A Response to a Letter from a Mom
I am the mother of a 12 year old who communicates only in grunts, shrugs and monosyllables. Why is he doing this? How do I open up and maintain the lines of communication?
If the 12 year old is communicating only in monosyllables and grunts, the "lines of communication" are open. Grunts and monosyllables are often the language of the pre-and early teen when he's angry or ashamed. Rarely do they approach parents and volunteer, "Hello, I'm screwed up, can you help me?" No, instead, in one way or another, they say, "F---you," and act out. That's what this 12 year old is saying, and his resentful grunts and monosyllabic reactions are his way of acting out with you. He expects you, as his parent, to read his mind, and to understand that, and if you don't, he's doubly angry.
What is he angry about? What might he be ashamed of? Probably something he feels, in his case, his mother might be angry about or ashamed of. The more, however, he withdraws, the more he needs to be heard. So, first, Listen. Patiently. Let him talk, if he will, about whatever he wants to talk about. Don't push. Don't preach or moralize. And don't expect him to be open with you if you're not human enough to be open with him about what you were like as a kid. Kids love and respect honesty. Nostalgia, however, creates in them resentment, since their own lives, viewed realistically, cant help but suffer by comparison..
He may be acting out, for example, with peers in ways he's secretly ashamed of. Maybe he's done something to make him feel bad about himself that he's afraid will make you think less of him. When did this behavior begin? What, if anything preceded it? For example, if it's been going on for years, did it begin soon after baby brother or baby sister was born? When the family relocated and moved to another town? When Mom started graduate school?
What are the traumas--natural or unnatural--he may have suffered? From sibling rivalry to social rejection to being stigmatized, to not being "up to snuff" academically or athletically to divorce, illness, death, abuse, neglect?
What did you go through as a child? Let him know, if you want to get him to open up. But don't set yourself up as an example of ideal behavior and moral rectitude or he--nor anyone else--will ever want to talk to you. You'll make him feel even guiltier and more ashamed.
Based on the limited information you've given me, however, I will venture this possibility. Remember, the parent with whom he most acts out and to whom he most expresses anger (in one way or another) is often the one with whom he's closest and feels safest. You makes no mention of his father. Does he exhibit same behavior toward him? Is father inattentive? Absent? Was there a divorce? Do you talk badly about him? Or him you? A 12 year old just listening to such talk, in his mind, constitutes a betrayal. An inattentive or absent father here could well be the problem. The stronger the child's bond with his parents, the stronger the child will be. If one's missing, it must be dealt with: the child will feel guilty and responsible, as if it's his fault, and he'll feel ashamed and angry and take it out on the accessible parent, because she's all, if this is the case here, he has. He will entertain secret fantasies of his father returning and will do nothing to thwart that possibility.
Is he that way at school? With his peers? Again, for how long? Check with his teachers, his coaches, his tutors, whatever adults he may see. Unobtrusively, observe him with his friends.
So: Listen. Observe. Talk to his teachers. Don't push, lecture or moralize.
Don't try to "fix" or provide him an "answer" until he's gotten out of his system what he needs to get out of it. "Fixing" people means you don't want to hear their pain. That really compounds the resentment.
If you want him to be open and honest with you, be open and honest with him. Plus, be sure. If you want him to be open and honest with you, he must be able to express his anger toward you without fear, in his own way. Don't expect him to do it reasonably. That's not truly expressing it. Let him show it however he wants to. Then you'll see what's underneath it. Whatever it is, love him unconditionally for it. Hold him . Help him. Let him break down if he needs to.
If he needs therapy, get him a good therapist or counselor, one who works with kids, including teenagers. Most who work with adults are too passive . Kids see that as not caring.