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One evening before dinner, I noticed my four-and-a-half-year-old son, who is in full-day junior kindergarten, sitting glumly on the kitchen floor. I sat down next to him and asked, “Was today a good day or a bad day?” In a sudden burst of candour, he told me it had been a good day, but it turned bad when the girl who had professed her love to him the week before told him she now wanted to marry somebody else. While I hadn’t expected to have the marriage talk so soon, I was secretly high-fiving myself for getting him to open up. Most days, when I ask how school was, he just grunts “fine.” If I can’t get him to say much now, how can I make sure he talks to me about girl troubles—or whatever else is on his mind—when he’s a teenager?
It turns out the connection a kid needs to feel with his parents in order to open up and talk to them is cemented long before the teen years. Julie Romanowski, a parenting coach in Vancouver, says communication skills are built even in infancy and toddlerhood. When your baby cries and you pick her up, you are showing her you’re someone she can count on. Being that trusted confidante isn’t as straightforward, though, when your kid’s daily life experiences grow to include things like academic pressure, friendships, bullying and other social issues. But it’s vitally important we maintain that bond, says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. It’s our job as parents, explains Kolari, to help our kids sort through and process the things that happen to them during the day. “They don’t have the higher-order thinking to do it on their own yet,” she says. You may not hear about every single triumph or trial, but these ideas can get your kids to open up to you at every age.
It’s a classic scenario: You pick your kid up from daycare or preschool and ask what he did that day, and the answer is, “I don’t know” or, “Nothing.” According to Kolari, that’s because preschoolers can understand a lot but are still developing the language skills needed to really express what they want to say. “It’s honestly a lot of work to explain how your day went. You have to funnel and synthesize all that information and put it into a succinct sentence that’s going to make mommy or daddy happy. So it’s much easier to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
To help your kid zero in on an anecdote or detail, Romanowski suggests asking specific questions that include a prompt, like, “What did you like better today, snack time or circle time?” Laura Bicknell, a mom of two in Calgary, says that technique works well with her four-year-old, who is in preschool a few days a week. “This is the first year I’m not with him the whole time,” she says. “But I’m familiar with what generally happens during his program, so I’ll ask questions like, ‘Did you go in the forest today, or did you play in the sandbox?’” More general questions, such as, “Who did you play with?” or, “Did you sing any songs today?” can also work.
If you want to know how your kid is feeling, rather than just the details, Romanowski advises observing her behaviour and then asking about it. For example, you could say, “When I picked you up, you had a bit of a funny face. What happened?”
If your kid does mention something negative from her day, you should of course show concern, says Kolari, but make sure you don’t overreact. “Kids shut down if our reactions are too much,” she explains. “A kid will have a fine day, but one thing happened that they’re upset about. You hear this and panic, thinking, Oh my god, we’re at the wrong daycare—everyone is picking on him.” Kolari says if you show alarm on your face, your kid might stop sharing this type of information, thinking it makes you too upset. Instead, empathize with your kid, tell him how crummy it must have felt to have that toy grabbed from him, and then move on.
Don’t start an interrogation as soon as you arrive for pickup or the moment you all walk in the front door, advises Romanowski. With some kids, this may be a mistake. “Parents pick up their kids, and it’s 20 questions. After being ‘on’ all day at school, that’s the last thing some kids want.”
She suggests spending a few minutes reconnecting with your kid just by being present. “If you say something simple like, ‘Hey bud, I missed you. Let me take your backpack,’ now your kid is thinking, My mom has got my back, and that’s when he’ll start to open up.”
When you’re shuttling your kid from school to an activity and then home for dinner and homework, or you’re working full-time and don’t see your kid until 6 p.m., you might find it hard to fit in a few minutes to connect. Romanowski suggests working some parent-kid time into your day, like right after dinner. Sitting down to do a focused activity together—even just 10 minutes of colouring or a puzzle—can create that space where your kid starts to feel like talking. “You’re giving them the message that you’re available for them,” says Romanowski. Also, take advantage of regular moments you do have together, like car rides, walking to school in the morning and bedtime for casual, low-pressure chats. Consider sharing a few details from your own day to encourage conversation—it shouldn’t feel like a one-sided interrogation. This also teaches kids that everyone has good days and bad days, no matter how old you are.
Bicknell finds that keeping in the loop about the curriculum and who her grade-two daughter is playing with helps her bring things up in conversation. When she wants to dig deeper into what’s going on in her daughter’s life, she uses their shared journal, where she can write down questions that her daughter can think about and answer when she has some quiet time. “I’ll ask questions like, ‘What made you feel the happiest while you were at school today?’ or, ‘What do you wish was different?’ and ask her to write me back.” Bicknell can then use her daughter’s responses as a springboard for more conversation if she feels their communication has stalled.
Keep in mind that if you ignore or brush off your kid when he’s rattling on about the latest video game or a guest speaker that came into his classroom that day, you’re missing an opportunity to show you are a good listener, says Kolari. “When you’re really connected, your body is leaning in and your phone is down. You’ll find that if you do a really good job in those moments, they will come to you for the hard stuff.”
It’s inevitable that as your kid gets older, you won’t be as physically present in every aspect of her life. But you are still needed for emotional support. If you want a window into what’s going on in her day, the key is to keep up the listening and, as hard as it may be, focus less on results or solutions. “A lot of times, as parents, we want to be the problem solver,” says Romanowski. (For example, if your kid is having an issue with a friend, we might be tempted to suggest she find someone else to hang out with.) “But as soon as we start problem solving, judgment happens. And people don’t want to be judged.”
Kolari says the car is a great place to talk with kids this age—they don’t have to make eye contact with you, which can make some kids uncomfortable. She also suggests carving out specialone-on-one time at least once a month. Even watching a favourite TV show together once a week lets you share an interest and get some quality time.
Pay attention to your kid’s body language, too, suggests Kolari. “They’re always talking to you, whether it’s with words, shrugs or tears—or looking away when they see you. You can say, ‘I love you, and I can see from your body language that something has happened and you’re not ready to tell me. When you’re ready, I’m here.’”
When your tween does open up and talk to you—especially if your kid tends to be fairly closed off with his feelings—make sure to stay neutral. “If you start looking panic-stricken, they’re going to think, Oh my god, this is worse than I thought,” says Kolari. “It’s important to be that calm, constant, neutral voice.”
Ultimately, you want your kid to enjoy talking to you. “The more they walk away from any interaction—whether they are telling you something fun or they’re telling you something they’re scared about—and think, I feel better, the more likely they are to come back,” says Kolari, “which is your only hope for finding out more about what’s going on in their lives.”
A version of this article appeared in our February 2016 issue with the headline, "Look who's talking," p. 42.