How To Get Your Kids to Talk to You
During Laurel’s last year of elementary school, so many things changed for her. Formerly cautious and shy, 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. Even now as a teenager, this is one of her greatest challenges.
I know this is totally normal. But I also have fretted about the consequences of her reticence. For example, back in elementary school 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 there have been other times where there’s a freak out about something seemingly minor, followed by some persistent parenting on my part, that has revealed other stressful situations.
So what do you do if you have a kid who is generally reticent or clamps down conversationally under duress? Here are the tactics that have worked for me.
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 or driving somewhere.
2. Play a round of high/low
I learned this tactic from an educator 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 your kid 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 and they fret 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 no matter what.
4. Stay true to your word
Kids may need help with intervention and they also may have very strong feelings about what they do—or do not—want you to do. You’ll need to hash out the specifics together depending on the situation, but whatever you agree on, stay true to your word. For example, if your kid is having trouble with another kid and you say that you will not talk to that kid’s parent yet, then don’t talk to the parent yet! As with any relationship, breaking trust is not good.
5. 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, I have shared 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.
6. Don’t fill the silence
After you have conveyed your point of view, 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.
7. 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. One time when I was having a really, really hard time getting to the root of what was bothering Laurel (and it was clearly a source of major distress), 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—which helped break the tension—and 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 stubborn-ness with my own!
8. Remember that when emotions are high, you may need to wait it out
So there’s a tricky counterpoint to #7, which is that for some people, when they feel emotions super strongly, it is literally impossible for them to articulate what is happening with them. If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend just telling your kid that you are there for them, hold them (if they are into that), and tell them you are there for them when they find the words.
Getting your kids to talk to you—especially as they approach their tweens and teens—is not always easy. It requires patience and perseverance. But I know from experience that the conversations are worth fighting for.