We all want to be close to our children, but it’s not always easy to find out what’s going on in their heads and hearts. While some kids are chatterboxes, eager to regale us with every detail of their life, others are quiet and reserved. They keep their thoughts and feelings private, and we’re left wondering what’s really going on inside. How can we draw our children out—even the quiet ones? How can we cultivate the kind of relationship that allows us to become their lifelong confidants, even as they enter the tricky preteen and teen years? Here are 10 simple practices that help kids to open up.
Some kids feel uncomfortable just sitting down and having a talk—they get tongue-tied because they feel put on the spot. They open up better when you’re doing something active: throwing a ball in the yard, coloring side by side at the table, even washing dishes together.
Use car rides for conversation
It’s tempting to plug in to music and phone calls in the car, especially when we spend half our life chauffeuring kids from one activity to the next, but those in-between times can be a great time to connect.
Listen more and talk less
If children feel like we are always going to launch into Advice Mode every time they start talking, they may shut down. (This is especially true as kids enter their preteen years.) Just like grown-ups, sometimes kids don’t want to be fixed, and they don’t want a solution—they just want to be heard. If a child confides a worry or problem to you, just listen, and listen thoroughly. Ask questions like, “How did that make you feel? Did it make you feel anything else? What do you plan to do about it?” The more you dig, the better you will get to know your child. Once you’ve heard the whole story and allowed them to air their feelings, you may find an opening for giving advice and helping them find a solution—or it may be best to save your words of wisdom for another day.
Ask questions that draw out conversation
Try to avoid yes and no questions like “Did you have a good day?” or “Did you have fun with your friend?” Instead, try asking more specific or open-ended questions that will draw out a more detailed answer — questions like “What happened at recess today?” or “What did everybody talk about at lunch today?” or “What’s new on your team?” If you know something has been bothering your child, try following up with specific questions about the situation.
Be a sympathetic listener
Children (like adults) need to have their feelings validated. When a child admits to feeling insecure, worried, or angry, acknowledge their emotions. Try saying things like, “Oh, I can understand why that made you feel that way. I would probably feel the same way if that happened to me.”
Pay attention to your kid’s mood
When they’re in a chatty frame of mind, make a point to listen and engage. My quiet kids often want to talk at strange, inconvenient times: when I’m rushing out the door, or working on a deadline, or up to my ears in chaos. It’s tough not to put kids off in those moments, and it’s perfectly fine to say, “Hey, give me a few minutes to finish what I’m doing, and then I’m all yours.” But if you’ve got a kid who doesn’t usually talk, and they pick a strange time to confide in you, putting them off may mean that you miss the opening.
If we engage in too much teasing or sarcasm, a sensitive kid may withdraw from us because they don’t feel that we are a safe place for them.
Show your kids that you care about what they care about
If they’re into a book, ask about their favorite parts (consider reading the book yourself, to share the experience). If they like a sport, let them explain all the rules and demonstrate what skill they’re working on. If they like Pokémon cards (sympathies, friend), do your best to “ooh” and “aah” at their detailed plan for conquering the Pokémon universe.
If the phone rings or the computer dings while you are talking to your child, ignore the ding. (Believe me, I know how difficult this is!) But this simple discipline shows our kids that they are important to us, worthy of our full, uninterrupted attention. It also provides an example of setting appropriate boundaries for technology.
Tell stories from your own childhood
Kids love stories that make them laugh, or that reveal our own weaknesses, mistakes, and embarrassing moments. Kids feel safer confiding with us when they know that we are like them, and that we have made mistakes too.
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10 Ways to Get Kids to Open Up was written by Elizabeth Thompson exclusively for BonBon Break Media, LLC.
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