Recently, a friend of mine was venting to me about how difficult it has been for her to connect with her preteen daughter. Her girl had always been the warm and communicative one, who would tell her exactly who she played with that day and who the mean girls were, sharing every last detail of the schoolyard drama. Something shifted, though, when her daughter turned thirteen—suddenly, she didn’t want to share. Not only that, but she’d become sort of withdrawn and sullen, at least with her own mother.
She told me that she kept trying to get through to her and find out if something specific was going on. Was she having trouble at school or with friends? Or was this just the beginning of the awful teenage girl years she’d been warned about?
Having five-year-old twins, I felt like I couldn’t really offer any advice. My boys just started kindergarten a couple of months ago, and to be honest, they’ve never been very forthcoming. Seriously, the only way I can get them to share anything is with bribes. I did notice, though, that the more I asked questions, the more they would shut down or, through gritted teeth, grunt, “Grrrr, I don’t want to talk about it!” I told my friend that maybe her daughter was having the same “leave me alone” frustration.
Well, I was on to something. According to Rebecca L. Soffer, Psy.D, a San Francisco Bay Area based child psychologist, if you want to get your kids to open up you have to approach it in just the right way, encouraging them to be open without making them feel like they’re in a police interrogation room. They have to trust you and know that their thoughts and emotions are safe with you.
With that in mind, I sought out some advice, not only for my friend but for myself as well. I talked to experts, but I also checked out a new app called MyFampal Parent. It was brilliant! I basically filled out questionnaires about each of my kids and one about our family dynamic, and it not only rated the overall emotional health of our tribe, but it also had tips to help navigate some of our concerns. It even had suggestions on how my husband and I could parent better, which were totally spot on. It was good to get a read on where we’re at as a family and go from there. I recommended it to my friend as well who found it really helped her track the emotional well-being of her large family.
Then, I asked Soffer about the best ways to check in with your kids and get them to open up about what’s going on in their lives. Here are some of her tips:
- Empathize. If you notice that your child is struggling with something, the first step is to empathize by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that school seems to be hard for you lately and you’re getting frustrated.” Then wait, and allow them to respond. “The more that a kid feels like you understand them, the more information they’ll give to you,” says Soffer.
- Do “collaborative problem solving.” After your son or daughter has identified what’s bugging them, you can state your concern about the problem. (“We both know that it’s really important to get our work done, though, right?”) Then, in a neutral way, invite a discussion about how you can fix this. “Let go of your own desired outcome or belief and suggest that, together, you come up with some ways to solve the problem,” suggests Soffer. “Once your child trusts that you’re willing to listen to him, he will come up with some good ideas, and you can always chime in with your own if he needs helping figuring it out.” Just be careful not to shoot down his ideas or he won’t feel comfortable sharing more.
- Ask specific questions. If you haven’t noticed, posing broad questions like, “How was your day?” will often yield pretty blah responses like “good” or “fine.” To get to the nitty-gritty of their day, it’s better to ask more specific questions like, “What was the best part of your day?” or “Any tough parts of your day?”
- Relate. Often, kids will shut down because they feel like you wouldn’t understand. If you sense that something might be going on with their friends or that they’re struggling in a certain subject, Soffer recommends relating it to an experience you yourself had as a child. It’s reassuring for your kids to know that their parents went through similar challenges and found ways to get through them.
- Regular family meetings. Communication often has to be learned, and the best way to do that is by making check-ins a regular thing. “I recommend getting in a habit of having regular family meetings, where you’re not just talking about issues but having a dialogue, discussing how things are going, what’s new, what’s challenging with all of you,” says Soffer. “It increases feelings of respect, decreases anxiety, and helps your child feel competent about working through and solving her own problems.”
- Back off. If you feel like you’re encountering resistance whenever you try to discuss deeper feelings, then the best thing might be to just give your child space. “Parents often feel like when there’s a problem they need to dive right into it, and end up asking a lot of questions and pushing a lot—that’s not effective,” says Soffer. “Instead, just give them space to figure out their own issues and tell them, ‘I trust that when you want to talk about this, you’ll let me know.’ It’s amazing, but when you’re not grilling your kids, they open up more and it does wonders for your relationship.”
Photo: Getty/Nick David
*This blog post is sponsored by MyFampal, who reviewed product related content. All other content is my own.