Those adorable first baby sounds, the coos and babbles that we try so hard to make sound like real words are the beginning of a lifetime of communication ups-and-downs between parents and their kids.
From those first little words that are so exciting, we head into the “why zone” that leaves us wondering “why” did we ever want them to start talking? While this stage can be maddening, it is still a time that as parents we are able to direct the conversations and to learn a great deal from our kids about what’s going on in their lives.
It’s easy to think that a child who never stops talking at home or at school will always happily share all the big and little details of their lives. We expect the “what happened at school today?” inquiry will continue to open the verbal floodgates regarding activities in the classroom, lunchroom gossip and who played nicely or not so nicely on the playground.
Sadly, that is rarely the case. As our kids get older, often starting as early as elementary school, they begin to find other people who they think make better chat buddies. Our previously successful car ride questions are met with “nothing happened at school today,” “everything is fine” or “you wouldn’t understand.” Those answers can be frustrating, especially when you sense that something did happen at school and maybe things aren’t fine at all. And those responses can be dangerous because they are a red flag that your child has things to talk about, but they aren’t talking with you. Depending on who your child is talking to, they could be opening themselves up to bad advice or much worse.
So how do we get our preteen and teenage kids to open up and really talk? How do we move from monosyllabic answers to real conversations? The easiest way to ensure that your preteen/teenage kids have open and honest conversations with you is to capture that natural tendency to talk while they are young and consciously build on it. Making conversation a priority by regularly setting aside cell phones, closing your laptop, turning off the TV and really being available to give undivided attention when they are ready to talk is the best way to send the message that what they have to say is important to you.
Before you start to think about how crazy that sounds, hear me out. When we are distracted, reading an email or texting a friend, while listening to our child’s recap of the day, we miss the subtle body language, voice inflections and facial expressions that give additional insight into the words that are being spoken. More importantly, when we divide our attention while our kids are talking with us, we send them a message that what they are saying is not the most important thing to us at that time.
How many of us have tried to tell our spouse about the trials of finding jeans that really fit while they are watching a ball game? You get what it’s like to have someone’s partial attention and the frustration that comes with it. More often than not those conversations end with “Well, never mind.” And that is exactly how our kids feel if we try to multitask when they need to talk.
While always being available to our kids, ready and willing to give undivided attention whenever they are ready to talk does wonders for keeping an open dialogue going, that isn’t always possible. So here are some practical tips to try that let your kids know that what they have to say really does matter to you:
- Establish a routine. For example, every night at bedtime, do a ‘Blessing and Bummer’ where each family member tells the best and worst thing that happened that day.
- Have a tech free time every day. Schedule in advance and let everyone know what is expected. All screens off for set period of time, be sure to include adults, and have a plan for exceptions.
- Focus on the message and not the words. A frustrated or angry kid may use words that are not what we want, but if you can hear them out and talk through the issue at hand, then address their choice of words at a later date, you make it clear you were engaged in their story.
- Thank them for being open and honest with you. And remember what they are sharing with you will happen with or without them talking to you about it. Focus on keeping the dialogue going even if you don’t like what you hear.
Most of all, realize that the older our kids get the less time we have to just talk. Don’t miss the chance; it may not come again.