Getting Kids to Open Up

by | Aug 17, 2010 | Communication, Listening

Parenting advice that helps kids open up, talk more, and let us know what’s going on in their world

Before I had kids, I was a teacher. I know probably figured out that there are certain students teachers will never forget, there’s one more part to the equation. There are also some mothers we will never – as in ever – forget. (And I’m betting I have every teacher who reads this nodding and smiling. Right?)

Over the years I’ve watched how some moms just seem to have the knack of getting their kids to open up. The women often confided how fortune they felt that their children sought them out as confidantes, but I knew it wasn’t luck at all. Those parents really knew a few tips to the art of getting their kids to talk.

Here are a few of their best secrets as well as others I’ve picked up over the years that help when I’m chatting with teens. You can use them to help your kids open up, talk more, and even share what’s really going on in their lives. If you start incorporating these strategies now, your kids will not only be more likely to open up about what’s going on in their lives. Best yet: they’ll also (hopefully) be more likely to seek you out as their sounding board for some of those tougher adolescent issues later on. And believe me, will you ever be glad they confided in you!

  • Don’t push. Think of friends you really feel comfortable talking to. They’re usually calm, open, and not pushy. Use those same listening strategies whenever you’re with your child.
  • Honor silence. Research shows that some kids need a bit longer to open up. So don’t give up during those lulls. Just wait a little longer.

  • Halt the criticism. If you need to bite your tongue to stop those critical, judgmental comments, do so. Don’t come off like a prosecutor or judge. Nothing stops a conversation faster than those “You should have” kind of comments.
  • Listen during active times. Some kids–particularly boys–are more responsive to talking when they are doing something active. So find active things your child likes to do whether it is kicking around a soccer ball, playing Old Maid, building Legoes, drawing, or shooting baskets. Use those active times for those chats. You just may find your kid is more receptive to talking.
  • Talk about your kid’s interests. Try tailoring the conversation around your child’s interests: her CD collection, his baseball cards, her Barbie doll, his Ipod downloads. Doing so might be a great entrée to discussing about what’s really going on your son or daughter’s life. One of my clients admitted that she read Teen People just to find some tidbit about some hot celeb to chat about with her daughter.
  • Go to your kid’s zone. If you want some one-on-one talking time, try going to a place your kid enjoys:  A mall to look for shoes, the batting cage to practice his swing, the golf range to hit a bucket of balls, a Starbucks for a latte. Your teen will be more relaxed because he’s in his territory and just might be more likely to open up to you.

  • Ask specific questions. Kids say generic: “How was your day?” type questions are a big turn off. If you want to invite conversation ask more specific questions: “Who did you sit next to during lunch?” “What story did your teacher read today?” “What game did you play at recess?” You’ll be far more likely to get a response because the question conveys your real interest.

  • Ask questions that elicit more than one-word responses. Make skillful use of your questions so that your child must respond with more than a one-word answer: “How would you have ended that book?” “What would you have done differently in the game?” “What are your feelings about…?”
  • Find the best time and place for listening. With one of my own sons I realized it was almost impossible to talk with him before noon.(I swear he was on a different time zone is whole adolescence). I finally discovered the time he was most open to chatting was around five o’clock in the afternoon. And the place was in the kitchen where he would raid the refrigerator. So that’s where I’d plant myself each day knowing it was my best shot for a conversation. Which place and time is when you and your kids are most likely to have those great talks?
  • Sit side by side. This one is interesting: some kids—particularly boys–are often more receptive to talking side by side. Face to face chats–especially during those teens years—put them ill at ease. So try rearranging your chair. Sit next to your son on the couch and chat during those TV commercials. Take advantage of those rides in the car to discuss those CD lyrics. Or do what I did: learn to ski so you can sit on that chair lift with your kid. There is a twenty-minute time period they are stuck with ya!     

  • Mandate family together times. If your home is anywhere like ours, sports, church group meetings, music lessons, and play practices used to constantly appear on the calendar, taking away fro our “together time.” So we finally sat down and figured out the times no one had anything scheduled, and those were mandated for our together times to just talk. If your family schedule is equally hectic, you may want to set aside specific times as well. Then don’t let anything interfere with your plan.
  • Set unplugged times. Many parents set an “unplugged policy” from six to eight in the evening. They’ve figured that’s the time when their family gathers for family meals and to share their day. The rule sends a clear message to the kiddos: family comes first. Set times in your home where listening to your kids with your full presence matters most. And turn on those answering machines!

There is no one secret that works for all kids. The trick is discovering what works best for your child. Listening with full presence is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.  It requires only such small intentional actions as looking at your child, nodding gently, leaning in slightly to appear interested –all of which your child will perceive as “My mom cares.” “My dad listens.” I can tell them anything.”  Make listening a habit now and your child will seek you out as a sounding board, and loyal confidante forever.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check. My upcoming TODAY show segments or media appearances are listed on my homepage, Michele Borba. For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or my other 22 publications