She won’t say what’s wrong

My daughter is very private — it’s just who she is. But she’s acting up at school and she won’t tell me why. How can I get her to open up?

Our elder — a private person herself — shares her insight.

Dear EWC

My daughter has always been a very private person. While on the one hand, she wears her heart on her sleeve — when she’s happy she giggles and when she’s sad, she cries — she keeps her reasons for those feelings much to herself. It’s always been an issue. She’s so private that she told me recently that her least favorite days are Monday and Friday, and when I asked why she said it’s because the class is supposed to either tell what they’re going to do on the weekend or tell what they did on the weekend. Now to me that would have been a blast, but she said that for her she just feels like it’s nobody’s business. It’s just who she is.

As a family unit we are very close — we talk all the time. I play with the kids daily. We read together and chat and have fmaily dinners and my husband and I are fast to talk about our own feelings, our own joys and sadness, our victories and our shortcomings. Our other child is very chatty and quick to talk about feelings and experiences. We all practice the technique of asking specific questions to get the mind focused and not just general questions. We share stories about our childhoods, etc. so I really don’t think her need for privacy has anything to do with how we’re raising her. I’ve always respected her need for privacy, even though I don’t personally understand the extent she takes it to. The kids have their own rooms, we knock before coming in and won’t come in if they ask us not to. We give them their space when they need it, etc. When she skirts around questions and won’t answer things with more than a shrug or a ‘not much’ I don’t press the issue.

But recently a problem has come up. She’s a straight-A student, but recently she’s been acting up a bit in class. The behavior is a little out of sorts. As well she’s a very social kid but has recently been declining my offers to have friends come over. Her sibling has told me that at recess she’s not playing with her usual group of friends as often, or her best friend as often. Now basically my daughter is her usual self: still smiling and giddy and eager, but I know something is going on. But because of how she is I know that if I ask — anything — she won’t answer. And if I get specific about the questions she going to view it as an invasion of privacy. She thinks I’m ‘prying’ when I ask specific questions. But she’s just in second grade and still so young. If she’s in trouble or upset or anything I can do a lot to help her.

My point is that she’s a good kid, and I respect that she’s entitled to her private experiences… but sometimes it’s a matter of safety or of her well being, but I’m worried if I insist on pressing her too much I’m going to alienate her. And advice like, ‘just keep offering to hear her/asking/making yourself available’ seems useless. I’ve been going that her whole life and I’m pretty sure simply being available to her for some heart-to-hearts is not going to make her decide to open up. What do I do to find out what’s happening to make her behavior at school/with friends change recently? Maybe there’s nothing I can do.

Granny-Nora replies

I was a very private child growing up, and I’m a very private adult. I’ll be 65 years old in December, and I still find it difficult to open up to people. The irony of that is that in my retirement, I’m fulfilling a life-long dream of writing — and at this point, my life is an open book to the world. As a writer, I use my own life experiences to tell a story. Obviously, that helps me while responding to Elder Wisdom Circle letters, as well. Although people don’t know my real name, it is still sometimes uncomfortable to reveal personal information about myself. Hopefully, I can help you to help your daughter.

When my parents wanted to know what was going on in my life, I’m sure they were as frustrated as you. When I was about 12 years old, I remember babysitting next door. I took the little girl outside in the backyard to play. While outside, I actually overheard a conversation over the fence between my parents and my older sister as they talked on our patio. They were talking about me, and how closed off I am. My mother said, “Sometimes I wish that I was Val’s [my cousin] mother, and Norma [my aunt] was [Granny-Nora’s — obviously she used my real name].” That hurt my feelings — a lot. It took me a long time to understand what she was saying. My cousin Val was very outgoing and that is something my mother understood. I’m very quiet and private, which is something my aunt Norma understood. Since Val and I were only six months apart in age, the comparison was easy to make. Val and I were complete opposites in personality — and remained polar opposites until the day she died.

Having four children, 12 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, I totally understand what it is like when you can’t get information from a child. It is frustrating and upsetting — and yes, there are sometimes safety issues. I can see the need for privacy for the child, but also see the need for transparency for the parents.
My dad was better at handling me than my mom. Dad was an insurance salesman, and he had a home office. He had been a meat salesman for many years, which took him on the road selling meat to butchers (before large chain grocery stores). When he went into the insurance business, he decided he wanted to be closer to home. So, I grew up having Dad around a lot (unlike my two older siblings). I used to play “secretary.” I would dust his desk, empty his ashtrays, lick stamps for any letters he was mailing, etc. He took that opportunity to chat with me. He would often begin by saying something like, “I don’t want to pry,” or “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” or “I’m interested in your life, but you don’t have to tell me things that you don’t want to.”

I remember on one particular occasion, he sat me on the foot of his bed (Mom and Dad’s bedroom was part bedroom; part office). He told me that sometimes, whether we like it or not, there are things we need to share about ourselves for safety reasons. He told me that there was another child in the neighborhood that was “playing doctor” and asking other children to pull down their panties. He said that he understood that I may be embarrassed to talk about it, but that it was important for my safety that I tell him the truth. He asked me if that had happened to me. I told him it had not, which was the truth. He apologized to me for having to ask such a private question, told me that he believed me, and thanked me for being honest.

I think it was that very conversation that made me begin to realize that sometimes we have to open up about certain things in our lives, whether we want to, or not. It made me understand, as well, that my parents weren’t trying to pry into my private thoughts or feelings, but that they were worried about my safety and wellbeing.
I guess the advice I have for you is to share the reason for your wanting a piece of information from your child. Sometimes if we know the reason behind the question, it makes the question easier to answer. At least that helps for me. Even today, in the articles I write for an online magazine, I tell myself that I’m sharing this personal experience because I can help someone else, who may have a similar problem or issue. I can share experiences in Elder Wisdom Circle responses, as well, by reminding myself that I’m not just sharing private information; but possibly helping someone else.
I hope that helps. Good luck!

Letter #: 442499
Category: Children

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