SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 1, 2013

Find creative ways to connect with teens

Dr. Kate Roberts
The Salem News

---- — Q: My 14-year-old son just entered high school, and for the first time, I feel like our communication has changed. We just don’t seem to talk anymore. He comes home, does his homework and in general seems happy enough, but he no longer shares with me. When I ask him how things are going, he just answers “everything’s fine.” Should I just accept this, or is there something I can do?

A: Parents typically feel out of the loop as their children become teenagers. One of your challenges will be accepting this and letting him have some independence. The good news is that he is doing what is asked of him and does not seem outwardly unhappy. (Even with well-adjusted children, parents do need to watch for warning signs like withdrawal accompanied by a sullen attitude, shutting down computer screens or hiding information, joining a whole new peer group, or dropping out of prior activities.) Your communication and involvement with your teenager will take on a different flavor as he grows up. Find creative ways to connect with him — yes, it’s more work on your part, but it’s worth it. Activities where you share common interests are a good place to build a new way of relating, where the connection is around the activity, instead of focusing on him and how he is doing and feeling.

Teenagers want their privacy, and finding a good balance of sharing can be challenging for parent and teen alike. Generally, teens will share openly with parents in their own good time. Preadolescents and adolescents desperately need time with the adults who are their caretakers, but they do not always recognize this. By building a connection around a shared interest, you can give your teen this time while keeping the communication channels open.

Parenting tip: Remember, your goal is to raise a child who has the skills and confidence to be successful on their own at age 18. “Letting go” and “being involved” are two very different things. You can’t micromanage a teenager, but you do need to remain knowledgeable about their Internet use, friends, whereabouts and school performance. The task of staying informed can be overwhelming, and no matter how much you trust your teen, do not assume they always exercise good judgment. Stay involved and on top of what they are doing, accepting that you do not need to know every last detail of their social life. If you overstep your boundaries, acknowledge this.

Q: Since my son entered first grade in the fall, he complains every day about going to school. He loved preschool and kindergarten — what’s wrong?

A: Ask him what is different about school this year. If he can’t be more specific than saying that he doesn’t want to go, review his schedule (school and extracurricular) and find out how he views the different parts of his day. Ask him if there is something outside of school that he dislikes, and ask about his friendships. Maybe his after-school schedule is too full and he’s too tired for school. It may have to do with your home life, not his school life. Perhaps there are changes in your schedule and you are home less often, making him miss you more when he’s away at school. Consider all these possibilities when a younger child complains and is unable to articulate the source of their discontent.

If your son does not come up with any answers after all this discussion, then tell him that though you don’t have the answer yet, you can clearly see he is troubled about something and that you intend to find out what the problem is and how you can help him. Next, schedule a parent-teacher conference and review your concerns with the teacher. Chances are that something will come up there that has not already been mentioned. If not, ask the school psychologist or adjustment counselor to conduct random observations of him to see if he is overtly unhappy during the school day. If they find nothing, do not dismiss his concerns; they are legitimate if he is unhappy about going to school. Your child should want to go to school; he does not have to love it every day (let’s be realistic), but he should not dread it daily, either.

Parenting tip: If your child is not a complainer and starts complaining, do not minimize it, whatever the cause. A child’s concerns are legitimate. That said, you do not have to overreact, either. Simply take the complaint seriously and make an internal commitment to do what it takes to resolve it with your son. Your child should not dislike school, since it is where he spends most of his time.

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Your questions can be answered by Dr. Kate Roberts in an upcoming column. She can be reached at kate@katerobertsandassociates.com. Roberts is a licensed psychologist with offices in Salem and Hamilton. Her private practice helps parents, children and families develop strategies to work through and solve their problems.