It is after school, and my 13-year-old daughter and her friends are talking about what happened in school that day, and I am listening.
At first I pretend I don’t hear much as I dole out snacks and waters, but then I chime in with a question about a kid they said was suspended from school for bullying.
“What kind of bullying?” I ask.
My daughter said, “He was harassing another boy for being gay.”
And a friend said, “It’s really sad because the boy who was bullied won’t come to school anymore cause he is so afraid.”
This is a typical day at my house . . . kids talking in my living room with their backpacks strewn about as they share their feelings about school, their thoughts about life, and sometimes just joking around like kids do.
I then casually asked if they knew the bullied boy or his parents.
While my daughter did not, her best friend said, “I’ve known them since I was little. Kids always make fun of him and call him weird, but I have always felt sorry for him.”
We talked for about an hour about the issue of bullies in school, their feelings and their fears. I even found out that my own daughter had been cyberbullied a few times, but that she chose to ignore it.
As the mother of two teenage daughters, I have found that they often share their deepest feelings in the most casual of settings, and often at the most inopportune of times.
That is why it is so very important, say child experts, to both “talk and listen” to your kids, and often.
Listening is the key to finding out how they really feel, and the best way to find out if they are in trouble.
While this may seem like an overly simplistic answer, kids who are depressed and have serious problems often report they don’t have adults “to talk to or turn to” when they need help.
Parents also need to pay attention to what their kids are doing, what their friends are doing, and what kids you don’t even know might be doing.
What they are saying and not saying is also important.
For example, when was the last time you took the time to ask your child how they really felt . . . waited around to hear their answer . . . and were willing to accept an answer you weren’t expecting or didn’t want to hear?
Some comments by teens include: “No one listens to me when I talk; what I say never matters; I feel invisible,” and, “It’s better if I just say nothing at all.”
Sadly, it’s not their friends they are talking about, but the adults in their lives.
Childhood experts say there is no shortcut or “easy way” when it comes to assuring the well being of children.
But the reality is that when parents don’t communicate, kids suffer.
A 15-year-old girl who has been taking anti-depressants since she was ten, said, “Sometimes I wish I could just talk to someone about how I really feel. But I just make people upset when I tell them my real feelings.”
And a 14-year-old boy said, “When I try and talk to my parents, they tell me ‘they’re too busy.’ They’re always busy and they have no idea what’s going on.”
As a busy working mom of three girls, there are plenty of times when I have been too tired to “want to hear anything”, much less what a teenager has to say.
But then I recall my own childhood and how my parents “were always there for me,” and wonder how I might have turned out if they had not been there to listen and to talk.
I also recall the day when I found out my classmate committed suicide . . . when a mom down the street sent her teen to rehab . . . when parents I knew learned their 15-year-old was pregnant . . . and when three teenage boys from my high school died in an alcohol-elated car accident.
That’s why I talk to my kids.
It’s not always convenient, it’s not always fun, and it’s not always meaningful or momentous.
But at least I know that I am tuned in to their lives in some way, and that I may just learn a thing or two about how they are feeling; even if it is something that I don’t want to hear.
And that’s just the key, say childhood experts . . . listening to kids even when you’re not in the mood, because if you don’t, your kids may just keep everything bottled up inside.
According to Lindsay Taliaferro, assistant professor of Health Sciences at the University of Missouri: “Sometimes just talking about their feelings allows young people to articulate what they’re going through and to feel understood, which can provide comfort. Adults don’t need to solve all of a teen’s problems, but they should let the teens know they have a safe person they can talk to.”
Francesca Biller is an award-winning investigative journalist, blogger and Op Ed writer for print, radio, television and the web. For nearly 20 years, she has covered politics, families, popular culture, the media, race and the economy. Awards include The Edward R. Murrow Award, two Golden Mike awards and four Society of Professional Journalists awards for reporting and writing. You can find out more about Francesca here http://open.salon.com/blog/checka and here http://francescabiller.webs.com/.