It can be a really frustrating experience when you get no response from your child. You are convinced you are doing your best to communicate with them, but there really doesn’t seem to be much (if anything) coming back. Are they hearing me at all? I just want to understand them; their day; their friends; their concerns, but I can’t seem to get through. Why isn’t my child talking to me?
Outside of any physical problems (hearing loss etc.), what I'm talking about here is the gap between the attentive presence of a child responding to the call, “Does anyone want to lick the chocolate cake mixing bowl?” and the closed lips or short grunts when you ask about school or why they look sad.
There may be more than these three reasons why your child is not talking, so don’t get discouraged if none of the ideas below apply to you. Each kid is different and each parent is different. It really is ok to keep trying things that you think will help your child engage with your questions. The care and time you take will send a powerful message to your child (even though they don’t fully understand it for many years to come).
So here are three reasons you could consider, next time you feel like you child isn’t really talking to you:
1. Some children are tellers, others are vaults
People use words in varying amounts. In the talk economy, some of us are like teller machine and others are like a vault. Some are ready to share, with lots of details, and others are cautious spenders of their words.
It’s probably going to be helpful to be clear that this is not a gender thing. You may have heard that women use more words a day than men, but this popular theory is not supported by any proper study . So, whether your child is a boy or girl is less important than how freely they spend their words.
You might use five paragraphs to describe your day, but your child will use five words. They really feel like they are offering as much detail as you need – not realising that you are hungry for more. So if this is your situation, remember the difference between a teller machine and vault – offering a few words might be everything they want to say.
It’s going to help if you can learn how to be content with the vault-like child. But it will also be good to offer follow-up questions that invite another five words. Maybe talking while doing something else might allow a little more spending, or finding their favourite topic, to get the talking started, before jumping over to your question about them.
2. Dealing with feelings can be a brain drain
When we experience something sad or worrying, a whole bunch of emotions kick in to make sure that we are paying attention to this part of our lives. As feelings arrive and we start to work on dealing with them and responding to them, we start to use brain capacity that would normally be available for other things. And maybe that other thing is talking.
Psychologists talk about people being ‘flooded’ to describe the experience of being so overwhelmed by their feelings, they have no capacity for anything else at that moment (until they calm down, that is).
Maybe something that has just happened has caused strong feelings for your child, and even though your deepest desire is to talk with them about this problem, they go silent. You are frustrated that they are unwilling to share and talk about what’s happening for them. But it is possible that dealing with strong feelings is using up some extra brain capacity, and the power of speech is somewhat momentarily lost to them.
This is the time for you to communicate your care without words and without trying to start a conversation. A hug, a hand on the shoulder or rubbing their back are all calming forms of contact. These not only help communicate your care, but they also assist in how you child calms down. And doing this gives you something to do when you would love nothing more than to help your child and solve all their problems for them.
3. The ‘silent treatment’ can be a form of punishment
If you are reading this article, chances are that you enjoy a good chat. Whenever you can, wherever you are, there is always room for a conversation. It is equally likely that your child has noticed this about you and is using it against you.
If your child feels hurt or angry, they may be trying to tell you that by not talking to you. The ‘silent treatment’ is a way that we try to communicate – just not a very good one, because it is open to misunderstanding and often comes from a place of hurt.
Depending on the depth of the hurt feelings and your child’s tenacity (you might think of it as stubbornness), they might run the ‘silent treatment’ for some time. And the more you try to start conversation, the more they attempt to punish you by not responding.
In these moments it can help to have what we call a ‘meta-conversation’, or a conversation about having conversations. Ask a question like: ‘Are you not ready to talk right now?’ or ‘Have I done something to hurt you?’ It may be the case that some effort to address the hurt feelings is needed. Alternatively, you might want to communicate that you are ready to listen whenever they are ready to talk – make the offer with no strings attached, and low expectation of response
Relationships are complex and changing
Please remember, you are changing and your child is growing and changing too. It is only natural that the relationship you have will also be complex and changing. This means that what works one day might not be so useful the next day.
It may be that one of the ideas above turns out to be helpful in how you approach conversations with your child. It may be that you have your own idea on how to grow your relationship with your child – the efforts you make are worth it, even when it doesn’t always feel like it. So keep offering the opportunities to communicate, and stay patient. That's the best ground for growing relationships and getting the conversation started again.
For more articles from Growing Faith, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.
To hear about the latest books and resources from Youthworks Media, subscribe here.