I have two grown up boys. Very different characters but I have strong memories of the frustration I felt in getting either to open up to me in the way that I had expected.
I’m a good mum (so I said to myself) and good mums didn’t have to work so hard to have their child tell them about the ups and downs of their day at school!
It’s only with time that I’ve realized that not only was I not alone in this experience, but also to understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
While my boys have busy lives and don’t keep in touch anywhere near as much as I would like (sigh), I know the foundations of our relationship are strong and they will – and have – talked to us and relied on our support when it’s mattered.
Here are my top tips for talking to your child so that you get more than a single word response to your questions. Universal example: mum cheerfully (and optimistically) asking “How was your day?”; child reply “fine/OK/Good/Yeh” accompanied by a pained expression.
1: Start early
Don’t leave it until your children are teenagers to start worrying about your lack of communication. Talk to your kids from infancy on and provide opportunities for them to talk to you even if they don’t always take them.
Establish family traditions– eating one meal together a day is a great way to foster discussion at the dinner table.
2: Be patient
Sometimes children aren’t able or just don’t want to talk. A preschooler might understand but have difficulty finding the words to answer you. Older children can be worn out after a long school day and appreciate the opportunity to be relieved of social expectations, including demands to talk.
Be patient and restrain yourself from the very natural desire (!) to immediately interrogate your child about their day. They need you to just “be present” while they wind down. Wait for a better time to talk.
3: What should I ask?
Try googling “questions to ask my child”. I did and was offered multiple lists of the best questions to use – so many in fact that you could easily compile your own list to get you through a years’ worth of days!
A general tip though is to make your question specific rather than general. Ask “What did you get up to at recess and lunch?” or “What was the best lesson today?” rather than a closed question starting with “how” or “did”.
4: Should I introduce feelings?
Older children can be resistant to answering a question that includes a feeling word, but if you can start early enough this is a great way to get kids to talk.
Asking “What made you happy/ excited/ frustrated today?” encourages children to recognize and label their feelings.
For something different (and to foster empathy) ask about others: “What made your teacher/ best friend happy today”?
5: When is a good time to talk?
I have always my boys found it easier to talk when we were in the car. Something about the informal situation and not needing to make eye contact perhaps?
You may find the same thing happens when you and your child are engaged in a joint activity – a good reason to find a shared interest which gives an excuse for you to do things together as often as you can (watching movies, gong fishing, kicking a ball).
6: Build a bedtime ritual
Children love having “special time” with mum or dad at the end of the day. Your bedtime ritual can encourage optimism if you ask questions like “tell me one good thing about today”, and “what are looking forward to tomorrow?”
7: Are you listening?
Pay full attention to your child when you talk to them. They won’t be fooled by if you’re preoccupied with plans for dinner, or the email you need to send.
Similarly, don’t expect a conversation if your child is watching their favourite TV show, or finishing an exciting chapter in their book. Encourage older children to put down their phone when you talk.
8: Or reacting…
Don’t see a conversation with your child as an opportunity to advise, teach, or problem solve. If action is needed help your child to problem solve a solution.
If your child is brave enough to tell you they are being bullied, don’t react with horror. This is a sure way of making them think twice about sharing again. Yes, you need to be serious and concerned but don’t immediately jump to accusation and plans to confront the bully. This may not be what your child wants you to do.
9: Have fun!
Don’t ask the same things over and over. Have fun, be creative and encourage curiosity. Ask thing out of left field and see if you get a left field response.
How would your child answer if you ask: “If we could go on holiday to anywhere in the world, where would you want to go?” Or “If you could choose a superpower, what superpower would you want to have?”
10: And share…
It works both ways. Your children also want to hear what you have to say about things so don’t be scared to share your thoughts, opinions and to explain the things that are important to you- age appropriately of course!
I hope these tips help to trigger some interesting and meaningful conversations with your children. It may take time but it’s important to persevere to lay down the building blocks for a positive relationship which will support your child through the trials and tribulations of growing up.
The psychologists at Attuned Psychology are available to help if you would like support to improve your relationship with your child. Feel free to contact Sarah or Beth, our fabulous reception team, to make this happen.
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