Everybody has different ways of dealing with “stuff”. Some people, like myself, are talkers. I need to talk it out in order to process things, work out how I feel and to problem solve. Other people tend with withdraw to process things over time, while others shut down all together and avoid the tough stuff.
When it comes to kids it is no different. You may have a child who is willing to come to you with problems, talk through their day and ask for your advice. Or you may have a child who doesn’t talk openly about what’s bothering them and you feel like you have to drag things out of them. You might have both!
For parents it can be worrying if you know something is impacting on your child but they are not willing to talk about it. They may be reluctant to open up because they don’t want to get themselves or someone else into trouble. They may be worried about hurting someone’s feelings. Or they could just be having difficulty working out how to communicate their own emotions.
Teaching children healthy ways to work through issues and to communicate their feelings is very important. However trying to pump them for information can make them withdraw further.
Here are some ways to get your child to open up:
- Make it quick. Kids have short attention spans and the prospect of a long drawn out conversation about feelings is probably not appealing. Offer them a limited time to talk. “Can we just have a chat about X for 5 minutes?” A timer might help. Then let them get on with their day.
- Remove the pressure. Sitting down across a table to “talk” can be intimidating, especially for kids who don’t like eye contact. Many parents believe their children need to look at them to ensure they are telling the truth but this can put undue pressure on a child and make them feel like they are being interrogated. My children see a psychologist who uses dogs in her practice to break the ice with kids. Patting a family pet while you talk would achieve the same. Or letting them play with their fidget spinner. You could even try chatting while playing a simple board game or doing an activity together such as cooking or going for a walk. The key here is that a child who is relaxed is more likely to open up.
- Make it play-based. This is particularly useful for younger kids. You could use dolls or puppets to act out a scene to elicit their responses. Or you could use drawing or role-playing. Some children respond better to this more visual and interactive engagement and will find it easier to express themselves.
- Accept that they might not NEED to talk right now. They might see the issue differently to you and not see it as a problem. Or they could be processing it in their own way. Be patient and don’t force the issue.
- Always model healthy communication. Talking about your own emotions, problems and how you dealt with them will show your children that it is ok to talk about these things. They need reassurance that the things they experience and feel are normal and everyone goes through similar. They also need to know that you will listen without judgement and can be trusted with their thoughts and feelings.
- Offer alternatives. As hard as it is for a parent to hear, it could be that they are not comfortable talking to you in particular. Encourage them to talk to another trusted adult such as a teacher, coach, grandparent or family friend. Or you could direct them to services such as the school counsellor or Kids Helpline. Let them know you will respect their privacy and that the other adult will too.
If your child still won’t talk about an issue and you believe that is something that is negatively impacting them, it may be time to engage a professional. Counsellors and psychologists are very skilled in getting children to open up and can help get to the root of the issue.