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Helping Your Child Open Up to You

How to Help Your Child Open Up to You.

Children commonly have a hard time talking to their parents. It can be hard to open up. For some, it is a normal developmental stage. Other children are described by parents as shy or sensitive.   Additionally, children with anxiety or depression often keep difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences to themselves.   

There are many reasons that children don’t talk to their parents:

  • They may feel anxiety about not appearing perfect.  
  • They may have a temperament which is more introverted and quiet.
  • They may feel anxious about discussing personal information.  
  • Also, they may worry about negative evaluation from others or disappointing their parents.  
  • Sometimes, children do not share concerns with their parents because they do not they do not want to worry them.  
  • Other times, children are afraid of having their parents respond in strong ways towards them or their peers.  
  • Social withdrawal can also be a symptom of ongoing depression or anxiety.  
  • They may be worried about getting in trouble.
  • The may be worried about being criticized.

Whatever the reason, when children don’t talk to their parents, they can have reduced support, and parents often feel more frustrated.  Sometimes, children who don’t talk about their feelings may blow up later, when they are tired, hungry, or frustrated.  Even more concerning, they may make choices to avoid their concerns, but actually worsen them through less adaptive behaviors (like substance abuse, videogame dependence, etc.).

In addition to reviewing some general communication skills, below are some steps to help your child or teen talk to you.

Give your child the space and freedom to come to you.

Letting your child know that you are there to help can be a good first step.  Without pushing or pressuring them, you can tell them that you listen and care about how they are doing with friends.  If children feel pressured, they often avoid their parents, further hiding their concerns.

Find some effective conversational lead-ins.

Many parents start conversations with statements like, “How was your day?”  In turn, most children will answer in response, “Good.”  It may be helpful to start conversations in other ways, like, “ Tell me about the best part of your day.”  You can ask about classes or activities that are more social in nature.  For example, you may ask, “What are you doing in PE these days?  What is the locker room situation like?”  By changing how you approach your child, you may decrease the pressure, and increase the likelihood that they may talk more openly. Sometimes, it is helpful to volunteer in your child’s class, activities, or clubs so that you can discuss relevant issues easily.

Don’t make it all about you, but it is ok to share a little.

It’s often very helpful for parents to share information back and forth with their children, especially about some of their own challenges.  But, this tip can quickly backfire if it becomes an endless dialogue about you, your childhood, or your current life.  Remember, that it is more important to listen than to share, and your goal is to get your child to open up more, not listen politely.  

You could exchange a few anecdotes, like, “Locker rooms were always crowded when I was in school too.”  (You could even relate a funny story if you have one and think it may help.)  For example, when talking about track practice, I shared a chuckle with my son how my track coach would follow us on our running route in a car behind us, rather than run with us.  Once he got laughing, it seemed like it paved the way to share a few concerns that he had been having as well.  

Read some books together

If your child is young enough, sometimes reading books with them about issues that children face can help to open up about different issues.  There are many excellent examples of books for young children through tweens.  You can use these books to talk about different feelings and experiences that your child may be having.  You can also use some of these books to offer reassurance too.  Some examples include:

My Secret Bully

It’s Not the Stork

The Body Book for Younger Girls

I Love You the Purplest

My Best Friend Moved Away

The Invisible String

Get out the board games.

Sometimes, children and teens need to open up with any words out before they can talk about hard things.  If enjoyable for your family, board games (particularly those that are funny and not overly competitive) can get things rolling.  Once people are talking and laughing, your child may be more apt to disclose concerns to you later.  Some examples include:

Apples to Apples

Yahtzee (not the electronic version)

Table Topics

Taboo Word Game

Get out of the house and exercise or take a drive

Oftentimes, the direct eye-contact in conversations actually impedes a child’s ability to share their experience.  Many people feel that it is easier to open up to someone while they are walking or driving.  If you do take your teen for a drive with you to talk, be sure to turn off the electronics.  Sometimes, a change in scenery by grabbing coffee, a quick bite to eat, or a walk together can also help.   You could also visit the local dog park, even if you don’t have a dog, just to walk and greet dogs.  Do not pick activities that help you with errands or are likely to cause conflict, like the grocery store or Wad-Mart. Try to make them relaxing and fun for your child.

Develop an empathetic listening response.

When your child brings up a concern, stop.  Do not offer immediate advice, solutions, or try to fix it.  Instead, consider what your child is feeling and reflect that to them first.  An empathetic response often has two parts: “sounds like” and (your child’s feeling).  For example, if your child did poorly on an assignment, you may say, “Sounds like you are feeling sad and frustrated.  I’m sorry, that is so hard when that happens.”  Without parents jumping in and solving the problem, kids may begin to share more and feel understood.  You can follow up with a comment like, “How can I help?”  Then, listen to what your child tells you.  If they say, “nothing,” you may say, “It sounds like this is hard to talk about right now.  Let’s talk about it after dinner, when you feel a little better.”  

It can be challenging and it can take time, but often getting your child to talk to you can be very meaningful, rewarding, and helpful for both of you.  If you follow these steps, and things still aren’t working, feel free to contact a psychologist or psychotherapist.  They are there to help.  

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