Helping Children Communicate

When my oldest son was a teenager he would come home from school in a sulky and uncommunicative mood. He would usually make a hamburger when he first walked in the door. If I said hi and asked him how his day had been he would say “fine”, cook his burger and take it into his room – clearly letting me know that he was not interested in talking.

I knew that his days had not been going “fine.” His grades had started to drop and I sensed that something difficult had happened with a girl that he liked.

I wanted to figure out a way to help him tell me more about what was going on. Remembering that it was sometimes easier for him to “open up” when I was driving the car or if I was involved doing a task I decided to keep “busy” the next day when he got home. As there was always a lot to do, it wasn’t hard to find something.

The next afternoon while I was occupied completing a thorough scrub of the counter and sink (a job that definitely needed doing) he came in, made his usual burger and decided to eat it at the kitchen table. Happy that he was at least staying nearby I kept my back turned to him and kept cleaning. I waited a bit and then offered a casual “How you doing?” I got back a few mumbles more than the usual “fine.”

Realizing that a few muttered words signified great progress I started cleaning the counter and sink every day when he first walked in the door even when I didn’t need to. I noticed that the scrubbing helped me be more relaxed about “needing” to know everything that was going on. As long as I appeared distracted, relatively uninterested and kept my eyes averted he started to talk more. I listened carefully to everything he said.

Of course the more I heard the more worried I became. I wanted to share lots of opinions as he very gradually complained about teachers and social pressures at his school. I offered a few genuinely empathetic responses such as “Sorry” “Or that sounds tough” but with great effort managed to literally “hold my tongue” and keep relatively quiet.

Every once in a while I asked open ended questions such as, “What was that like?”, “What did everyone else do?” or “What happened after that?” and he would tell me a bit more. Sometimes for no apparent reason he would suddenly head to his room and I would let him go.

After a bunch of listening, opinion free questions and a ridiculously clean kitchen he and I were on better terms and our conversations became easier. I understood a lot more about handling my “urgency” to have things be “better” for him and he was more able to talk about the details of his day and ask for my help. We never sorted everything through but we managed to talk over quite a few things.

I believe my attempts to find ways to “clean the kitchen” ultimately helped him feel less alone and more ready to turn to his family for support, understanding and guidance.

He now has his own family and although technically my stepson we remain very close to this day.