During Laurel’s last year of elementary school, so many things changed for her, it was totally mindblowing for me. Formerly hesistant and cautious, she found her feet in the world and thrived tackling new activities (soccer, guitar) and became very flexible and easy going about things that used to be a source of distress (e.g., my attendance -- or rather, lack of attendance -- at periodic school events). It was truly amazing to witness.
Another thing that changed, though, was the complexity of Laurel’s social relationships, and also her ability to talk to me about things. Though Laurel is generally open and forthcoming, if something is really intense and difficult for her, or if she is upset with me about something, it’s really hard for her to talk. I mean, REALLY, REALLY hard.
I know this is totally normal. But I also worry about the consequences of her reticence. For example, this spring it took Laurel over a month to tell us about the fact that she was getting bullied at school (at which point things had escalated badly). And just last week, a freak out about something seemingly minor, followed by some persistent parenting on my part, revealed the degree to which Laurel is stressed about perfection and expectations in middle school.
So when Responsibility.org asked me (via my work on the #TalkEarly program) to share about how I lay the foundation for letting my kids know they can come talk to me, I was like, OMG I HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH LAUREL ON ALL THE TALKING! Subsequently, today I wanted to share 6 tips for how to get your kids to talk to you. The first two are general and the remaining are particularly helpful for when they really, really don’t want to talk to you.
1. Converse while doing something else. Sometimes eye contact just makes things too intense. I’ve found that it's often easiest to have a conversation about something challenging if Laurel and I are doing something together, whether that’s baking or walking home from school.
2. Play high/low. I learned about high/low from a teacher friend and it’s so helpful. Instead of just asking an open ended question such as “How was your day?” ask, “What was a high and a low point today?” We often play this game around the dinner table (so, not just when we suspect something is wrong) and on more than one occasion we’ve learned about things that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
3. Let them know you are the safe space. At some point I realized that it’s completely normal for kids to start to clam up, especially as their peer relationships ramp up because they’re worried about the impact of what they will say. It's important to tell your kids that home is a safe space to share anything, and that you are there to support them.
4. Share why the conversation is important to you...even if -- especially if -- it means sharing some of your own stumbles. When I have talked to Laurel about difficult things this year I have shared at each turn why the conversation is important to me, and sometimes that has meant sharing when I have fallen down or made big mistakes. This has helped convey to Laurel that we’re in it together, and that stumbling is a normal part of life; something that will offer a lesson. I'm hoping that by continuing to show her my imperfections, she will be less hard on herself.
5. Don’t fill the silence. After you have conveyed your point of view re: safe space and why the conversation is important to you, don’t try to fill the silence. This is admittedly sometimes a hard one for me! But truly, I've found that sometimes the awkward silence is just what you need to have happen in order to get your kid to talk.
6. Let them know you're willing to wait them out. Now, normally I don’t advocate for strong arming but if you have a stubborn kid, you may need to wait them out. Last week when I was having a really, really hard time getting to the root of what was bothering Laurel, I finally said, “OK, I am really hungry AND I have to pee pretty badly but I am going to sit here with you and hold your hand until you tell me what is going on. I am not moving, even it if means I pee all over the couch.” We both had a laugh over that, but then after a while as I sat with her in silence, she finally realized I was serious and was not going to relent and told me what she was upset about. And oh my goodness, you guys, this breakthrough led to a really important conversation and I am so grateful that I countered Laurel's stubborness with my own!
Getting your kids to talk to you, especially as they approach tweendom, is not always easy. It requires patience and perseverance. But after my experience last week, I’m convinced more than ever that conversations are worth fighting for.
Finally, I wanted to share a video on conversations that Responsibility.org created last year:
Image credit: Christine Koh