"Her grades are plummeting and she seems so unhappy after school every day. I'm asking why, but she's not answering."
Laura Neiman's daughter claimed that everything was fine at school. But Neiman's spidey-sense started tingling when 11-year-old Kayley couldn't tell her what she was supposed to be studying. The Denver mom knew something didn't add up, so she contacted her daughter's teachers and guidance counselor and found out her intuition was exactly right. "Kayley was completely behind, failing nearly all of her classes!" says Neiman.
If you too have tried to talk to your child but can't get through, it may be time to get in touch with the school. You might get some new information that makes it easier to start the conversation at home. Worried that you're going behind your child's back? Get over it, advises clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. "You're expected to be your child's advocate when she's this young," says Cohen-Sandler. "And talking to her teachers isn't the same thing as reading her diaries. It's another way to get information."
There can be other reasons for unhappiness that are hard for kids to articulate: bullies, fickle friends, embarrassment in gym class. Your child's teachers may have insight into all of these things; a new perspective may be just what you need to help you break through to your kid. In Neiman's case, school officials helped Kayley drop a class and offered her counseling for her anxiety. It worked—much to the relief of both daughter and mother.
"I don't know why he isn't talking to me—he just has so much less to say than he used to."
Your son used to tell you about everything, from neighborhood-kid battles to the latest music fads. Now he just rolls his eyes and says, "Mom, you totally don't understand." Being shut out this way can feel almost as painful as childbirth. But hang in there—this is usually just a phase. "The truth is that kids this age aren't pulling away from you, really. They're pulling closer to their peers," says Cohen-Sandler. Tweens especially are hypersensitive about what their friends think of them and how they fit in, so that part of their life is probably getting more attention than family right now.
Try this secret weapon: Car pool. "Offer to drive your child and his friends somewhere, then fade into the background. You'll overhear just about everything you want to know: Which kids are 'dating,' who's getting in trouble. The kids will forget you're there!" suggests Cohen-Sandler. (But don't throw in a comment—the chattering could cease, or they might start texting each other instead!)
Luann Udell of Keene, NH, used just that method when her son, Doug, was 12. While driving Doug and a friend to the movies, she finally heard her increasingly sullen boy chattering like his old self. "It was wonderful to hear him simply talking and laughing again," says Udell. "And though he still makes us want to tear our hair out at times, that experience made me realize his behavior is normal, and something he'll eventually outgrow."
One more thing: Watch for those few-and-far-between moments when your child actually reaches out to you. If he used to love going out to breakfast with you and doesn't totally balk at it now, hang on to that special routine. Or if your usually standoffish daughter plops down beside you while you're watching TV, pay attention. In tween language, that's sending a loud-and-clear "Hey, Mom! I need you!" (Wouldn't you know it'd happen right in the middle of The Office? That must be why DVR was invented.)
Teri Cettina is a writer and mom of two daughters—the elder of whom (age 11) looked over her shoulder while she was working on this article and asked, "Geez, Mom. Why are you writing about me again? Can't you do real work like other moms?"