“I try to talk to my daughter about puberty and she doesn’t want to talk me.”  

Imagine that trying to have a complicated conversation with your daughter is as if you and she are at a lake in Maine in October.  She has chosen to row out a small boat into the middle of the lake and sit there alone, leaving you on the sandy shore. You want to talk to her so you put on an unflattering Speedo, arm yourself with a mildewed life jacket, and taken the first tentative steps into the frigid waters, only to have your daughter ignore your efforts.  Those are your initial attempts at a tough conversation.  (It is particularly hurtful because you know that just by TRYING to have that conversation, you’re miles ahead of your friends who are skittishly keeping to the shore, still wearing their warm clothes, far from the cold water.) Meanwhile, your child is still sitting in a boat in the middle of the lake, with her back to you, throwing small stones into the water as if you do not exist.  You call to her as you wade further in, having made the painful commitment to let your bathingsuit get wet, and she still sits turned away, now slightly hunched over her knees with her hair falling over her face.

What do you do?  You know that the things you want to tell her are important and that she needs to know them.  You feel like you’re shouting into the wind and sadly, you’re deep enough in the cold water where the ends of your ponytail are wet and freezing against your bare back. It feels really uncomfortable to have waded into the water, but you’re already wet and the idea of going back to the shore cold and not having had the conversation at all, is devastating.  You’re stuck between the boat and the shore and at a total loss, feeling totally ignored by your kid.

So here’s what I would tell you: talk to her anyway. Talk to her even though she is turned away from you.  Talk to her even though she seems to be huddling deeper and deeper into herself as a silent admonition to keep your mouth shut. Talk to her even though she has chosen to float alone in the boat in the first place instead of standing by you on the shore.  Talk to her even though you are in the humiliating position of being a middle aged woman in an unseemly bathingsuit waist-deep in a freezing cold lake. Talk to her anyway because even though she is turned away and hunched over and self-exiled and you feel stripped of all dignity and power and voice — SHE IS STILL LISTENING.  It may not look like she’s listening and it may not feel like she’s listening, but trust me, she is listening.

If you’re in this predicament and you don’t have the warmest audience for what you were planning to say, just pick one or two really important things you want to tell her. Don’t do your whole puberty talk or your whole consent talk or your whole masturbation talk or your alcohol talk.  Just pick one or two pieces of information to share.  If she hasn’t paddled away or dived into the water after you tell her those couple of things, then SHE IS STILL LISTENING and you can add a couple of other things you want to tell her. You don’t need to ask her questions. You don’t need to have a conversation. You can just talk a little.  You might even admit to her that you’re kind of nervous, which might make her feel less awkward too.

I like to compare this phenomena of talking to your silent child about puberty to another phenomena we have in our family.  One of my four children never says “I love you.” We tell him several times a day that we love him and he never says it back. At first, my husband and I were upset by it, wondering why he doesn’t say it back.  Did he not love us? Had we hurt him in some way? Were we saying it in the wrong tone or at the wrong time? And then I had this epiphany. It doesn’t matter whether my son SAYS back to us “I love you,” it matters that he HEARS US say to him “I love you.”  And it is the same dynamic with our kids and difficult conversations: sometimes our kids don’t respond, don’t engage, don’t converse but they still need to hear what we have to say. So even if that is you, soaking wet talking to the middle of a big freezing lake, with your kid floating somewhere far away, still say what you came to say.  Don’t say all of it. Don’t expect a lot in return. But say it anyway.


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