HomeHealth & Behavior

Talking to your middle-schooler: The top-three mistakes parents make

Avoid these conversational pitfalls to improve communication with your child.

By Valle Dwight

When you’re ready to sit down and have a chat with your adolescent — whether it's to find out how his day went or to discuss more serious topics like homework, his behavior, or his friends — there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. And if you happen to try the latter, you may well run smack-dab into a dead end.

“Talking to our children in a way that lets them express what is on their mind is extremely important,” explains Dr. Atilla Ceranoglu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “Talking to children from early on keeps both child and parent attuned to one another. It is solid preparation for the more stormy, tumultuous days of adolescence.”

An expert in parent-child communication, Ceranoglu offers tips on how to avoid the most common mistakes parents make when trying to get the conversational ball rolling with their children.

Navigating minefields with your tween

Parent: “We need to talk.”
Child (rolls eyes): “Oh, brother.”
Parent: “Look, I’m just a little worried about some of those kids you’ve been hanging out with. I don’t think they’re good for you.”
Child: “What’s wrong with them? You’re always telling me to be open to people! You’re such a hypocrite! I can’t believe you!” (Child stomps off and slams door.)

Ceranoglu has a mentor (a pet lover, apparently) who describes child development with a nice analogy: Infants and toddlers are like puppies. You can cuddle them all you want, kiss them, and hug them endlessly — they cannot get enough of you. But teenagers are like cats: They tend to avoid you most of the time, and once in a blue moon they will seek out your attention. The moment you try to touch them, however, they run away.

Trying to maintain and build a relationship with your middle-schooler is crucial to surviving the often-rocky teen years. And just as you know not to run headlong at a skittish cat, there are wrong ways to approach preteens and young teens:

  1. Waiting for a crisis. When tensions are high, your child is not going to be in a position to open up to you. Engage early and often, before there is a problem. This way you will develop a rapport with your child that will be very important when an actual crisis arises. “Remember, it’s impossible to build a bridge in the middle of a quake, but a bridge built earlier may be flexible and sturdy enough to ward off a quake when it comes,” says Ceranoglu. “A relationship is just like that. Its foundation and flexible nature are important ingredients of happiness.”
  2. Taking the too-direct approach. You’re probably not going to get a lot out of your child if you say, “Let’s sit down and talk.” Instead, do something together your child likes and let the conversation happen. Spending more time with him now will help build the bridges you’ll need later. “Your consistent presence in your child’s life will help your child feel comfortable with talking to you if something bothers him,” says Ceranoglu.
  3. Letting the opportunity pass. Your child may seem to be always pushing you away, but that doesn’t mean he really wants you to disappear! Be vigilant about observing his mood, and approach him when you see a chance to talk or do something together.

What works

Even if you manage to avoid these common mistakes, your child may still not be a little chatterbox, but that’s normal. All you can do is let him know that you are around and ready whenever he is, and be prepared to drop whatever you’re doing when your child wants to talk. Don’t worry, you won’t have to keep dropping things for the rest of your life, because once your child is convinced of your genuine interest, you will have built a relationship that encourages true communication.


Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"My grandchildren lost their mother to breast cancer when they were 15 and 10. I moved back to the area hoping to help with their future without their mother. I am vary concerned abought my grandson now 14. He seems to be vary withdrawn from everybody. He says he hates school and only does what is required of him. He is a smart kid. How can I get him to want to excell to love to learn again. He used to read a lot but could care less about books now. I am scared for his future and don't believe his school has done enough to help him through this. "
"I was reading your story and do relate. I have a good relationship with my daughter and we do talk. As I read your article you always refer to the child as a boy. I think it should be he or she not just about a boy. We do need to talk to our daughters not just a son. Thanks for your ideas. "
"I thought that there would be more suggestions as to how to relate in a better way with your preteenager. This article did not say very much."
"thank u for this information is very helpful. I was having problems with my daugther and was hard for me to understand. i was very sad and i didnt know how to handle this situation. Every child is different my son tells me everything every day he is a giffted student i have no problems with him so ever."
"TV can help. If my boy and I watch shows that have parents trying to deal with kids his age, it seems easy for him to express his expectations/frustrations/ideals in our relationship. I can get him to understand that sometimes, even when I try hard, I make mistakes too. Is there anything television CAN'T do?"
"Ha! So so so so so so so wrong! This whole article was FLIPPED! My child, who is almost 15, comes up to me every single day after school and pours out everything that happens! He talks so much that I don't even get a moments peace! I have to yell at him to make him finally realize that I NEED A MOMENT AFTER WORK TO CHANGE INTO MY REGULAR CLOTHES. I don't see why that is so hard for him to understand."
"One thing I noticed help me was asking how her friends were doing sometimes and she began telling me some of their problems and I offered support with a little advice, then later she would tell me about a friend with a problem or had a question but really I know it was her but didn't let on and just gave advice. She continues to come back to talk when she has a concern. "
"I am worried about my 10yr old. He is entering 6th grade in a publicc school. He's never been to public school, and this is a new school, new environment, larger than he is used to. He worries about bullying,_he is a little apprehensive_while I worry about him. He's an excellent student, good caring kid, any teacher would love to have him in his/her class. But I don't know how to reassure him that he'll be find there, not having any experience in the public school myself. I try to talk to him, but scared to say the wrong thing. I'm scared for him to be misunderstood by other kids,taken as weak(and he's not) but he's so forgiving, don't want to wrong someone.... so help. At least I know we have our talks sometimes. He may initiate it or I may, but this time I'm worried myself."
"I hear you, Call of Duty conversations are frustrating but I pretend to listen even if I don't understand any of it because that's what he's into. If this creates another way to connect with him, I'm all for it. "
"To the Xbox parent: Maybe communication isn't your biggest problem at the moment. You may want to try putting the Xbox in the trash."
"I also have a 12-year-old that only wants to talk about video games, and I have absolutely no interest, but I try to listen to let him know those communication lines are open. I dread the day when he doesn't want to talk about anything, even x-box. I'm hoping that by listening to the 'nonsense' he will see that I care and that I am available and that I'll be available when he has something more important to talk about. "
"Nice article but what do you do when every conversation, offer, or word is met with glares and your child has nothing but anger"
"great advice. I will try it."
"Do I have to stop what I'm doing to listen to XBox 360 details about 'Call of Duty' war games? It seems to be all my 12-year-old wants to talk about and it is just nonsense to me."
"I'm a Grandmother now. My children are grown. I wish this had been available to me when my boys were in middle school. This is the time of transition. My husband was on the road most of the time and I had to raise them. But, now I have a Granddaughter and she's a teen, from a broken home. She doesn't like to talk much. I listen and let her talk. She's slowly getting better. This information will be valuable for her parents. Thank you."
"I like the analogy of the cat for how to engage the tween in conversation. In my job, I stress the development of relationships pro-actively, appropriate silence, and just being there non-judgmentally. "
"I find talking to mine in the car is a good environment. Sometimes they pretend they aren't listening, but one good thing about the car is that they can't get that far away. I'm careful about what I say here. Don't want to get into arguments while driving. I tell about something interesting that happened, for example. I try not to demand too much. Fortunately, I can't see them rolling their eyes, and this is actually an advantage. "
"Really appreciable!"
"I miss the days when my son's eyes would light up when I walked into the room. Now I have to settle for my cat's affection. Luckily, he thinks he is a dog."
"Boy, I needed that! Thank you!"