Q: I think something is going on with my son at school, but he won’t talk about it. What do I do?
A: It’s understandable to be concerned and to want to intervene and protect your child. Some of the considerations in answering this question, are the age of your child and what you are seeing that is causing your concern. If your child is totally isolating, isn’t engaging in the activities they used to enjoy and appears very depressed, this may require an evaluation and is therefore outside the scope of this article. Also, if your child is refusing to go to school, is failing classes or is coming home with physical injuries, there is, of course, cause for concern, and it would be advisable to seek out professional services.
However, if you are noticing some mild to moderate mood and behavioral changes, especially before or after school, and your child is not sharing with you what is going on, here are some suggestions.
Timing is everything. Make sure when you approach your child about anything, especially school, that it is not right after school or at a time when they are engaged in something else. While eating, or preparing or cleaning up after dinner is a good time, since you are somewhat distracted and a little less focused (for kids, read this as intense), which may make it easier for your child to share.
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Always leave the door open for your child to talk with you when they are ready. Kids don’t respond well to being pressured to share, especially on your timetable and if they are not sure what your reaction will be. Sometimes kids may not be willing to talk about it until the situation has ended or been resolved. If this is the case, take an active and affirmative approach to their sharing, thank them for opening up and remind them that they are never alone in their challenges and that you are always available to help.
Children will generally not share if they think you will react (kids see this as over-reacting), step in and take action. Kids need to feel a sense of control over situations that involve them, especially if it is in their domain (such as school). If they think you will race off to their school without their knowledge or input, this will shut them down in this situation and others in the future. Understand that when you do this, while you think you’re meeting the needs of your child, this is not their perception. And since they behave on their perceptions, not yours, the outcome of this may not be ideal in having an open, trusting relationship with your child. So, assure your child that you will work with them to address the issues they are facing and that you will explore and figure this out together. And then follow through on your commitment.
If time has gone by and your child had not been willing to open up about what is bothering them and they don’t seem better, give them options, other than continued silence. So for example you might say, “I’m concerned something is bothering you and that you haven’t wanted to talk with me about it. I know sometimes it’s not easy and I want to respect your privacy. However, I love you and can’t just ignore when you are having a hard time. So, if you’re not okay with talking with me about it, how about your [mother, father, grandparent or other trusted adult in the child’s life], or we can schedule to go talk with a counselor. I’m also open to any ideas you have, but we can’t just keep doing what we have been doing.”
Remember if want your child to trust you enough to share, you want to make sure you don’t express frustration, disappointment or anger about their struggle to open up.
Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW, is the owner of and a therapist at Change for Living Counseling in Raleigh.