Gail’s son Jamie stormed into the kitchen. School was out, and the 13-year-old usually settled down at the table with Gail and ate whatever snack she set out, chattering about his day, his plans and what his friends were up to.
But not today. Instead, Jamie stormed upstairs without even a greeting to Gail.
“Hey,” Gail called out after Jamie. “Don’t I even get a hello?”
Gail had raised Jamie as a single mother since he was 5, and the two were extremely close. Over the years, Jamie grew into a smart, curious, talkative boy wits, and their after-school conversations were Gail’s favorite part of the day.
Worried, Gail headed upstairs and knocked on Jamie’s bedroom door. After no response, she opened the door. Jamie lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t look at Gail as she crept into the room.
“What’s going on, bug?” she asked.
“Nothing,” answered Jamie. But it was clear from the dark look on his face that something happened.
“Want to talk about it?” Gail asked. She wanted to cuddle Jamie like she used to when he was smaller — he used to wrap his little arms around her and bury his face in his shoulder as he cried. But he looked anything but cuddly at the moment.
Jamie just turned away from her. “Leave me alone.”
“Mom, just leave me alone!” Jamie snapped.
Gail backed out of the room. She went back to her empty kitchen, mind racing. “Everyone has a bad day,” she thought. “He’ll be back to normal soon.” But with a mother’s sure intuition, she knew something changed.
From that day on, Jamie went from a chatty, happy kid to a sullen teen. He was morose and silent, withdrawn into his own thoughts. When he did talk to Gail, he was irritable. He once loved to spend hours outdoors and play sports; now he just moped in his room, staring at the walls or ceilings as he played music.
Gail was distressed as the change in behavior went on for weeks. She called her son’s counselor and teachers, but Jamie’s grades and behavior were still good, though they said he was a little quieter than usual.
She talked to his soccer coach and his weekend art teacher — they didn’t notice anything different about Jamie.
She even tried to fish for information from Jamie’s friends and their parents when she ran into them in the store or at school events. But Jamie got wind of what Gail was doing and yelled at her to stop.
“I can’t help it,” she said to her son as they argued about it. “You’re not telling me what’s wrong. I’m worried.”
“There’s nothing to worry about!” And once again, Jamie shut Gail out.
Gail was paralyzed. She felt cut off from the most important person in her life. She worried she was being a bad mother. She also just missed her son’s company. Jamie was becoming a stranger to her.
In her desperation, she hit up parenting blogs and books, looking for any tips about improving communication with her tween. There was no shortage of advice.
Psychologists recommend, for example, approaching conversations with teens and tweens with a sense of open-mindedness and non-judgment.
Instead of immediately turning every instance of conflict into a lecture, parents like Gail should ask open-ended, curious questions. Don’t judge kids’ decisions right away, though you might be worried — instead, try to empathize with their concerns before you gently remind them of other priorities and alternatives.
For example, if your teen puts off her homework because she’s texting with her best friend, try to empathize with the importance of her social life before gently reminding her of her schoolwork’s priority and helping her think of ways she can better manage her time.
It’s also important that parents with teens and tweens learn to communicate with calm, leaving high emotions out of conversations. Remember the acronym “H.A.T.E.” — hungry, angry, tired or edgy — and avoid trying to talk when you or your teen are feeling any of these.
But often it’s hard not to take your child’s decisions and behaviors personally. Parents need to remember that teens’ actions and behavior are often not reflections of their parenting, but reflect the natural limitations of teens’ not-yet-developed skill sets and discernment. Parents don’t need to fix their teens, but guide them in making better choices.
Gail thought this was all good advice, and she could see where she was going wrong. She approached each interaction with Jamie with a sense of imminent catastrophe, and she was being needy — two other big no-nos when it comes to communicating with young teens.
But Gail’s problem was also a bit different. “How do you get someone to talk to you, when he doesn’t even want to?” she asked rhetorically. “I can do better at being more open and less ‘loaded’ in talking with Jamie, but how do I even open up the dialogue in the first place when he won’t even interact with me?”
At her wit’s end, she broke down and complained about it at a coffee date with her best friend Hana, who had a tween daughter of her own.
Hana shook her head, as Gail related her travails to her friend. “You’ll never get Jamie to crack if you go about it that way,” Hana said.
“But I’m doing what all the experts say,” Gail said.
Hana shook her head again. “You’re trying to talk to Jamie like he’s a mature adult already,” Hana reasoned. “You have to meet them where they’re at, at least at first.”
“What do you mean?”
Hana gestured to their cell phones, laying between them on the table. “That’s how kids communicate these days,” Hana said. “Texts. Emoji. Twitter replies.”
Gail was always opposed to this kind of interaction with children: adults trying to talk to kids at their level, trying to be cool. She Had even balked at Jamie getting a phone and a Facebook account, until she realized how much more convenient it was for them.
Even now, she and Jamie used their phones in a strictly utilitarian manner, to coordinate rides and such, and she monitored his Facebook. She had a philosophy of not overusing tech. The idea of having important discussions take place over such an impersonal device felt weird to her.
Maybe Hana was right, though. After all, teens sent at least an average of 60 texts a day, according to Pew Research Center’s landmark 2012 study.
And Gail was so distraught she’d try anything. “You mean I have to try to talk to him over text or something?” Gail asked suspiciously.
“Not have the whole discussion, but send out the opening salvos or something,” Hana counseled. “Start off small, just like a ‘Hi, how are you?’ text. Then, once they’re in the habit of texting with you, maybe try going a little deeper. Just go slow and don’t rush. Otherwise you seem anxious and that makes them anxious as well.”
Gail was dubious about Hana’s approach, but figured she had nothing to lose. She had a good opportunity the next day, when she texted Jamie that she was running late to pick him up from baseball practice. “Sorry to be late,” she texted, remembering Hana’s advice to keep conversations light and casual at the beginning. “How was practice?”
Jamie texted back one word: “Fine.” Gail was discouraged, but one word was better than nothing, she rationalized. And when she did pick him up, it was easier to segue into a conversation about his practice.
So she kept going. She’d text Jamie that she was on the way to pick him up, then ask how his day was going. She’d confirm she was on her way to pick him up from a movie and ask what he thought. It wasn’t the easy-going give and take of their earlier dynamic, but at least it was some kind of exchange. And Jamie seemed to relax once his mother stopped probing him so much about how he was feeling.
Then, one day, Jamie came home from school once again in a foul mood, heading up to his room without even a glance at his mother sitting at the table.
Before, this would’ve upset Gail, and for a moment she panicked. But now she waited a few minutes. And then she picked up her phone.
“You want burgers or hot dogs for dinner?” she texted. “We have ice cream, too.” For fun, she typed in the ice cream emoji.
Jamie texted back in a few minutes. The message was three emoji: the burger, the ice cream cone and a thumbs-up.
Gail carefully considered her next message: “Everything okay? You seem kind of down.” She pondered whether or not it was too much. Then she decided to swap out “down” for a sad-faced emoji instead. She hit “send.” She thought ruefully that she had never agonized over how to communicate with someone so much since dating Jamie’s dad.
Surprisingly, Jamie replied almost right away. “I’m OK,” he texted.
“Just okay?” Gail texted back. She sent a frowning emoji as well. She felt a little silly, but strangely appreciated how emojis both communicated the truth and also allowed a comfortable distance from the emotional reality. How bad could talking about sadness be if you did it through cartoonish icons?
Jamie replied again. “I’m not [smile emoji], but I’m fine.”
Gail felt the desire to rush in and probe, but she held back, trying to remember the advice to not panic. Jamie knew she was there for him if he needed it, she reminded herself. So she sent back the thumbs-up emoji and then, “Come downstairs at 6 for dinner. Try to do your homework till then.”
Jamie came down later that night. While he wasn’t his usual effusive self, he also wasn’t sullen. Over the next few days, his mood seem to lighten. He was quieter than usual, but also didn’t stonewall Gail or acted hostile every time she tried to probe him.
A few nights later, Gail got her reward. They were having dinner and while there wasn’t much conversation happening, there was a feeling of ease in the air as Gail listened to NPR and Jamie ate.
Then Jamie looked up from his spaghetti. “Mom, what does it mean when someone likes all your posts on Facebook or comments on all of them?” he asked.
“Well, I assume they’re your friend or want to maintain their friendship with you.”
“Does it ever mean something more?” Jamie was careful not to look at his mom as he spoke, but Gail could tell: this was a question about love and romance.
Gail proceeded carefully. “I guess it depends on how good of friends you are in real life,” she said nonchalantly. “If you’re already good friends, then it’s more of the same. But if it’s someone new in your life, maybe they’d like to be better friends. Or maybe, if this person thinks you’re cute, they want to be something more.”
Gail expected Jamie to perk up at this possibility, but he only seemed to deflate. “Oh,” he said, then stared down at his food.
“Is someone trying to be your girlfriend?” teased Gail, going for a light, humorous approach.
Usually Jamie reacted with exasperation at this kind of teasing, but now he only grimaced. “No,” he said, staring back down at his food.
Gail suddenly realized Jamie wasn’t the object of the attention on Facebook — he was the observer, watching someone he liked pay attention to someone else on social media. And he wasn’t happy about it. She wanted to say something, but looking at Jamie, she knew he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Well, then someone doesn’t know what they’re missing out on, then,” she said, scooping up the dirty dishes and whisking them away to the sink. When she turned back around to say something more to Jamie, though, he was gone, already headed up the stairs.
Gail was tempted to chase after Jamie. But if there was anything she learned these past few weeks, it was that you couldn’t force your kids’ confidence. You just hoped you had done your job as a parent so that they trusted you, and would eventually seek out your support if they needed it.
But you could send up a flare and let them know you were out there. And so Gail waited a few minutes, then grabbed her phone and began texting her son. “There’s chocolate cupcakes for dessert when you’re done with your homework,” she wrote. She added the little cupcake emoji for fun.
Later that night while Gail was catching up with work at the kitchen table. Jamie came downstairs. Staring down at his phone the entire time, he took out the cupcakes from the fridge and sat down at the table. Gail moved her laptop and smartphone over to make room for him, and together they tucked into dessert.
They were silent for a few moments, Jamie absorbed in a game on his phone, Gail silently watching her son, though she masked it by pretending to check her mail on her phone. Then she had an idea.
She texted in emoji: cupcake, happy face, question mark. Then she sent it to Jamie.
Jamie paused for a second as Gail’s text came in over his phone. Then he smiled, and his fingers flew over the phone’s keyboard.
Gail’s phone lit up with his message’s emojis: happy face, thumbs up, kiss.
Gail smiled. It wasn’t exactly like when he was a kid, but it was something. ♦