Slamming doors. Rolling eyes. Heavy sighing. If you have a middle school age child, these may be common phenomena in your house. Sometimes it's hard to remember the sweet little child whose toes you kissed and who pleaded for one more good night kiss. But they're in there and they need you more than ever.
Rather than lashing out, try taking a deep cleansing breath. Slap a smile on your face and vow to find a better way to connect. It's an ongoing process that reaps tons of rewards.
Know When to Make Your Move
Getting information or details out of your child can sometimes feel like pulling a wagon uphill. It's a lot of work. The trick is to catch them at the right moment. Rather than volleying questions at them during dinner, try talking while the two of you are doing something else such as driving somewhere, walking the dog or cooking dinner. Sometimes when they are slightly distracted, it's easier for them to talk. Harry Harrison, author of 10 books including Father to Son and founder of the website www.raisingparents.com recommends taking a daily walk with your daughter and watching movies of her choice with her. Boys, he has found, will talk when eating, playing catch, looking at cars or building something. "The key is to not make a big deal about getting them talking, but to do active things with him. He'll talk." Your job is to just listen without being judgmental or offering unwanted advice.
Let Their Passion Lead the Way
Kids at this age tend to be very passionate about their current interests. Why not tag along? Follow their lead, whether it's sports or books, or find something that interests both of you such as cooking, running or music. "Whatever your teen's passion (if it's not unhealthy or unsavory) that should be your passion, even if you have to be a bit of a phony about it," explains Ellen Pober Rittberg, mother of three now-grown children and author of 35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You, So I Will. Find a way to encourage their interest.
Share Your Stories
Remember to share stories about the "olden days" when you were their age. Knowing that they're not alone and that you have experienced a similar situation or felt a certain way can be an extremely reassuring. Dig deep inside and bring out those memories of junior high. What was your passion? Who was your best friend? What was your most embarrassing moment? What teacher do you most remember? Talk about the fun times along with the more difficult or embarrassing moments. Let them know you survived it all.
Get Hooked Up
Many kids use texting, instant messaging and Facebook as a way to communicate and if you're not plugged in too, you may be missing a large chunk of their life. Ellen Kellner, parent-child coach and founder of www.theprochildway.com uses this analogy, "Just as you wouldn't send your child off to a party without knowing where the house is and who is going to be there, you shouldn't send your child off to ‘social media land' without first visiting it yourself." Sign up for an account, "friend" your child, and expand their "friend" circle to include other trusted adults. "Having other adults as ‘friends' serves as a gentle reminder that social media isn't private," Kellner explains.
Remember to keep the computer in a public location where they're less likely to veer off-track on the internet. If your child texts, you should too, particularly if this is the preferred method of communication for your child. Besides being a good way to connect, it can also be a discreet way for them to contact you if they get in a situation that makes them uncomfortable.
Drive, drive, drive
Offer to drive whenever you can. A group of kids laughing in a car can give you a good idea of what's going on in their lives. Kids are particularly talkative and excited after an event. Tune in and follow up when you get home, "Did things work out between Grace and Ryan?" "What do your friends think about Katie's gossiping? Has anyone ever gotten hurt by it?" Ask some leading questions (not yes or no) while doing another activity and see what comes up.
Root for a Sports Team or Follow a Reality Show
Following a favorite sports team is one of the most common examples of family bonding. It's just more fun to follow along and keep up on the players and game plans when others share your interest. It can also provoke a fun, friendly rivalry within the house. Already follow a team? Up the ante and join a fantasy league together.
If sports aren't your thing (or aren't your child's) try a reality contest show. American Idol, Survivor, and The Biggest Loser are some frequently cited programs that parents enjoy watching with their kids. These shows not only give you something to discuss but the real life stories of the contestants is good fodder for conversation openers.
The middle school years are a period of push-pull. So often this age group pushes away just as they most need you to pull them in. Set firm boundaries. Be a parent. And pay attention. Use this time to take your relationship to a new level and try to really enjoy the person they are becoming. Just be sure to occasionally check the hinges on their door.
Laura Amann is a freelance writer with four children, two of whom are currently in middle school. Her door hinges are all well-oiled.