This article is brought to you by CHOC Children’s pediatric psychologist Dr. Carlos Konishi Ph.D on conversation starters for kids and advice on how parents can encourage communication beyond the one word answer. Getting kids to share more can be a challenge at times, especially for parents of teenagers. His information on how to get kids to open up gave me so many “AHA!” moments during my interview I actually had to apologize for saying “TOTALLY!” so many times after he said something that struck a chord. I was like an 80’s teenager myself. Totally.
One word answers.
How was your day?
What did you do?
The process of trying to get more information out of your child can be painful at times, like pulling teeth. So how do you get beyond the one word answer?
Here is Dr. Konishi’s insightful advice… be ready to say TOTALLY yourself…
1. CHOOSE YOUR TIMING WISELY
Have you ever come home from a long day and had your spouse ask, “how was your day?” right when you walk in but felt too tired to even put a sentence together?
Dr. Konishi said children and teenagers are exactly the same.
Their school days and life in general require a lot of energy from them. To have you chirp, “How was your day?” the instant you greet your child after school might not be the best timing.
If you sense your child is not in the mood to talk right away, he suggested giving them some wind down time.
You can let them know you really want to hear about their day when they are ready to talk, and then keep an ear out for other situations when conversation happens naturally. It might be in the kitchen when they are eating a snack, or in the car on the way to a sport practice, or right before bedtime.
Point being, don’t think the immediate moment you see them has to be the time to discuss all that happened in those hours when you were apart. Opportunities will arise, we might just have to exercise a little patience, and take the cues from our child as to when they are in the mood to share.
2. BE CREATIVE
“How was your day?”
Isn’t that usually the go-to question? Dr. Konishi said frankly kids might be tired of it and find it BORING which is why it doesn’t inspire more than a one word answer!
He suggested getting a little more creative in your questioning by asking different, specific questions about their day instead. More like bite size questions vs. a general one. Sometimes these types of questions are easier for kids to process and express.
For example, if you knew they had a specific project going on in one class or subject, you could ask an open-ended question about it. Or, ask what activity they did at morning recess and who they played with?
You can also be creative in the timing of your questioning. During fun family activities like a walk, bike ride, or family game can be great times to talk. Speaking of games, he highly recommends a game of conversation starters called TABLETOPICS which you can pick up on Amazon. There is a Family edition and Teen edition and it is a fun way to get the family talking. Not just the kids, but the parents too! (Amazon affiliate links)
3. BEWARE OF AUTOPILOT MODE
Many times the question, “how was your day?” simply comes from us being in autopilot mode – and it is possible that it in turn triggers an autopilot response of “good” or “fine” from our kids in return.
Dr. Konishi recommended that before starting a conversation with your kids, to first do a self-check as to whether you are able to really listen to what they have to say. Kids can sense when we are multi-tasking and not really listening. In this case, they might not want to answer because they know you aren’t listening.
Bottom line, 0ne way to improve communication with your kids is to start the conversation when you really have time to listen and be present.
4. DON’T FOCUS ON YOUR AGENDA. EXPLORE THEIR INTERESTS.
When starting conversations with our kids many times our questions come from the information we want to know. But these topics might not be super interesting to our kids.
Dr. Konishi said a powerful communication tool can be to tune into their interests and ask questions about the things that excite them. Kids are more likely to open up when it is a topic they want to talk about.
Making children feel like you share and acknowledge their passions is a great way to build better communication, because they know they can share things about it with you.
5. PICK AND CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
Often times dialogue and conversation between parents and kids can start to go into negative spiral due to constant nit-picking from parents, which can be especially true as children become tweens and teens. Naturally parents expect more out of older kids, but that can mean kids are constantly being told what to do, what they did wrong, or how to do something different.
If your child starts to feel like all conversations with you are negative, they can start to tune you out because they are conditioned to think you are just going to nag them again.
Dr. Konishi recommends pausing before approaching your child with something that is bothering you and ask yourself, “Is this really important?”
If it is, then by all means, start the conversation about it. But he then advises to keep your message concise and focused on the behavior – not your child’s character. When complaints are piled upon complaints the initial message can be lost. And when a child feels you are judging who they are (and not what they did), the doors will close.
To take that one step further, he also advises parents to pause and assess whether you can approach the conversation and keep your own emotions cool. If you can’t, your child will shut the door and go on the defensive. This is a natural human trait when someone feels attacked. So, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if you can have the conversation without “losing it”? If the answer is no, it is probably best to wait to discuss it with your child.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Dr. Konishi wants parents to realize they are NOT alone, and you don’t have to take on parenting challenges alone.
Parenting is hard. There is no instruction manual and every child is uniquely different. The truth is we don’t have all the answers, and it is OK to ask for help if you are experiencing problems with your child. There is so much power in sharing your struggles because it encourages others to open up too, and gives us the the opportunity to learn from each other.
He wants parents to seek support…whether it’s from friends, a parenting class, or a family therapist.
One final note he also wanted to stress was that it is normal and natural for kids to go through phases where they are a little more quiet than usual, and it is normal for some kids to be innately less verbal and for some to be more talkative.
You know your child the best. What we always want to stay on the look out for are sudden changes in behavior and/or functioning. If a normally open child suddenly becomes more closed up or has challenges with daily functioning, it might be time to seek professional help. We are so blessed to have places to turn to, like the professionals at CHOC Children’s mental health services.
For more information about CHOC’s mental health services visit www.choc.org/services/mental-health