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Get Your Kid to Open Up

Tina Rupp

Remember when you had a toddler who never stopped talking and asking questions? There were days you probably wished you could wear earplugs, just to get a little peace and quiet. Then, almost overnight, your kid clammed up. Or perhaps he was a little on the quiet side to begin with, then bloomed into a full-fledged introvert.

Welcome to the tween and pretween stage. A common side effect of not being little anymore: Talking with Mom may be the last thing on a kid's mind.

The good news, though, is that you can jump-start the conversation again. To get it going, take a look at moms' biggest worries on the conversation front, and simple solutions for staying connected:

"I think my son is anxious and stressed, but he just won't say what's bothering him. I don't know if it's school or friends or what."

Imagine what it might feel like for your son to say, "Hey there, Mom. I'm starting to have some feelings about girls. Can we chat?" Ain't gonna happen. It can be scary or embarrassing for him to bring up touchy topics. And a lot of topics are touchy to kids this age. Try a tactful game of 20 Questions.

"Open with something such as, 'It seems like you're upset. Do you want me to try to guess what's bothering you?' Then ask your child to tell you if you're hot or cold," suggests Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Hewlett, NY. You could also ask if he wants to write a note for you to read—either right away or after he's in bed. Anything that takes your child off center stage may help him open up. If he's not ready to talk, let him know you're always available later, and then let it go for now.

Sometimes the indirect approach works even better. When you're hanging out with your child and he's feeling comfortable, resist the urge to probe. Beat around the bush a little instead. Ask a question like "Hey, if you were interviewed by a reporter, what would you tell him are the best things about fourth grade? And the worst?" Or "If a genie gave you three wishes right now, what would they be? And if the genie could erase three things that really worry you, what would those be?"

Yes, your smart kid may figure out what you're up to. But that's okay, according to Zelinger. If he really does want to tell you what's on his mind, he just needs a safe way to do it.

"My kid's never been much of a talker. Am I doomed now?"

This is a tough one—especially for parents with a natural gift of gab, like Mary MacRae Warren of Brooklyn. She has no problem saying what she feels, but her son? No amount of pushing can get 10-year-old Azar Shrestha to open up when he doesn't want to. So Warren changed tactics.

"My dirty little secret is that I started playing video games, watching cartoons, reading comics—things my son likes," says Warren. "Every now and then when we're talking about these things, I can slip in something else." Sneaky? Perhaps, but also loving, because you're finding common ground with your child, says Adele Faber, coauthor of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. You can also try to notice other times your quiet child seems receptive to conversation. "Boys, particularly, seem to open up a bit more when they're sitting beside you rather than face-to-face. So keep your ears open when you're alone with him on a car ride or working on a project together at the kitchen table," says Zelinger.

Just remember to let your child start the conversation—and then to listen without judging or jumping right in to offer advice. Even if your child complains about friends or school, don't dismiss what he's saying or try to talk him out of what he's feeling. "That's the fastest way to get him to clam up again," says Faber. "Instead, nod to let him know you're actively listening, or say something neutral like 'Oh, that's what's bothering you.' Or 'Sounds as if that could be pretty upsetting.' The idea is to let him know that you really do get what he's trying to tell you."