OPINION: In after-school talks, let kids lead the conversation

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

This summer, while her son was away at camp, my friend got a crash course in parent-child communication.

The son sent a letter, composed of a few three-word sentences. One of those sentences sat smack in the center of the page and spelled out his desire, written in capital letters for emphasis: “NO MORE LETTERS!”

My friend got the message.

“Clearly, I didn’t expect to receive any more communication from him,” said Lisa Adler of Atlanta.

With summer winding down and school back in session, Adler is ready to escape the rut that seems to plague parents’ communications with kids. Like many moms and dads, she greets her kids in the afternoons with the question, “How was school?”

Much like the sentiment in that letter from summer camp, her son’s most frequent answer is “fine” or “good,” she said, followed by what snack is available or what’s for dinner?

“I definitely want to find new strategies for communication, especially as my son enters the preteen years,” Adler said.

I’ve had similar after-school conversations with my daughter and often get the same one-word response to questions about her day. Sometimes, in our efforts to communicate with our children, overzealousness can be our worst enemy.

Some kids may want to talk the moment they jump in the car; others may need time, said Jody Baumstein, a child advocacy program specialist for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life. And every day is different. Still, it’s important to strive for productive communication.

“We can’t expect them to come to us with the big stuff if they are not coming to us with the little stuff every day,” said Baumstein. “The goal is to create safety around communicating with you so they realize, ‘My parent can handle it — nothing is too big and nothing is too scary.’”

This is particularly true when attempting to relate to kids who are in that transitional stage where they begin to share more with their friends than they do with their parents. We have to keep exploring and practicing ways of communicating that will get us out of the dead zone of those one word answers.

Developing daily check-ins at dinner or before bedtime, for example, might invite kids to share the good and challenging parts of their day while also teaching them stress management. Instead of asking “How was your day?” Ask something like, “What was the best part of your day?” Or offer more specific questions.

“We go through our day, and stress fills our balloons like air. When we build a ritual like that, we are letting some of the air go,” said Baumstein.

She also suggested using play — from board games to kicking around the soccer ball — to engage children in conversation that feels less formal and forced. Let them decide what to share, but set the stage to let them know you are ready, she said.

Kids often don’t have the words to express how they feel, which can feel like a barrier. Helping them to articulate their feelings can move the conversation forward. Baumstein said using an “I wonder” statement is a powerful technique.

For example, when kids respond to the question “How was your day?” with “Fine,” try following that with “I hear you when you say you’re fine. I wonder what ‘fine’ means to you?”

“I wonder” statements express curiosity, help build a child’s vocabulary for feelings by prompting them to find other words to articulate their emotions, and check for clarity, all while furthering the conversation, Baumstein said.

It is important to always be an active listener when talking to kids by putting down your phone, holding your tongue before offering advice and just being patient without rushing to fill any silence. We can help teach kids that their feelings matter by normalizing and validating what they feel rather than trying to talk them out of it, as many adults do.

Repeat back to them what you heard them say to give them an opportunity to confirm that you are listening. And, in those moments when you’re not sure what to say, one thing to always fall back on is “How can I help?”

It was good to learn that it is never too late to shift a pattern of communication. As kids get older their needs will change, necessitating new ways to communicate, Baumstein said.

In her clinical practice, she has even worked with adult children and their parents to help them get their communication on track. “When we are doing something new, it is going to feel incredibly awkward and forced. But deal with it, because you want to get to the other side of it,” Baumstein said.

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