We think we know our kids well, but it's surprising how much of their lives they don't share with us. Our own Angela Rudderham decided to find out just how much a few students are keeping to themselves - and why.
Rhonda & the Bridgeway team
By Angela E. Rudderham, Director of Turning Tides Community Outreach
Have you ever found yourself wondering, “How could they not know what their child is up to?” Or do you believe, “I know my child, we have no secrets!” Most good parents have uttered these sentences from time to time and most really do believe it. My experience working with children and families has taught me that this is most often a fairy tale and even the most involved and present parents are unaware of the experiences, feelings and events that happen in their school-aged child’s day. Kids are masterful at editing their day for parent’s ears. It starts around grade one and these skills continue to build. I asked some random students this week if they would help me with this article, and promised we would change their names if they would give me the scoop. I’d like to share with you what I uncovered.
Scott, age 11 and in grade 6 is a well-cared for and well-behaved student. He told me that he tells his parents very little about his day. When I asked him what happens in his day that he wouldn’t share with his parents, he told me he would not share anything that would, “get him in trouble” or make his parents “think badly about me”. At the top of his list of things he does not tell his parents is the fact that he often consumes energy drinks that are smuggled to school by other students and consumed in secret, sometimes in bathroom stalls. I quickly make a note to end this practice, but to encourage Scott’s participation, I remained non-judgmental. He admitted that if he gets into “trouble” in class or on the playground he would never tell his parents unless they were going to find out. When asked why not, his reasoning was very logical. “Well, if I already got in trouble for it in school, I shouldn’t have to listen to another lecture and ruin my night too!” And not entirely self-serving, as he also added, “I don’t like it when they are sad because I disappointed them.”
Sonic Boom (self-chosen name) age 7 and in grade 2, is also a very well-loved child with very involved parents. He admits when his parents ask about his day he replies, “fine” and tries to get them off the subject. When I asked why, he told me that if he gives a little information there will just be too many questions to deal with. He says it’s mostly things he can handle like someone making fun of him or getting sent out of class. At the top of his list of secrets is the fact that sometimes he” fights” with his four-year-old brother and his brother will cry and attract the attention of his parents. When this happens “Sonic Boom” will quickly do something funny and get his brother to laugh so that when a parent arrives to see what is happening he can deny the fighting.
Jennifer age 13 and in grade 7, is a model student, but even she admits that every kid leads a double life. She says she definitely acts different around friends and she would never want her conversations overheard by her parents. She says her friends talk about sex and sometimes swear. She says she would never tell her parents how often her feelings are hurt by teasing because they would get involved and might call the school and she would be embarrassed. She also admits to not telling her parents about good things that happen like getting an award because, “they will make a big deal of it when it isn’t that cool and tell people.” I asked her what parents could do differently that would encourage kids to share more about their day. Jennifer, rolling her eyes, says, “If they just listened and let you handle your own stuff instead of overreacting or giving a big lecture.”
Aside from some other scary stuff I learned, such as literally playing on thin ice and talking to strangers, all of the children I interviewed indicated their secrets or lies are to maintain privacy, safeguard opportunities to make choices without risking parental intervention or disapproval, and of course, to stay out of trouble. All seems a perfectly natural step in maturation and the quest for independence but I still worry those children that keep their emotions and problems to themselves at a young age may be missing out on learning important coping strategies and problem solving skills from their parents. By the time they are teens, and the problems they face are more complex and their choices have bigger consequences, they will be experts at dodging their parents influence and will not have benefited from the practice of “talking it out.” The largest complaint from many “troubled” teens is the feeling that they are alone and have no one to talk to. Clearly this does not just start over night; our children are practicing keeping us out of their business early. Just ask “Sonic Boom”.Here are some suggestions for getting your child to start sharing the details of their day;
1. Listen. Most of us really are not very good at this according to the students I speak with. Most of us feel that there simply isn’t enough time; as a result our attention is almost always divided. When your child begins to share something and she sees that while you may have one eye on her the other is on the cell phone she will always conclude you must be doing something more important than what it is she is trying to share. Obviously your child is important to you; back it up with actions. Make five minutes or whatever you can spare each day to actively listen to your child. That means eye contact, still hands and feet and ignoring would-be distractions.
2. Validate feelings. When your child discloses an event they are not looking for advice, questions or reprimands. They are looking for an acknowledgment of their feelings. Offering supportive phrases such as “that must have been very hard for you” or “are you okay?” shows that you hear them. When we say things like, “Well that’s what happens when you act that way,” Or “that’s not so bad,” we are dismissing their emotions and they will not feel heard. They will be less likely to share with us next time. Remember showing empathy does not mean you agree.
3. Teach problem solving and resilience. Lecturing does little in the way of teaching. Guiding your child through the problem solving steps will help them become independent and set them up to make good decisions on their own. Help them to identify the problem and encourage them to come up with three possible solutions. Help them predict the outcome of each possible solution and let them pick the outcome they can live with.
You may at some point feel as if you need to do back flips to get more than two words out of your child. This is a normal part of growing up. But don't stop trying. Keep practicing and perfecting your listening skills to keep those lines of communication open. Don’t take for granted that you know all they are experiencing and remain available to them for when they need to talk to you. They will, and it will be when you least expect it.
Angela Rudderham is the Director of Turning Tides Community Outreach, a division of Bridgeway Academy. For more information on Turning Tides programs for youth and workshops for parents and professionals, please visit www.turningtides.ca or call 902-444-TIDE (8433).