Talking with kids: When less is more

Twelve-year-old Liam was having an off afternoon. He had seemed fine when he came home from school, but within 45 minutes he had gotten into a fight with his older brother, Jacob, while the two were playing ball outside. When I brought Liam inside to create some distance between them, I let him pace around huffing and puffing (and grunting) for a while before I sat him down to talk.

The conversation began with him blaming Jacob for every unhappiness. Nothing was fair. He was expected to do all the work in the house. Jacob didn’t have to do anything. Jacob didn’t get in trouble because he was older. Jacob criticized Liam for everything. Jacob got to stay up late; Liam’s bedtime was too early. Jacob got more dessert. As Liam listed all his troubles, I had a logical reply to discount each one, but somehow I knew I shouldn’t say anything at all—I should just listen. Finally, when Liam paused, I asked:

“Are you afraid we love Jacob more?” Liam’s eyes widened as if he couldn’t believe I was saying this out loud.

“No,” he finally said. In the silence after his reply, I wanted to list all the proof I had that Liam’s statements over the past ten minutes weren’t true. But, again, I decided that wasn’t what Liam needed, and I kept quiet.

“What is it, then?” I said.

Liam looked at me, and his eyes watered.

“I miss Jacob,” he said. “Now that he’s in high school, he doesn’t have as much time to play with me anymore. He’s at stage crew, or he’s online with his friends, and I don’t see him as much anymore. We used to be friends and brothers, but lately I feel like we’re just brothers, not friends. And I miss him. And I know that it’s going to get even worse when he goes to college.”

Liam’s admission took my breath away, it was so honest and insightful. All the statements I had prepared to show the error of his original complaints evaporated—Liam didn’t need them anymore. In the course of a conversation, Liam had moved from being angry at Jacob to examining his true issue with his brother—fear of losing him as a friend.

Once we arrived at what Liam’s fear was, we were able to talk about some things we could put in place to help him feel closer to his brother again.

While many parents like to imagine having heart-to-hearts with their children to help them through difficult times, meaningful conversations with kids can be challenging. Parents used to providing all the answers can be tempted to pop those answers into conversations before a child has even expressed the whole problem. Kids are also notoriously bad communicators—often, like Liam, they know something is wrong, but identify an incorrect source of the problem. It is a skilled listener who can resist the urge to pounce on the easy fix, rather than wait for the real issue to surface.

Less is more, especially in the beginning: When a child is trying to talk through an issue, the beginning of the conversation is often shrill and fraught with emotion. “With my older daughter, I reacted to everything she said, especially if it was directed toward me; I always had a response,” says Tracy, mother of two teen girls. “Through some bad conversations, I learned that it’s so much better to remain quiet in the beginning. She got more rational as she talked—she was sorting it out on her own. If I jump in too quickly, I erase the potential of the conversation.”

Rituals can help conversation: Time is hard to come by in family life, so you have to turn existing opportunities into a ritual for conversation. “The only time I’m alone with my son is when we drive to swim practice a couple times a week,” Mark says. “We have a rule that he can’t have his iPod on. I use the time to ask him about what’s going on at school.”

Look for what’s underneath the words: “I try to listen for the emotion. If he’s talking about some guys not inviting him over, is he angry or discouraged or embarrassed about it?” Sara says, speaking of her 11-year-old son’s feelings of being left out. “I can’t make them invite him over, but I can help him manage his emotions, sort out his feelings, and decide on his next step.”

—by Annemarie Scobey  from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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