Today’s children and teens face many stressors and outright dangers. From bullying, to early pressures for involvement in sexual activity and drug use, to online predators and cyberbullying - we want to protect and help our kids, but we can only do so if we know about what is happening.
As children move towards the last few years of elementary school, and especially as they move into high school, many become less and less likely to tell a parent or other adult if they are being bullied or are in over their heads with a peer issue. Often this is because they feel that telling an adult won’t help or even that it might make the situation worse (because they will get in trouble or there will be “revenge” from peers). How can concerned caregivers set the stage so that it’s more likely that their child or teen will let them know what’s going on when it matters the most? Here are some tips:
- Build a relationship now that will help later. What you do when times are good is just as important as what you do when times are tough. Make time for building a strong relationship even when there is no “squeaky wheel” problem needing to be addressed.
- Spend time. “Quality time” is important, but quantity still matters. Regular face-to-face connection and time spent in the same place without our attention consumed by screens is important.
- Show interest in their interests. Maybe you’re not fascinated by the latest videogame, the details of a new move on the skateboard or which celebrity is dating which, but if your child is interested, hear them out. You don’t have to fake it; simply show that you are interested in them and want to hear their thoughts and opinions on the topics of their choosing. Spending time talking about anything helps them be comfortable in conversation with you in general.
- Know their friends. Take opportunities to meet their friends and have them around. Have them over to your home, offer to drive them places, and just be around. Be friendly and create an environment where you can get a sense of who they are with and what your child is like away from you.
- Say it – more than once. Although it may feel awkward, it’s important to explicitly let our kids know that we are in their corner and want them to be able to talk to us. Take opportunities to remind them when related topics come up while watching TV, talking about current events, hearing about things going on in their school or neighbourhood. In your own words, let them know: “I hope you would tell me if you are in trouble or having problems – you won’t be in trouble and I always want to help. “
- Model it. Demonstrate through your own conversations and actions that talking about feelings and reaching out to others for help is okay. Just make sure you keep good boundaries and don’t go so far as to be hampering your child or teen with “adult” problems – we can lean on other adults for those.
- Build trust. The way you handle conversations about “not huge” topics shows them how you will handle the big topics. To show respect and build trust:
- Be honest. This includes not making promises you can’t keep.
- Listen first. Don’t cut them off by correcting, assuming, jumping in with solutions or information. Ask questions to encourage them to elaborate.
- Validate. Try to put yourself in their shoes – show interest and understanding in how THEY feel and think – even if you don’t agree or wouldn’t feel or act the same way yourself.
- Hold the judgement. Feeling judged or shamed shuts down any conversation.
- Hold the solutions. They need to feel heard, understood, and cared about before they are ready to go into “problem-solving” mode. If you do later get into problem-solving, be collaborative – work together to include their ideas and input.
- Hold the lectures and punishment. When they first approach you with a concern, it is not the time for consequences and limit-setting – there is time for those later if they are needed. Your first objective is to let them know that they can come to you without it making things worse, and that you will try to help.
- Be open to being wrong – and admitting it. Ditto for admitting when you don’t have the answers.
- Be open to other help. Maybe there’s someone else who can help more than you – don’t take it personally if your child/teen feels more comfortable talking with an extended family member or other adult. The objective is to get them to open up so they can get the help they need.
- Leave the door open. One conversation doesn’t have to resolve everything. Let them know, in your own words: “You can always talk to me, I want to be here for you, and I care about you.”
Building a trusting and open relationship over time can pay important dividends in times of difficulty. A few simple (but not always easy!) steps and a bit of time spent each day by caregivers can create a safe environment for children and teens to come to us in times of need, whether it be testing the waters, looking for advice, or just seeking a listening ear. It’s never too late to start!