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How do I get my child to talk to me?

Mum and daughter relaxing in bed, talking about their day.

Why doesn't my child talk to me?

So many parents I speak to ask me; “how do I get through to my child?” They’ll say “They seem so reluctant to talk to me about how they’re feeling. I ask about their day, and I get a grunt or a sigh. If I’m lucky I'll discover that they had fish fingers for lunch or that another child pushed them in the line, but the finer details I know nothing about. It’s like they disappear for 6 hours into an alternate universe, living a life of their own and we never really speak about it!”

10 years old pre teen girl holding gaming console and playing on a sofa

As a counsellor, I’m never surprised to hear this. I’m fortunate that my job is to help children to open up and talk to me, but as a parent myself, after a long day of work and school, I understand how hard it can be to find the time. It can be so tough to find that moment to ask how things are and know the right things to say to help them open up.

How will they let me know they want to talk?

Oftentimes, parents tell me that their child wants to talk about these things at bedtime when it's far too late and they’re all out of patience and energy. It can be hard during the evenings when everyone is exhausted and parents are desperate to get downstairs to sort out that pile of washing or just collapse in front of the TV! So, when things aren’t going so well It's easy to just give up and think ‘It will keep, I’m sure they’re fine’.

Mom with her pre teen daughter hugging, positive feelings

But what if they are not fine? We know that children can find it really difficult to express themselves, to say how they feel and ask for help. A favourite quote that I continuously see pop up on social media that causes me to have a pang of guilt is ‘Children don’t say “I had a hard day, can we talk?” They say “will you come to play with me?”’ This quote really does drive home the importance of checking in with our children and responding to their requests for interaction, support, play or connection

How to get your child to talk to you

When I work with children in counselling sessions, I’m able to use certain tools and skills to help them to share and open up, and I can give them my undivided attention. I feel lucky in a way, that I have that time set aside to be with a child and listen so intently to everything they say, but for parents, it can feel so hard.

So how can parents develop this connection with their child? Here are my top tips that I use in counselling sessions to help children feel really valued and seen. If used regularly, they’ll let your child know you’re there for them and will make a huge difference to your relationship.

1. Take care of your own mental health

As parents, we often forget to look after ourselves. But the truth is, how can we really offer anything of ourselves to our children if our own basic needs are yet to be met. So before engaging in a conversation about your child’s day, Ask yourself first. ‘How was my day? What do I need right now?’ and start with that. If you have met your own needs and are feeling relaxed, hydrated and calm, the conversation with your child will undoubtedly go far better than if you are feeling grumpy and grouchy! So check in with yourself… who am I having this conversation for? Am I genuinely trying to show up for my child here and offer support, or am I anxious about them and I need to know what's going on? If the latter, your child has probably picked up on this already and is unlikely to open up to you, particularly if they feel like opening up might get them in trouble. So be mindful of your own headspace and agenda. Go into the conversation feeling relaxed, comfortable, calm and open, and you’ll really feel a difference in how it goes!

2. Don't go empty-handed

When I have a session with a young person, I will rarely turn up without something with me. Children and young people can get very edgy and nervous when they’re put in a confrontational situation with an adult, so I like to bring something to take the edge off a bit, something we can focus on together.
Whatever your child’s interested in, bring that along. Maybe you found a new colour of felt tip you like, or you have a special board game or activity you know that your child really enjoys. Just having something that you can focus on together can help ease the tension and you will see your child start to feel safe and want to open up. Perhaps going for a walk, playing a game of football or going for a drive in the car together will make it feel less threatening or formal. However, if you choose to bond with them, make sure it's lighthearted and most importantly, it's fun!

Mum and daughter relaxing in bed with glass of milk3. Set enough time aside

We don't want this to be another thing on your long to-do list, be realistic!

Sometimes just a 15-minute specific activity where you are giving your child your full attention and being completely present can help your child to feel important. Children really do have two buckets they need to fill; one is power and the other is attention. If either bucket starts to feel empty, then that is when we start to see negative behaviour. Giving your child 10-15 minutes of undivided quality time with you will help to top up that bucket. In turn, it will make them feel great and will strengthen your relationship too.

4. Allow your child to feel in control of your time together

Top tip number 4 is to do with that power bucket. Children are innately programmed to please their caregivers because instinctively and evolutionarily, parents keep their young alive, safe and well. Our children will not want to risk saying or doing anything which could lead to them being abandoned or ‘cast out’ of the proverbial cave.

Mom with her tween daughter relaxing in bed
So listen gently, be curious and try to leave your feelings out of that time together. This can be hard because as parents, we can often be triggered by our children. Parents are not perfect and we make mistakes all the time. We panic, we say the wrong things and we are constantly getting it wrong, but this special time together should be the antidote to all of that. It's your time to be really mindful of allowing your child to be themselves without fear of judgement. Let them get it wrong, make a mistake and just be there with them as they do. Learn the art of pausing, relinquishing control and letting the child be in charge

5. Ease off on the questions

Children can spot an interrogation a mile away and they’re very good at sensing the atmosphere in the room. Your child will know what's going on if you start asking them lots of questions about their day. So leave out the ‘big questions’ if you can. Children will clam up quickly if they feel under fire. Try starting the conversation off with something neutral. Instead of ‘How was your day?’ which will inevitably be answered with something like ‘okay’, try `What made you laugh today?’ or ‘What made you smile today?’ For more ways to ask your child about their day, check out this article

Mum and daughter in bed chatting6. Be real

Children learn by example, so if you’re living in a home where no one shares anything about themselves, your children are unlikely to go into detail about their lives either. Be brave and share something about your day with your child. Tell them about your amazing lunch or the feedback you got at work. Share something you’re proud of and let them be proud of you, or if things haven't gone so well, share a little bit about that too. You don't need to go into great detail, their young brains may not cope with adult problems, but it's totally okay to say ‘I was disappointed about something today’ or ‘I’ve been in a really grumpy mood this morning’. Whatever it is, as long as you’re sharing authentically and comfortably, your child will feel safe to reciprocate and this will lay the foundation for a really lovely, two-sided relationship.

7. Praise them, thank them and be grateful

Our children don’t owe us a breakdown of their lives and they don't have to share everything about their day if they don't want to. When they do, be sure to let them know how much you appreciate it and how proud you are of their achievements. You could have an achievements wall where they can pop their certificates, and this will inevitably lead to more conversations and more celebrations. Whatever it is, let your child know that you really love it when they share their life with you.
Remember your child really does want you to be involved in their life, but on their terms. Be mindful of personal boundaries and don't force your child to share anything they aren't comfortable with. Focus on creating an open, honest, safe and accepting space where they can be themselves and share that with you. They’ll really appreciate it.

Mum and  daughter hugging in bed
If you’d like to know more ways of helping your child to open up and share their feelings or you are concerned that they may need professional support, give us a call here at Mable Therapy. One of our counsellors would be happy to help.