Conversation starters

Published 8:23 pm Friday, February 19, 2016

Do you ever try to talk to your kids but only get back vague, unsatisfying answers? Parenting experts stress keeping lines of communication open, but how can you if your kids won’t share? Perhaps your approach needs a little tweaking.



Despite our best intentions, parents too often talk at our children rather than talk with them. In the day-to-day hustle and bustle, most of our words consist of directions or corrections. By bedtime, we’ve exchanged plenty of words with our kids, but somehow don’t feel any more connected.

If you find yourself feeling detached, first figure out when you can talk without so many distractions. Dinnertime works well, as do car trips. For younger kids, bath time and bedtime offer a few minutes to engage. Good conversations don’t have to be long; they just need to be thoughtful.

Once you’ve found a time to talk, remember to start easy, especially with older kids. Don’t suddenly bombard them with detailed questions about their business. You wouldn’t start a casual conversation with an acquaintance by jumping right in on personal details; kids can be just as put off if a conversation feels too intrusive.

Start with light questions–not too general, not too personal. Don’t just ask, “How was your day?” because you’ll probably get the standard one-word response, “fine.” Try asking about things you know your child enjoys, such as music class, recess or baseball practice.

Next, structure the conversation to keep it flowing. Avoid yes/no questions, as open-ended questions prompt longer responses. Questions such as, “What was the best thing that happened at school today?” elicit more interesting information than, “How was school?” You can also use statements rather than questions for a less interrogation-like feel. For example, instead of, “Did you have fun?” say, “Tell me about the things you did outside today.”

Remember, too, that how you listen is just as important as what you say. To really hear your child, think about how he might have felt instead of what you want to say next. Occasional comments or observations also show you’re paying attention. Keep your responses short, supportive and reflective. Eye contact, or an occasional touch, helps, too, as long as they seem natural, not forced.

In addition, many parents inadvertently shut down good conversations with criticism, especially when kids describe something emotional or frustrating. For example, if your child lost his coat, you’ll find it tempting to lecture about responsibility. Although he might indeed need that talk, sometimes it’s better to wait. Some days, a child just needs to be heard and supported, not lectured. If he had a rotten day overall and losing the coat was just a small part of it, let him vent while he’s willing to talk. Save your responsibility discussion for when he’s feeling better (and you’re calmer).

Parents also love to dole out unsolicited advice, particularly when kids talk about problems they have with other people. Like a lecture, unwanted suggestions also cut conversation short. Instead, help your child explore what happened. Look at each person’s choices, then brainstorm how different ones might have changed the outcome. Avoid blaming or assuming; kids learn more when you help them figure out their own feelings instead of saddling them with yours.

Finally, don’t dominate the conversation. You wouldn’t yammer on with a friend about your own interests without thinking of theirs, and your child deserves the same courtesy. Your child’s experiences may spark memories for you, but if you lapse into long-winded, self-centered monologues, your child will tune you out. Don’t forget that your goal is to learn more about their lives, not relive your own.

Kids can engage in great discussions no matter what their age, but just like with adults, conversations fall flat when someone forgets basic social skills. Talking to children requires the same social finesse you use in your adult interactions, adjusted to fit the child’s needs given his age and circumstances. Remember: meet kids where they are to learn the most about who they are.

Tamara Stevens, MA is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 252-946-4134.