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It happens with almost every child, and parents everywhere dread it. One day your son or daughter will cheerfully talk your ear off about school, their friends, sports practice, piano lessons and anything else that crosses their mind. The next day, you ask them, “How was your day?” Their response is the dreaded, “It was fine.” While some days there may honestly be nothing interesting that happened, “fine” is normally the answer people give when they simply do not want to have a conversation. It answers the question, so the person is not being rude, but it leaves no opening for a follow-up question and does not give the other person anything to which they can respond. 

A coworker who refuses to have a conversation in the breakroom while the coffee pot boils is vaguely annoying, and you might find them to be faintly rude. Would it kill them to be friendly for two minutes? You can shrug off their refusal to respond to your repeated openings for a conversation. When your children will not speak to you, however, you cannot simply put it out of your mind day after day. Instead, you become worried. Why are your kids refusing to talk to you? Why are they shutting you down? Is something wrong? Before you work yourself up into a frenzy and convince yourself that terrible things are going on in your child’s life, think about more realistic reasons your child might be reluctant to confide in you.

They don’t think you’ll care.

You may insist that you care about everything in your child’s life, but do you really? If your child can talk about how amazing trigonometry is for hours or wants to endlessly regale you with the minute changes that their coach made to their swimming stroke, do you stay engaged throughout their stories? Do you ask your child to explain why the distance between two points on an arc is so important, or do you nod vaguely while you try and figure out what you should make for dinner? Do you ask your child to explain what they mean by an increased glide on their breaststroke, or do you change the subject the first chance you get?

Children may seem to chatter on obliviously, but they are aware when someone is not paying attention to what they are saying. If you continue to only listen to your child with one ear, eventually they will realize that trying to engage you is futile. Then, they clam up and resort to one and two word answers. If you want your child to continue to talk to you, you need to find common interests with your child, and you need to be willing to listen when they talk, even if you really have no idea what they are talking about when they rant about the latest episode of “Shingeki no Kyojin.”

They’re afraid you’ll disapprove. 

If you have preteen or teenage children, you are probably watching like a hawk for signs of the infamous teenage rebellion. You might be ready to swoop in at the slightest hint of trouble so that you can keep your baby from hurtling headfirst into more serious issues such as underage drinking or drugs. Keeping a scolding or lecture primed and ready, however, can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. If your child tells you how their friend Sarah walked out of the store with a bag full of merchandise she did not pay for and you pounce like a leopard with accusations of shoplifting, you might miss that your child was actually trying to tell you how Sarah grabbed the display bag instead of her purse and the resultant hour of shenanigans as they tried to figure out which store it had originally come from. Jump in with lectures too often, and your child is going to stop telling you anything that might earn your disapproval.

When your child starts filtering out anything that might upset you, you lose the chance to hear about things that might be a real problem. If you ground your child every time they are home five minutes after their curfew, they are unlikely to tell you that they are not sure what to do about the fact that their friend Ryan has started offering everyone beer when they go to his house. You are your child’s parent, not their partner in crime, but you do have to show a little restraint.

They are unhappy.

Most parents assume when their child refuses to talk to them that their child is either hiding something or is unhappy. Unfortunately, this is sometimes true. If your child is happy to talk your ear off about school, their piano lessons and their new friends but clams up when you mention basketball practice, there may be a problem with the basketball team. Children are surprisingly good at concealing problems from their parents. Unless your child comes home in tears or with bruises, you are unlikely to know that your child is being bullied or ostracized. They are unlikely to come right out and say that there is a problem, but what children refuse to say can speak just as loudly.

They are unsure how to relate to you.

As children get older, they are less interested in the advice and rules that come from parents and more interested in friends who explore and learn with them. This is especially true for teenagers. Parents mean authority, rules, orders and no fun. Friends mean excitement, novelty and, occasionally, trouble. If your child is a teenager or is in-between stages of life, they may not know how to relate to you anymore. A teen with a summer job may want to be spoken to as an adult, but they do not yet have interests in any of the things adults tend to discuss. They would still prefer to talk about “Star Wars” instead of work or the news. If you have found that you are uncertain how to talk to your child or are still feeling out how your relationship is changing as your child ages, you are not the only one who is confused. Your children or teens still need you to be a parent and a source of authority, but they also need to have room to start spreading their wings. If you are struggling with the balancing act, you can be sure they are, too. 

They have an illness you missed.

No parent wants to think about it, but a refusal to talk can be a sign of something more serious and sinister than a few mean kids at school. A child who never seems to talk to you anymore could be suffering from an illness you missed. Depression and bipolar disorder can both cause a person to become apathetic to their surroundings and cause them to self-isolate. Physical illnesses can cause similar issues. Long-term or chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a child who is apathetic to their own life or simply too tired to hold a conversation. An undiagnosed infection can also leave your child sapped of energy and interest. If you suspect that there is a medical issue of any kind, get help right away. The problem will not correct itself. 

A child who goes from chatty as a monkey to quiet as a mouse can be cause for a concern, but there is no reason to jump to the worse conclusions. It is possible that your child is having troubles at school, but they could also simply be growing up and prefer to confide in their friends. Do a little observing to see if you can figure out why your child no longer talks to you. You are welcome to try and ask them outright, but if your child has already clammed up, do not be surprised if you find yourself getting a blank stare.