A Child Therapist's 3 Secrets to Get Your Child to Open Up!
Updated: Sep 23, 2018
As a therapist, I have been asked this question SO many times. "How do I get my child to talk to me, really talk me?"
My secrets are simple ones, but don't let that fool you. THEY WORK.
Secret #1 Set up a time and place to be present and listen.
Be honest, when you asked how your child's day was the last week, were you really listening? Were you hoping/needing it to be a quick answer because dinner was already an hour late? We all do it, whether its to our kids, spouse, or the lady at the grocery store. We ask "how are you?" knowing that we will get a one word answer. So, set up a space that says to a child "I am here. Talk to me. I care about your day". This space needs to be sacred. It needs to be a space where you are free from interruptions (ok, at least as much as possible) and most importantly, free from distractions. This space is phone free, computer free, and chore/cleaning free. Set up a time at the dinner table, during a goodnight routine, or a daily 10 minute check in after school. Without this space, your child knows that you are too busy to really hear them.
Secret #2 Stop asking so many questions. Yes, stop asking how their day was.
Before I dive into this surprising secret, I want you to think about coming home from a stressful day. You walk through the door and you're bombarded with questions: "Where's my soccer uniform? Can I go to Logan's? Where are my shoes? What's for dinner?" Alright, so it isn't so secret that you've ignored at least 50% of these questions. You have tuned them out because...well, parental survival...your sanity.
Well, your child is not listening to your questions either. Why? Because they have also just spent a tremendous amount of time working (school) and are also physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Yet, we choose to do what we hate, throw a million questions their way: How was your day? What color was your behavior chart? Why did you do that? Did you get along with Casey at recess?"
So what do we do instead of ask questions? Make statements.
"Hey kiddo, you look exhausted. Your day must have been really busy". This style of statement is going to get you more information from your child, regardless of whether your statement was true or false. You have children, hence why you are reading this blog. So you must know that one of children's favorite things to do is correct you! So if you're statement is wrong... the response might look like "Ugh! NO, it wasn't exhausting. It was boring because we didn't get to do the project I was looking forward to, we had to read 2 chapters and everyone was finished before me, and we had music instead of PE so I didn't even get to run. BORING!". If you were right... "How did you know? We had a spelling test, math quiz, and a writing project". Whoa, right? Way more information that you can then expand on with kiddo. Too easy to work? Nope, too simple not to give it a try! Trust me, I have a degree in getting children and teens to talk to me.
Another way to use this trick is to apply it to feelings. Let's say kiddo looks upset and you have no idea why, DON'T ASK. Instead, "Wow, you look really angry, I wonder if it's because we had spaghetti instead of nuggets tonight". See what I did there? It was almost a question, but I stated something without expecting a response. Sometimes this trick works best if you are intentionally wrong with your statement...because, kids love to correct you. Response: "NO! I am angry because you didn't let me go to David's house after school and we were supposed to build this really cool rocket model and now I am the only one who didn't get to help". This then gives you the opportunity to a) Listen to their feelings: "Oh you're angry because I didn't let you go to David's". And b) assist them in naming/identifying any underlining emotions: "It sounds like you're feeling left out too".
Secret #3 Ask open ended questions
This is actually harder to do then you might think. It is almost like we are trained to ask close ended questions for the sake of efficiency. I mean, if everyone gave us full detailed descriptions when we asked how their day was, we would still be in line at the coffee stand. But, you obviously want to hear more from your kiddo or you wouldn't have made it this far through my blog post. Asking kids open ended questions takes time and practice. Don't feel discouraged if you stumble or do well the first day and not the next. Remember to think of questions that help kids identify and express their emotions (SO important!).
This: "How was your day?"
That: "Tell me about the most exciting part of your day!", "What made you frustrated today?", "What was your favorite part of school this week?", "Has anything made you feel afraid this week?"
This: "Why did you yell at your brother?"
That: "It didn't seem like you were having a good time with your brother. You look frustrated. What could you have both done different"
This: "Why are you crying?"
That: "You look really sad. Tell me about what has made you feel sad", "I am sorry you're hurting, tell me how I can help", "You are really hurting, I am here for you when you need me".
Well, those are my quick 3 tips to getting your kiddo to open up. Parenting is hard. What works for one of your kiddos is likely not going to work the same for another. Stay positive and keep an open mind to tricks that you haven't tried yet. If you or your child is struggling, reach out to a qualified counselor. There is no shame in brainstorming and coming up with an action plan for smoother parenting.