At the end of the class I’m currently teaching, “Sugar and Spice…Considering Our Teen Girls,” a mom approached me to chat about how to improve the conversation she has with her middle school girl. Mom is concerned that her daughter just doesn’t talk with her, that she bottles things up. Mom worries that this might not be good for her daughter’s mental health…if not now, then down the line.
It got me to thinking about why it might be that our daughter does not talk to us. First of all, of course, there’s the possiblity that our girl is a quiet, interior type of person, one who “keeps her own counsel.” This type of kid can be challenging, especially if Mom is outgoing or chatty. It’s been my observation that if our kid is a certain way, chances are quite good that someone in the family shares a similar temperament. Or models a similar behavior. Just because our kid is different from us doesn’t mean she is flawed. I think of how many times I WISH I’d kept my own counsel, code for keeping my mouth shut when I should have!
The second thought I have on this situation is that as our teens grow up, there seems to be a natural “veil of privacy” which descends over their lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up to no good…they just want to “own” their own lives. Keeping us at a distance may be a clue that we need to take a step back, allowing this natural independence…especially if they’re managing their lives pretty well. We may wish to retreat a bit and remain watchful from a distance. Be sure to let your girl know when she’s getting it right and acknowledge ways her good judgement and self control are growing so well. (what we affirm, we get more of!)
But one more thought of kid’s unwillingness to converse is what one boy told me: “I don’t talk to my mom because she’s either gathering ammo or going to spread it on the Mother Grapevine!” In all the years of my work with teens, I have NEVER heard kids complaining about their fathers gossiping or telling the kid’s business to others. I’m sorry to report, it’s always moms. And the truth is, how willing would you be to share intimate details of your life if you were pretty sure the listener would then broadcast those details to who know where? Your girl might be wise to not share with you if you’ve been untrustworthy.
This brings us to “The Pinky Pledge.” You may recall this from elementary school. “If I tell you this secret, you can’t tell. Cross your heart. Give me your Pinky Pledge that you won’t tell!” The deal is that often teens don’t talk with us because they don’t want us to blab. One idea is to re-introduce The Pinky Pledge. I’d do this with younger kids, probably around the dinner table. When I have something I want to tell my family but don’t want others to know, I’d invoke the Pinky Pledge, vowing my kids to keep my confidence. There are, after all, some things we discuss only in the family, e.g. Dad’s raise or Aunt Zelda’s drinking. Get your kids in the habit of keeping confidences within the family. (I’d entrust young kids with lesser confidences in case they can’t keep them.) As kids round the bend into adolescence, I’d remind them again that I am trustworthy. But you have to BE TRUSTWORTHY too. This can be very difficult for moms especially.
There a couple of exceptions you may wish to make with your teens. The first one is, if you tell me, you’re telling dad/mom too. We’re a team. The second exception is, if you tell me you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, I have to do/tell something about that. You may also want to include, if you tell me that someone else is going to hurt themselves or someone else, I have to tell.
As teens go through adolescence and on into young adulthood, they need a safe place to talk, to sort, to figure things out. The sooner we become “safe” for them, the sooner they learn that we will allow them to talk, to sift, to sort, the sooner they are likely to confide in us.
How well are you keeping your daughter’s (or son’s) confidences? How would it work for you to institute the Pinky Pledge at your house? How might things change if you were more trustworthy?
As ever, I love to hear your responses.
Hi Kathleen, I completely agree! Keeping our kids confidences is so important. I was burned once by the Mommy Grapevine and resolved 1) never to go to a mom happy hour again, and 2) never to tell one certain mom anything. For example, once my daughter got in trouble for breaking a very important rule, and was grounded for many weeks. My husband and I told her we would not tell anyone why she was grounded – only that she broke a rule – to protect her privacy. We got a lot of questions, but stuck to our plan. I think we earned a lot of credit from her on that.
I also look for specific ways and times to encourage my teenage daughter to open up. Sharing late nights in front of the TV or taking a trip to the coffee shop are both strategies I use.