people ignoring me while I stood there (as happens all the time to middles and teens, unfortunately), suddenly realizing I hadn’t shaved my legs that morning, feeling like my shirt was unflattering, and a dozen other thoughts that raced through my head, but I couldn’t articulate at the time with anything more than a shrug.
So when you ask how your middle or teen’s day went at school and get that classic shrug or when you notice they’re a bit down and ask what’s wrong and get an “I dunno,” remember, they aren’t really giving you the brush off, they just aren’t ready or able to put their day or feelings into words. Pressing them to talk before they’re ready only increases their stress, which in turn causes that mind-numbing cortisol to flood their brains and slows down their processing abilities even more.
I’ve found that it’s far better to let them know you’re available to talk when they are and then let it go until later. When the house is quiet for the night and everyone else is asleep, my middles and teens tend to open up like night-blooming flowers. If I know they need to talk, I’ll tap on their door and wait ‘til I’m invited in, then sit on their bed and start chatting lightly about the day. After a bit, we’ll lapse into a comfortable silence, and then, sure enough, the words start coming. Sometimes they come out all in a tumble, sometimes slowly, awkwardly, but they get it out there so we can take a look at things and process them together.
Sometimes, though, I’m the one who hears a little tap on my door and a head poking through to see if I’m awake. We do some fancy hand signals while they let me know they need to talk and I let them know if the baby’s still nursing and they need to wait a few minutes or if I can slip away and join them immediately.
In an odd way, this time of their lives feels like a return to the nighttime neediness of infancy. One of the payoffs to the gentleness and consistency in meeting their nighttime needs then is their assurance that their needs will be met now. They seem to be more likely to approach me with the need for one of our ‘midnight talks’ based on the confidence that I’m available to them, day or night, rather than being hesitant because they are unsure of their reception.
The heart of the matter, though, isn’t what time these chats take place. It’s that they take place when our middles and teens are ready to share, when they’ve had time to process their experiences enough to get them out in the open where we can work through the rest of whatever processing, analyzing or interpreting they need.
Through these interactions with our children we are not only helping them to get things out instead of bottling them up, but we are also letting them know in a very tangible and practical way that they are not alone in coping with life, a valuable lesson indeed when you consider that one of the mantras of depressed, bullied, and/or suicidal youth is “I feel so alone.”
In addition, rather being an indication of immaturity or undesirable dependency, a child being willing to talk through challenges, as well as just the ordinary stresses of life, is actually showing a healthy openness to sharing and growing. And the beauty of it is that each time we help our children through the ‘processing process,’ it prepares them to do a bit more themselves the next time, and the next, and the next until one day we realize we haven’t heard that little midnight tap on our door in a while…and we sleep a bit better in the knowledge of a job well done.