It’s painful when your child won’t open up and talk to you.
You’re desperate to know what’s on your child’s mind, but all you’re getting is one-word answers and shoulder shrugs. What gives?
More common that you’d think (or like) pre-teens and teens tend to shut down when it comes to conversing with their parents. In fact, this is the time when you child is more likely to talk to her peers than you.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it shouldn’t.
You need to be able to have healthy conversations with your child. This is a critical time in your child’s life. And although it may be easier to give up or get mad, don’t. At risk is your child becoming even more distant.
Keep reading below for the 10 steps you can take today to get your child to open up and get your communication back on track.
1. Carve out time everyday
Easier said than done, right? You would be surprised by how little time it takes to connect with your child if you make it a daily routine. You don’t need to book off an hour, either. Start with 3-5 minutes. Ideally, making it the same time everyday can help get you and your child into a routine of talking and listening to each other.
2. Create distraction free conversation
Phones, TV, and social media need to be off. Show your child she’s important by unplugging. Encourage her to do so too. If she has a phone, have her put it in a drawer a few feet away, and put it on silent. I’ve seen many teens distracted by the vibrate alert in their pocket, and your child may be pulled to end her conversation with you because she wants to know what’s happening on her phone.
If she has younger siblings, find a way to redirect them to another activity so they don’t barge in and become intrusive. Better yet, create some distraction free time for them too. This will help them to understand how important this time is.
3. Show interest in your child’s interests
When you and your child start talking, you may feel the urge to finish the argument that started in the car on the way home from school, or take the opportunity to circle back to that “C” she got in science. If you do that, however, you risk your child shutting down even more.
You know what your child is interested in: the latest photo on Facebook, the new kid in the class, or her favorite Monday night show. Those are perfect openers! Talk about them! You will be surprised about how much you learn about your child by discussing what interests her.
When you have a successful conversation about what interests her, you’re building a foundation of positive rapport that both of you can reflect on when you have to have those tougher conversations. And the best part is it’s reciprocal. Showing your child you care about what she cares about helps her to care about what you care about. The end result will be your child thinking “I can go to my mom about anything because she cares.”
4. Say “Tell me more.”
Does your child ever say something and you just don’t know what to say back? Here’s a magic phrase to use: “tell me more.” These three words show your child you’re invested in the conversation and that you care about what she’s saying. Plus, it doesn’t leave you in the position of scrambling for what to say. At this point, you are providing an open, safe space for her to speak.
5. Avoid “why” questions
Simply put: the word “why” puts your kid on the defensive. Even when done gently, it carries the tone of “defend your decision to me.” Your goal is to get your kid to open up, not shut down. Not using “why” conveys to your child that you are hearing her words without judgement. Try instead “I’m trying to understand. Can you explain more?” It accomplishes the same goal as “why” but without that harsh sounding word that signals to your child she should get upset or stop talking altogether.
6. Get rid of the “but” word
No one word halts a conversation faster than the “but” word. Everything you say after the but tends to get ignored because your child is preparing her retort back. So if you say “I know you want to go the mall, but you haven’t done your homework.” Your child has just stopped listening to you, and now she’s ready to argue back.
Try finding a way to put the word “and” in the sentence. “I know you want to go to the mall and I want to help you with that goal.” Then….help her with that goal. “Let’s come up with a plan to finish the homework, so we have time to go to the mall.”
When we get rid of “but” (which you and me both know that word means “no”), then you are working toward a yes. And when your child knows you are working with her toward a solution, she is more willing to open up and talk.
7. Repeat back what your child says to you
You’re probably thinking, repeating back? That’s just annoying! The key here is not to be a parrot. Say your child says “I want a new phone because this one has a cracked screen and I’m mad at you because you won’t buy me a new one.” It would be very annoying to your child if you said back “You want a new phone because that one has a cracked screen and you’re mad because I won’t buy you a new one.” She’d be more frustrated and probably scream back “That’s just what I said!”
Otherwise known as reflective listening, this tool is about hearing your child’s words and taking it one step further. You know why she’s upset and you want to put those feelings out there so she feels understood. Using reflective listening you might say “You’re upset because you can’t see the texts on your screen and your mad because you feel like I’m keeping your friends from you.”
If for some reason you’re way off and that’s not what your child is saying, that’s OK. Ultimately you are seeking to clarify your child’s words and that might take a few times of reflecting back to her what you think she’s trying to say.
8. Knock it off with the advice
Pre-teens and teens are notorious for thinking what their parents say is ridiculous, even if it is the best advice. But before you can give advice your child needs to first hear that you understand her and that you understand the problem.
Have you ever sat down with a friend, pour your heart out, and then your friend starts in with saying “You know what you should do….” or “Well when that happened to me, I would…”? It wasn’t exactly helpful was it? Did it make you feel like you wanted to talk more about it, or just steer the conversation in another direction?
What did you need to hear instead? I bet it’s more along the lines of “That’s rough, it sounds like that situation really bothered you.” That would just open up the floodgates for you even more, wouldn’t it? That’s the experience you want with your child.
So when should you give advice? When your child asks for it. Listen for words like “So what do you think about…?” or “What should I do about….?”
If she says “I just don’t know what to do” ask before you give advice. My favorite line is: “I have some ideas, would you like to hear them?” If she says no, that’s OK. Go back to empathizing and validating her feelings. This will help your child to open up and ask for help when she’s ready.
9. Listen more than you talk
Make sure you put periods at the end of your sentences. That means take some time to pause and listen to your child. I know you’ve been trained for the last decade or so to guide, teach, and advise your child. However, if your child has shut down, speaking at length is not going to get her to open up. Your words are like an air bubble that’s taking up the whole room. There’s no space for your child to talk! So you have to create the space.
10. “When you’re ready I’m here to listen.”
So you’ve tried all this and your kid is still shut down and giving you one-word answers. I feel for you. That’s incredibly frustrating. If this happens, though, now is not the time to revert back to your old strategies of prodding, poking, lecturing, and then getting frustrated with your child. It takes time to override the communication block.
Saying “When you’re ready I’m here to listen” is a respectful, non-pushy statement that invites your child to come back to the conversation when it’s comfortable for her. Ultimately, you’re conveying to your child “You’re words are important. I understand you don’t feel like talking right now. That’s OK. I’ll be here for you when you are ready.”
Bottom line: Getting your child to open up and talk is a process, but it takes more than one conversation to get back on track. At a time when your frustration is the highest, your child needs you to be the most patient. Hang in there, because these tools, when used frequently, will improve your communication.
Please comment below: Have you ever struggled with a child who had difficulty opening up and talking to you? What did you do to help him/her open up?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.