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.
From tantrums to whining to tattling to the endless ‘why’s,’ the evolution of children’s communication proceeds at a steady and relatively predictable pace, though the timing is influenced by factors such as individual personality, cognitive development, home environment, etc. Once children have a solid grasp of language and have developed more advanced reasoning and processing skills, and once they’ve examined the in’s and out’s of their parents’ thoughts and beliefs, they begin to turn their attention to discovering their own interests and gifts and personalities.
Parents often begin to notice their children ‘becoming their own person’ during this time and we hear laments such as “She’s eight going on eighteen” and “He’s already changed career plans four times, and he’s only ten!” It is during this period in childhood that children often develop into a chatterbox or a dreamer, though most will be unique combinations of the two.
When you have a chatterbox, whether you have a seven-year-old who could literally spend entire days describing every super hero’s powers, weapons, weaknesses, enemies, and transportation or a nine-year-old who can list every horse breed, how to handle grooming, and what type of equipment to use for each kind of riding, the chattering can be deafening! The common theme is exploring who they are and what they like and what they think, all of which is accompanied by an intense need to share this fascinating process with the people they respect and admire the most…their parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings, anyone they’ve built a strong trust relationship with in their earlier years.
Chatterboxes can be challenging, to say the least. The endlessness of their talking, the intensity of their focus, and the often fickle nature of their passion (just when you get used to the daily commentary on the virtues of all things aquatic, their interest shifts and you’re getting a lesson in martial arts that would make an encyclopedia look dumb!) can really keep you off balance.
A common problem parents encounter at this stage is dealing with how to encourage their children in their interests without pushing them. So often when a child expresses interest in music a parent immediately buys a trumpet and enrolls him in lessons only to find that their budding Louis Armstrong has suddenly decided music is for the birds. His interests have flown elsewhere, and he’s now too busy pursuing his new passion for veterinary medicine to bother with something so pedantic as practicing the trumpet!
While encouraging our children to follow through on their commitments is important, we need to let them lead the way as much as possible. One way to avoid this situation is to watch that we aren’t jumping into things too quickly rather than giving our children a chance to explore their interests unhindered by the demands and pressures of lessons and competitions.
The constant nature of the chattering can be grating on parental (and sibling, teachers’, grandparents’!) nerves, to be sure. However, not only allowing, but also encouraging, our chatterboxes to share their thoughts as they begin to navigate the “Who am I? What inspires me? What will I be?” stage is important for a number of reasons.
- First, for a chatterbox, the need to be heard is intense, and it’s a wise parent who meets that need. Not only does remaining open and available at this stage continue to build the trust that is so vital for a respectful and peaceful relationship, but it also sets the stage for healthy communication in the rapidly approaching teen years.
- Second, a child who is heard and encouraged in discovering themselves at this stage tends to enter adolescence a more well-grounded and focused individual. Young people who head into the teen years without having begun the process of self discovery in middle childhood are more likely to be rudderless and vulnerable to peer pressure.
- Third, there is a unique window of clarity, a ‘honeymoon’ so to speak, in the middle years of childhood wherein language skills have been acquired, cognitive processes have matured, and the clouding of adolescent hormones and pressures and outside relationships aren’t in the mix to muddy the waters. This is prime real estate for encouraging self discovery while parental wisdom still seems wise to a child.
On the other end of the spectrum of middle childhood is the dreamer. Some children become extraordinarily introspective during this period. They are often lost in thought and may be perceived as inattentive or withdrawn. Oddly, it may seem harder to parent a dreamer because, while we rarely have to wonder what’s going on in the mind of a chatterbox, it takes a constant, subtle level of awareness to stay in tune with a young dreamer. That awareness is vital, though, because your young dreamer still needs your attention and empathetic support and guidance, just in different ways.
Some of the subtleties to be aware of are
- Signs of discomfort in social situations that they may not verbalize, but that we can offer insights into or alternatives to;
- Signs of anxiety such as frequent headaches or stomach aches which could be non-verbal cues that need our attention;
- And watching for what topics inspire their interest so we can encourage them on their road to self-discovery.
Checking in frequently with a dreamer is important since they may not volunteer information. Asking questions such as “That must have been difficult” and “I feel like you’re struggling with that. Can I help?” along with observations such as “You seem to find that interesting” are discussion openers they may or may not take you up on, but let them know you care. Don’t push them to open up, though, by constant probing questions or being unwilling to follow their lead if they aren’t ready to talk.
Just create the opportunity for conversation and, if possible, do so at regular intervals and in a quiet place so that they know they can count on a private time to share when they are ready. Prepare to simply sit in companionable silence during these times so your young dreamer won’t feel rushed or pressured, but don’t be surprised if they occasionally transform into a chatterbox and let all their pent up passions out at once before drifting back into their inner world.
It is important to be aware, though, of the subtle signs that can differentiate a dreamer from a withdrawn, angry, or depressed child. While a dreamer may often be in their own little world, it tends to be a happy world. If your child seems sad, is overly irritable, has trouble concentrating, seems overly tired, becomes extremely sensitive to and negatively affected by social situations, etc (read more here) then it may be wise to seek a professional evaluation.
Sharing yourself, your thoughts, your culture, and your values with your child; growing a strong, open communication channel; and encouraging a healthy curiosity are all invaluable investments in your child’s future, even if they are at the expense of a bit of peace and quiet in the present! Why, oh why, do children always ask WHY?
When a child tattles, what they are actually doing is a rudimentary form of the advanced life skill of ‘Pause. Think. Respond.’ but they need help finding an appropriate and effective response. The child who seeks out an adult for guidance is indicating trust in the adult and respect for the adult’s opinions and abilities. Rethinking Tattling
Here’s a shocker for you: Whining is actually a sign of maturity! Yep, that unnerving, endless, nails-on-a-chalkboard, make-your-head-explode whine is a sign that your little one is growing up and, get this, gaining self-control! I can see your heads shaking, but read on, parents, caregivers, and bleeding ears of the world, read on. Why Whining is a Win!
One effective tool for use in helping little ones cope with big emotions is a Calm-Me-Jar. Toddlers, Tantrums, and Time-Ins, Oh My!
We’ve added a Dr Seuss Quiet Bag to our Parenting in Public: Toddler Time page, and we’re working on a Dr Seuss Quiet Book, too!
The most challenging, independent children tend to be the ones who need the most intentional parental reconnection. Strong will=Strong need! Testing the Boundaries~What’s A Parent To Do?