Parents often ask what they can say to get their child talking. The secret isn’t about what you say. It’s about how you listen.
The most important skill in talking with anyone, including children, is listening, not answering, not teaching, not lecturing, not fixing things or offering solutions.
Not only do your kids not want that from you, but also it would get in the way of them coming up with their own solutions.
What your child needs from you is your full attention and empathy. That’s what deep listening is. Here’s how to become a brilliant listener.
Pay full attention
This is your time to listen to your child. It’s a gift to both of you. The shopping list and that problem at the office can wait. Your child knows when you’re really listening.
She may not show it, but it breaks her heart when you pretend to and don’t. Set aside your phone and listen.
Use conversation openers rather than conversation closers
Conversation openers acknowledge and reflect feelings without judgment or suggestion, rather than shutting down the feelings. They also usually work better than direct questions to help your child feel comfortable opening up to you.
Questions put the other person on the spot and can cause defensiveness, especially when they begin with “Why?” Say, “You seem worried about the field trip today” instead of, “Don’t be such a baby about the field trip; of course you’re going!”
Use words that validate your child’s experience
You don’t want to say much, just enough to create safety. Use words like, “That must have been so embarrassing! (Or upsetting/frustrating/scary/annoying)” or “That would have hurt my feelings, too.”
Empathise instead of probing
Empathy is mirroring whatever she’s already showing you. “You seem sad this morning” or “You’re very quiet tonight,” followed by a warm smile will encourage her to open up more than badgering her with questions.
Don’t put your child on the spot
Kids often open up more when we aren’t looking directly at them. Your child may feel more comfortable talking while driving in the car, doing dishes, or walking down the street. Sometimes when we turn the lights out at night, kids pour out their souls to us in the dark.
Don’t start by trying to change the feeling or cheer her up
I promise you, empathizing with the bad feeling is the fastest way to let it dissipate. Arguing her out of the bad feeling just invalidates her, or pushes it under to resurface later.
That doesn’t mean you magnify or wallow in the negative feeling, just that you acknowledge it and honour her experience. Once she has a chance to notice, accept, and maybe express the feeling, she’ll feel ready for “cheering up” in the sense of a change of scene and topic.
Don’t start with solving the problem
The point is to let him get past his upset so that he can begin to think about solutions himself, not to solve it for him.
When he expresses his feelings about something, you’ll want to listen and acknowledge, rather than jumping in with solutions. That means you’ll have to manage your own anxiety about the issue.
You may have to put your hand over your mouth. There are teachable moments, but kids learn most from the opportunity to hear themselves talk and come to their own conclusions. If you give in to the temptation to lecture, your child will clam up.
Keep the conversation safe for your child by managing your own emotions
When your child shares something with you that makes you anxious, use your Pause Button to Stop, Drop your anxiety, and Breathe.
Your child needs your help at this moment, not a reprimand. If you start feeling responsible or terrified, get a grip and put your feelings aside.
This isn’t about you, right now, and your upset won’t help. You can process later. What’s most important here is helping your child work through these difficult feelings and possibly come up with a plan of action that works for them.
Remember that all your child’s behaviour is communication
Even children who don’t say much want to connect with you. Accept it on their terms. Sometimes, the smallest gestures are just as meaningful and full of connection as a deep conversation.
Help your child process emotions with your empathy
Think of your empathy as a mirror you hold up to your child. Your acknowledgment and acceptance of what he’s feeling, even those more disturbing emotions like jealousy and anger, helps them to accept their feelings, which is what allows them to resolve.
Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. We don’t have to act on those feelings, or even to like them, merely to acknowledge their presence.
Repressed feelings, on the other hand, don’t fade away, as feelings do when they’ve been acknowledged. Repressed feelings are trapped and looking for a way out.
Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them. You’re showing him you understand, nothing more, nothing less.