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How to Talk to Your Tween-Aged Kids

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It happened overnight, which I hear is really quite typical. My 11-year-old, Aden, got in the car after basketball practice. I expected to hear the usual: whether he'd made any half-court shots, how Drake was a ball hog, and their odds of getting to the playoffs. I got: crickets. I thought he was coming down with a cold. Later, the coach told me how exciting that practice had been: He'd announced that the championships were clinched, and they were going in number one in the eastern division. How was Aden not bursting with news that big? When I demanded “Why didn't you tell me?!” his murmured reply signaled the end of conversation as I knew it: “I dunno."

“The years from ten to twelve see a developmental push toward independence similar to the one from infant to toddler. The big difference is that you're afraid of this transition. Nobody's pulling out the camera to immortalize the closed bedroom door, like they did when the same child took her first steps,” explains Julie Ross, author ofHow to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years.

There are other tectonic shifts afoot: Pleasing you is no longer top priority. “Budding hormones have begun to subconsciously signal that their future mate will be found in the peer group, not in the living room. Thus, they don't feel the same need to get your approval as they did when their survival depended on you,” says Annie Fox, author of the Middle School Confidential series. Ouch.

Yet chatting can unearth problems, like bullying. “If you give up on trying to talk to your tween, you may end up judging him only on visible markers—like grades—which can make him feel misunderstood,” says Neil McNerney, a licensed family counselor in Reston, VA. Try these tips on how to talk to your kids.

1. Create a routine Talk to your kid on a regular basis (about anything). He'll sense there is an ongoing dialogue he can pick up anytime. Try post-dinner dog walks, Saturday-morning pancake breakfasts, shooting hoops after school—they create a setting to connect without it feeling forced.

2. Leverage car rides Kids often respond in the car because you're not face to face. Watch for similar low-pressure opportunities to chat—when raking leaves or washing the car. Ask specific but open-ended questions, like “What part of the day do you want to tell me about?” or “Why do you like hanging out at Jeremy's so much?” If you get a blank stare, wait it out. When given breathing room, kids may start to talk.

3. Play more Games are another activity that makes kids comfortable because the focus isn't on them. Dinner at the White House includes “Roses and Thorns,” an activity in which each Obama family member describes something good (and not so good) that happened that day. You can also add a twist to your Jenga game: Write questions on each block (“What's your favorite band?” “What really annoys you?”). For get-talking games to buy, check out page 102.

4. Encourage questions It isn't just about getting the dish on your tween. It's also about showing her the back and forth of good communication. Invite her to ask how your day was. This teaches her empathy and makes her more likely to reach out to you…and others.

5. Bite your tongue Discussion will wind down the minute you go into “When I was your age…” mode. Try not to dole out advice unless asked. When tempted, consider how many times you've already shared your opinion on that topic. Twice? Don't repeat it; he knows where you stand. When you're too quick to tell him what to do, he may feel judged and he'll shut down.

6. Know how to advise Yes, you'll need to give your kid advice eventually. Just try to do it in the least preachy way possible. It can be more effective to wait and come back with “I was thinking about what you said, and I'd like to give you some ideas.” Follow with a prompt: “What do you think about that?”

7. Check in en route If you take mass transit to work, try texting or calling on the way home. This will give you an idea of what kind of mood she's in. You'll also buy time to think about any issues that might need addressing, preparing you for a more relaxed exchange when you get there.