Does this sound familiar?
Spoken: "Do you have homework?"Unspoken: "I want you to feel proud of yourself at school and I will be glad to help you if I can."
Unspoken: "My teacher is so mean, he never explains the assignments. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I guess I'll flunk English."
If it does, then maybe you have a middle-schooler in the family.
Communicating with children in the middle-school years is a challenge even for the most determined parent. It can be so frustrating, sometimes it's tempting just to give up and wait, oh, five or 10 years, however long it takes until your child decides he or she feels like talking again.
But you don't have to wait, says psychologist Lawrence Kutner. With a little thoughtfulness - and a lot of that determination - parents can communicate well with their middle-schoolers. And when they do, both parents and children will feel better for it.
It's not easy, because "the middle school years are times of tremendous change," said Kutner, author of "Parent and Child: Getting Through to Each Other," "Your School-Age Child" and "Making Sense of Your Teen-ager" (all William Morrow & Co.).
"When a child enters middle school, a couple of things are happening at the same time: Their bodies are changing and their school environment is changing," he says.
"As parents, we have to recognize what they are going through. They are gawky and awkward, afraid of being embarrassed. They feel as if there is a spotlight and a camera on them all the time. It is intensely painful. So they often try to protect themselves with a false bravado. They walk around in a bubble of cool."
Part of that means that they may seem uncommunicative to their parents - though not necessarily to their peers. In fact, they communicate with their peers all the time, especially on the telephone.
"Middle-schoolers use the phone differently from adults. We use the phone to do business, to arrange things, to stay in touch. They use it to check things out with their friends: Do you perceive the same reality that I see?
It's very important in a middle-schooler's development to do that kind of "reality check" with friends, Kutner said. But it is just as important to communicate with parents. Parents can provide their middle-schooler with a secure, loving haven when they feel unsure of themselves, with solid information, and with good values to help them evaluate the world around them.
How to get inside that self-protective "bubble of bravado"? Kutner has some suggestions:
- Ask the right questions. Those are the ones that can't be answered in one word. Instead of "How was school?" try "What do you think about your history teacher?" or "What did you do today that you were proud of?" Still just one word? Say, "Tell me more."
- Be approachable. Sometimes your child will bring up things that sound trivial - a detailed description of a movie, for example. No matter what, listen. It may lead someplace else - if not immediately, then later on. A child who feels comfortable talking to his or her parents about small matters is more likely to talk to them about big issues when they come up.
- Set an example. Talk about your day, then ask about theirs. If you are willing to share your experiences and feelings, you are giving your child permission to share his or hers.
- Accentuate the positive. It's almost impossible to exaggerate how sensitive middle-schoolers are. They may feel embarrassed by almost anything - or by nothing at all. Don't ridicule or minimize their concerns. Take them seriously and let them know you are proud that they have the maturity to discuss their concerns with you.
- Share a hobby. Exploring a common interest together sets up a natural environment for good conversation. Just make sure it really is a mutual interest, not something you are imposing on your child.
- Look at baby pictures. Kids love this; they are fascinated by these early images of themselves. And it leads easily to talking about the physical and emotional changes that people go through in their lives (for example, in early adolescence).
- Talk in the car. The car offers a wonderful combination of privacy and protection - you can't look at each other. Time alone in the car can let you share information and feelings. If you are not alone, you can also learn a lot about your child's world by listening to back-seat conversations.
- Read together. From time to time read the same novel that your child has been assigned for class, then talk about it. Remember, you are not trying to improve your child's English grades. Use the novel as a way to discuss feelings and ideas.
When can you know that you have communicated well with your child, and raised a responsible human being?
Kutner, whose two sons are in college and elementary school, sighs. "When your child is 53."