With three boys who range in ages 11 years to 18 years and who have completely different temperaments and personalities from one another (as well as from their parents), it’s been a challenge figuring out how to get each one to be willing to open up with us. Over the years, many issues have come up that have required the kids to feel “safe” enough to be vulnerable and honest in our presence. I’ve been making note of the times when I feel my husband and I were successful in getting them to share…and when we weren’t.
My brother, an ER physician, once told me, “Maybe 20% of the cases I see in the emergency room need actual medical intervention. Probably 80% of the cases just need a good listener.” There’s a reason that our mental image of an effective therapist is someone who sits there quietly, taking notes and nodding his/her head sympathetically while the patient talks. The same goes with our kids. When they do go out on a limb and decide to share of their minds and hearts with us, we as parents tend to assume that it’s our job to instantly start teaching and advising and lecturing and cautioning. But sometimes all a kid needs is for someone to listen and mirror back what he/she (the child) has said. Some appropriate responses are — “So if I hear you correctly, what you’re saying is…” and “What I’m understanding of your feelings is…” and “It seems like you’re feeling angry/sad/nervous/confused because of x, y, and z. Am I correct?” A smug, know-it-all attitude on the part of the mother or father will often make a child feel: “Why bother? He/she doesn’t get me and he/she never will.” Humility and compassion, however, go a long way. Our children need our help processing whatever dilemmas they’re struggling with; they don’t necessarily need us to figure out the solutions to their problems then and there. We can always come back to them later with any additional suggestions, ideas, or feedback we feel may benefit them.
2) Don’t force them to look you in the eye. Allow them anonymity. Let them speak from the shadows.
Some of my deepest, most personal, most eye-opening conversations with my boys have happened while I’ve been behind the driver’s wheel and they’ve been sitting in the back seat, out of my view. One of my sons lives in another city, and after sharing an uneventful weekend at home together where we quietly function side by side, we often end up having some really honest, game-changing conversations over the telephone — once he’s already returned to his grandparents’ home 400 miles away from me. My youngest often opens up with me at night in the dark while I’m rubbing his back and whispering prayers over him as he lies in bed. A girlfriend of mine told me that she and her teenaged daughter share a journal that she (the mom) keeps by her bedside. When her daughter wants to share something frightening or personal or confusing with her mother, she’ll take the journal and write her questions and thoughts in there. After reading what her teenager has to say, my girlfriend will write down her advice on the next page; then she leaves the journal at her daughter’s bedside for her to read at her convenience. Sometimes they go back and forth for quite a while. They never discuss those particular uncomfortable issues face-to-face; they simply reserve their deepest thoughts for ink and paper where it feels safest to open up.
3) Protect their privacy. Be trustworthy. Make sure you’re “a safe space” for your kids.
When I recently confessed to my 11-year-old that I felt hurt that he hadn’t shared certain personal thoughts with me, thoughts that I found out he had already shared with others, he said, “I didn’t want you to tell everyone, so I didn’t tell you.”
I was shocked. “What made you think I would tell everyone?”
His voice quavered as he said, “Remember the time that I did x, y, and z and we all laughed about it and I asked you not to tell anyone and you said you wouldn’t and then you told Baray Mamoo anyway (my brother)?”
“I did?” I asked, remembering neither the promise nor the breaking of it.
“Yeah, and when I asked you about it, you told me, ‘He’s your uncle and he loves you and, besides, I tell my family everything…my family isn’t just anyone.'”
I could tell that it was hard for him to stand up to me and I felt my face burn with shame. “I’m so sorry,” I apologized sincerely. “I don’t remember doing that, but it does sound like something I would say, so I believe you. I need you to forgive me, not because I want you to tell me all of your secrets from now on, but because it was wrong of me to break a promise; your honor should be safe with me. I don’t want Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) to hold me accountable for violating your rights, so please tell me that you forgive your mother who made a mistake. You’re not a little kid with funny stories for me to share with everyone; you’re a young man who has his own reputation and dignity, and I need to respect that. Next time you tell me something is private, I promise to keep it that way, insha-Allah.”
He seemed relieved and quickly reassured me that I was off the hook. I find it incredible that he carried that anger/hurt/disappointment with him for so long without letting me know. It was soon after that conversation, however, that I noticed he started opening up with me once again…and I have been mindful of my promise to him ever since.
4) Give them the language to identify their feelings and emotions.
I was impressed recently when I met with a student at my homeschooling co-op who was having a hard time accepting this year’s Student Council election results. When I informed him of his teacher’s concern regarding his ability to focus in class after hearing about the winners, he confessed, “I thought I was going to win this year, but I lost by just one vote. I couldn’t calm down and kept obsessing about the fact that I didn’t win…yet again. I was jealous of So-and-So for winning instead of me, so I was really rude to him. But I know I was just being a sore loser, so I apologized to him after I did wudu (ablutions) and had had time to cool down.”
It’s not often that you meet a 12-year-old young man who is able to identify feelings like “jealousy” and “sore loser” and who can then come up with a game plan for calming himself down (like doing wudu). I congratulated his parents for giving him the vocabulary and the tools to deal with his strong emotions.
5) Be honest. Be willing to share of yourself even when you’re not presented in the most flattering light.
More than once, my husband and I have gone out on a limb and shared our own uncomfortable truths with our kids. The time I tried a cigarette when I was in middle school. The time a neighborhood bully chipped my husband’s tooth. My first crush in elementary school. My husband’s struggle as “a lapsed Muslim” in the college years. The lies I told to look cool in front of friends. The friends he made who weren’t necessarily the best influence. The more we show the kids that we trust them with our own “secrets” and the more we show them that we have grown from our mistakes, the more they learn that they too have lives worth living and lessons worth learning. We never trivialize anything that is considered to be displeasing to Allah (swt), we don’t make light of our flaws, we are not dismissive of our remorse and our regrets, but we do let them know that they aren’t alone in this journey called “Life”…we are all traveling this road together. Once they realize that, our hope is that they will be willing to reach out to those of us who are a bit further down the path for advice and admonitions. Insha’Allah (God willing)!
Editor’s Note: Hina Khan-Mukhtar is a mother of three boys and one of the founders of the homeschooling co-operative known as ILM Tree in Lafayette, California, which now serves over 30 homeschooling families in the East Bay. In addition to teaching Language Arts to elementary, middle school, and high school students, she has written articles on parenting and spiritual traditions for children and is involved in interfaith dialogue. The views expressed here are her own.