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How Was Your Day? How to Get Your Kids to Talk to You
 

Does the following “conversation” sound all-too familiar?

How was school today?
The same.

As a parent, you know that getting kids to open up isn’t always easy. Kids are amazingly good at responding to open-ended questions with a single word, giving their parents no clue about how their day might have gone, what’s going on in their lives or any problems or concerns they may be having. But don’t throw your hands up just yet. You can communicate effectively with your children—no matter what their age—by learning some simple strategies that will incline them to open up to you.

Strategy 1: Your attention, please

Picture this: You are paying bills at the kitchen table when your son walks in from school. You look up briefly, say, “How was your day?” and continue with your bill paying. Your son says, “It was OK … .” You sense there is more to the story. While stamping an envelope, you say, “You don’t sound like yourself … did something happen?” Your son says, “Well, kind of … .” Then the phone rings. You excuse yourself to take the call. When you get back to the table, you say, “I’m sorry. What were you saying?” Your son says, “It’s really no big deal,” and walks away.

This scenario is probably more common than parents want to admit, and sadly, it sends the unspoken message “I’m too busy to listen.” Parents must be attentive to both spoken and unspoken cues that a child wants to talk, and then make sure to give their undivided attention. Show your child you are interested and willing to listen by:

  • stopping whatever you are engaged in, whether it’s reading the mail, making dinner, folding laundry, etc.
  • sitting down so you are at the same level as your child
  • facing each other and making eye contact
  • not allowing the phone or other children to disrupt your conversation

If you cannot give your undivided attention at that moment, say something like, “I really want to hear more about this, but I cannot talk right now. I’ll come find you when we can talk without interruption, OK?”

Strategy 2: Seek to understand first

Parents want to make things “right” for their children, so it can be tempting to jump in with advice, an opinion or a solution before your child has had a chance to fully speak her mind. This can take time, particularly with younger kids, who are still learning how to organize their ideas and thoughts. Whether your child comes to you with a problem or simply to share an idea or something that is on his mind, psychologist Jane Healy suggests the following ideas:

  • Acknowledge: “That’s an interesting idea.” or “I see. I’ve never thought about it that way before.”
  • Restate: “Do you mean …” or “It sounds as if you’re thinking/feeling …”
  • Clarify: “I don’t understand what you mean.” or “Can you tell me more?” or “Why do you feel/think that way?”

This process will encourage your child to expand on her initial statement, and will ensure that you understand your child’s point of view.

Strategy 3: Acknowledge feelings

Learning to express one’s emotions is an important skill that parents can help children develop. When your child begins to open up to you, it’s important to acknowledge—rather than deny—his feelings. Use a calm and reassuring voice, and avoid questioning or being critical or judgmental. Doing so can be very comforting and supportive, and inclines your child to want to open up further. Sometimes a listening ear is all your child desires. These examples illustrate responses that acknowledge versus deny.

Example 1
Child: “I hate school.”
Denying statement: “Well, you’d better find a way to like it because you’re only in the third grade.”
Acknowledging statement: “Mmmm … school can be hard sometimes. You used to like school. What makes it different now?”

Example 2
Child: “I don’t like Julie anymore. She’s so mean.”
Denying statement: “Don’t be silly. You two will be friends again tomorrow.”
Acknowledging statement: “I can tell you’re really upset. It hurts when a friend doesn’t act like a friend should. Would it help to talk about it?”

Strategy 4: Make conversation a fun part of your everyday life

Not every discussion needs to be serious or a window into your child’s psyche. Talk about a favorite movie; reminisce a vacation; discuss something that’s happening in the news; ask, “What was the best and worst part of your day?” Keep your conversation at a level your child can understand.

Look for opportunities to fit conversation into your daily routine. Here are some good times to talk:

  • in the car
  • while waiting for an appointment
  • during mealtimes
  • during a snack after school

Resources

The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids: Toddlers to Teens by Suzette Elgin, PhD. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

How to Have Intelligent and Creative Conversations With Your Kids by Jane Healy, PhD. Doubleday, 1992.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Avon, 1980.

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Harper Collins, 2005.

Sources:

The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids: Toddlers to Teens by Suzette Elgin, PhD. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

How to Have Intelligent and Creative Conversations With Your Kids by Jane Healy, PhD. Doubleday, 1992.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Avon, 1980.

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Harper Collins, 2005.

The Secret Language of Children: How to Understand What Your Kids Are Really Saying by Dr. Lawrence Shapiro. Sourcebooks, 2003.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen R. Covey. Franklin Covey, 1997.

 
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