Every day, some parent, somewhere, has this exasperating conversation with their child. Why? Children are often reluctant to talk with us, especially about their bad feelings. They become defensive and uncommunicative, unwilling to report even mundane events. Why do young children say to us, “I’m not going to tell you,” and why do they so often refuse to listen to what we have to say?
In these situations, it is helpful to keep in mind that a child’s unwillingness to talk may be an instinctive, self-protective behavior, evoked by anticipation of painful feelings or unfavorable consequences. Children may refuse to talk to us because they are angry or ashamed or afraid that we will be critical. They may also think that bringing up a bad point in the day will make them feel bad all over again, and if we would just leave well enough alone, their bad feeling might go away.
It is also possible that a parent will receive the same (non)answer because their child’s teacher has been asking questions all day; now, your child just wants some peace and quiet. (Remember how we felt, as parents, when our children were three and asked “Why?” 1,000 times a day?) Children are often more open to talking after they’ve had some downtime — with a book, or video game or time with a friend.
What Can We Do?
Here are some recommendations that have been helpful to many parents, lessons learned from my experience as a child therapist in developing more open communication with children.
Express enthusiastic interest in your child‘s interests, even if these are not the interests you would choose. This is the surest way to engage children, of any age, in meaningful dialogue and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.
Acknowledge frustrations, disappointments and grievances. In therapy, when a child is sullen and uncommunicative, if I ask her to tell me about what is unfair in her life, she will almost always open up. As parents, we can say to our children, “I know you feel it wasn’t fair when…” Or, “I know you were really disappointed when…” Or, “I know you were really frustrated and angry when…”
Of course, what a child then tells us may not be the whole story. But if we are willing to listen patiently, we will often find some truth — not only anger and blaming of others, but also some previously unnoticed provocation or hurt feeling. And when we acknowledge this, she will be more likely to listen to us.
Share personal stories. Young children are wide-eyed in their curiosity and interest in the lives of their parents. For many years, I have advised parents to talk with their children about experiences in their own lives, especially at times of sadness, anxiety and disappointment. Personal stories are helpful, for example, when children are anxious about their first day at school or summer camp, when they have suffered a painful rejection by a friend or when there has been a death in the family.
Let your child know that you can sympathize with how he or she is feeling because you have also had these feelings. “Yes, I know, it feels really bad when other kids won’t let you play. I also felt bad and angry when that happened to me.” Many children will respond to these statements with astonishment. “That happened to you!?” And of course, it has.
In my experience, there is simply no better way to engage a young child’s attention, encourage dialogue and provide emotional support than through sharing personal stories. When children are feeling worried, disappointed or sad, our personal stories offer encouragement and hope and can give children a starting point to express their own concerns.
When there is a recurring problem in your family life, ask your child for input. You can say, for example, “A lot of times, we have a problem in the morning, when it’s time to get ready for school. What do you think we can do about this?”
Even young children often participate enthusiastically in this problem-solving process, and many parents are pleasantly surprised by the reasonableness of the solutions they offer.
Acknowledge your mistakes. If we are willing to acknowledge our mistakes, our children will be more likely to own up to theirs. We could say, for example, “I know I was very angry at you earlier and didn’t handle the situation well. I would like to talk through the problem now. Let’s see if we can find a solution together.”
When you need to criticize, criticize thoughtfully and gently. When talking with your child about a problem, acknowledge what is right about what he or she is saying or doing before correcting what is wrong.
Set aside 10 minutes every day as a time to talk — a time to listen to your child‘s concerns and share stories. If your child says that he or she has nothing to talk about, you can talk about something that happened in your day, perhaps a moment of excitement or frustration or a moment of humor. Then ask about something your child is either looking forward to or worried about for the next day.
Give them time. When talking about any problem, it is important to give your child time. Even minor criticisms evoke defensiveness in most children and a wall quickly comes up. When you bring up a problem, ask your child to think about it, then plan a discussion for the following day.
A child’s reluctance to talk with us is a common problem for both parents and child therapists. However, if we are patient and tolerant of their mistakes; if we acknowledge what they feel is unfair and what is going well in their lives; if we talk about our own disappointments and frustrations; and especially, if we express enthusiastic interest in their interests and concerns, they will be more likely to open up. Over time, we can help our children learn that, although it is not always easy, talking with each other about our feelings, frustrations and triumphs is a normal and helpful thing to do.