Do your kids always tell you what’s going on in their impenetrable little worlds?
My daughter is a certified chatterbox. She’ll tell me about the space-camera-binocular-thingie she is building with Legos until I’m blue in the face from listening. Or about a fancy new restaurant she is going to open. Or the new obstacle course she’s designing.
But ask her what she did in school today, and I get nothing. Zilch. Nada.
She doesn’t get past two sentences about her day before getting sidetracked about something in her imagination that is too fantastic to ignore.
At times, it can be a bit frustrating not knowing what’s going on in her real world.
If you have kids who don’t tell you what they’re up to, for one reason or another, you know that feeling!
I sometimes wonder, if something ever really goes wrong or bothers her, will she tell me? Is there something I can do to make sure that she will?
So, I did what I’ve been doing lately… I reached out to 6 amazing experts in the parenting field and asked them –
How can we get our kids to open up to us about their fears and worries?
The answers they gave me were every bit as insightful and helpful as I’d hoped.
Here’s what I learnt about what we can do to get our kids to open up to us about their fears and worries –
#1 There is no magic pill. Kids won’t just come up to us one fine day and share their fears and worries. We need to first promote their trust in us.
It seems to me that this is just a specific case of what we need to do in general to promote their trust in us — namely, to spend more time asking than telling, to listen carefully and without becoming defensive, and to make it clear that our love for them is unconditional and doesn’t hinge on what they feel, say, or do.
#2 We need to pay attention to the “small” stuff now, if we ever want the “big” stuff to bubble up some day.
In order for children to feel comfortable in talking with adults about their fears and worries, a trusting and safe relationship must already be established. If a child has been continually shunned away while talking about “small” things (like tv shows, videos games, playing with their friends) or laughed at for sharing feelings, they will be unlikely to share their concerns. Growing a strong, open relationship with a child from the day they are born will help them to know they can communicate their own feelings … and that those feelings matter.
#3 We need to listen more than we talk.
The first and most important thing to do if we want children to open up to us about their fears and worries is to listen more than we talk. It is tempting to try to talk children out of their anxieties or to meet their irrational thoughts with logic. But these methods rarely work, especially with children who are especially prone to anxiety. If we listen with compassion and interest we can ease children’s added worry about not being validated or understood.
#4 When we do talk, we need to be mindful of what we say, and how we say it.
Before you ask the question HOW do you get the kids to open up about their feelings and worries, you have to first ask yourself, “What might be making my children reluctant to open up?” Some possible reasons include:
- When they have reached out, you’ve tried to find a solution and they feel pressured into nodding their heads and saying, “okay,” even if they are sure your solution won’t work for them.
- You are quick to share your opinions about their fears or worries instead of opening up a dialogue that gives them time to share all of their concerns and builds a sense of trust and security so they can continue to share.
- You diminish the seriousness of their fears or worries.
#5 We need to get good at recognizing any change in their patterns suggesting something might be off.
The key in learning how to encourage your children to open up about their fears and worries is to know your child. If their pattern changes in any way, for any length of time, that is your clue that something is up. Some signs?
- They’re starting sentences but then trailing off and when you say “What was that?”, they answer with “nothing.”
- They stare off into space as if they are contemplating something, but when you ask “what’s up?”, they say, “Nothing. I’m good.”
- Any changes in behavior, attitudes and moods. They may be distant or aloof, teary eyed or emotional volatile.
#6 And, pick up the subtle calls for help.
The key to getting kids to open up is to stay focused and tune in. So when a child resists something, for example, “I don’t want to go to school.” Instead of saying, “There’s no choice.” Or, “You have to.” Stop and ask questions that will allow you to understand what the child is truly feeling or needing. A parent might ask: “What about school do you not like?” “What scares you about going to school?” If the child has no response, the parent can guess. “Are you wondering what mom/dad will be doing while you are in school?” “Do you wonder where the bathroom is, or who you will sit with at lunch?” If a parent takes the time to really understand what the child is thinking or feeling they can then, find solutions to make it better.
#7 We need to help them learn the vocabulary to express their feelings in the first place.
There are additional ways to help children share their fears and worries. Making sure that the child has the vocabulary to express their feelings. This can be done by helping the child label what they are feeling (such as a child being upset that they can’t get a certain toy, say, “I can tell you are really mad or angry right now.”) Also reading books about feelings or doing activities that help learn emotions can be very helpful.
[Sumitha’s Note: For more ways to do this, check out Dr. Hutchison’s article Playful Activities to Help Kids Learn about Feelings]
#8 And when the time comes, we need to make it easy for them to share their fears and worries.
Here are some things you can do [to help them open up about their fears and worries] :
- Provide a safe and quiet place for them to share with no time restrictions. Make sure they know you have nothing more important to do than be with them.
- Ask questions that get them thinking in new directions and keep the conversation open.
- Take breaks if you need to and come back to the conversation when you and the child have had time to digest what is being shared.
- Validate the fears and worries without playing into them, it’s a balance.
- Make a point to listen without commenting.
- Keep your opinions to yourself.
- Remind them that they can trust you and that you take their concerns seriously and that you will keep them confidential if that is what they want.
- Let them know you understand that it can be difficult for them to trust you or share their concerns, so you will be patient and give them time until they are ready.
[Sumitha’s Note: I personally find the driving time in the car most conducive for such conversations. Something about just the two of us being in a closed space but not quite in each other’s face and having nothing else to do really helps open up the conversation.]
#9 Sometimes, you have to gently nudge them to face those fears
Help children see “signs of safety,” since they are focused heavily on signs of danger. This may mean [saying] “Can you look deeply into my eyes and see what you see there…can you see if I am afraid?” Finally, we can help children face their fears by giving them a gentle push—firm enough so that they can’t avoid but gentle enough so that they feel supported.
[Sumitha’s Note: For more about helping your kids overcome fear check out Got Kids With Irrational Fears? 5 Powerful Strategies You Should Try]
#10 As they share their fears/worries/feelings we need to train ourselves to not over-react
Kids are afraid they’ll create an even bigger problem by talking with their parents. Prove they can trust you to support them without losing your cool when they’re being bullied on the playground and you’ll get to hear about the boys in their crowd shoplifting when they’re a few years older. How? In tough moments, breathe. Listen. Get yourself calm before you even open your mouth. When you do, start from the assumption that your child will have definite ideas about how to solve this problem, and with your support, can sort out some solutions.
#11 And finally, the most important one of all – we need to keep confidences.
Remember how embarrassed you felt when your dad blurted out in front of the relatives that you were terrified of spiders? Or your mother called the neighbors to share what you’d told her about their daughter? Consider everything your kids tell you as privileged information. If you think you need to share it with anyone else for any reason — even your spouse — let your child know.
[Sumitha’s Note: For more from Dr. Markham about establishing trust, check out Can Your Child Trust You?]
So, there you have it.
As you can see, it’s one thing to be a caring parent.
It’s entirely another for our kids to feel like they can trust us and open up about their deep, dark fears and worries.
Will my daughter ever tell me if/when something bothers her?
I don’t know. But I think her space-camera-binoculars-thingie just might.
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
OK, it’s time now for our quick contemplation questions –
- Do you listen to your kids when they talk about “small” stuff or do you brush them away because it seems too trivial or boring to you?
- When your kids come to you with a problem, do you jump in with a solution? Do you ask them to tough it out? Do you make light of the problems? Or do you engage them with more questions and catalyze them to figure out their own solutions?
- Let’s say your kids told you something in confidence and it’s something hilarious and amusing. Will you discuss it with your spouse? Your best friend? Your child’s best friend’s mom/dad?
- Do your kids know how to express their feelings? Do they know “frustrated” from “angry”? Can they tell you when they are overwhelmed instead of acting out?
You may do great while answering some of these questions. With others, you may come short. That’s exactly the point of these 2-minute action plans — to become aware of where we’re at, and figure out where we should head next. So, be as truthful as possible with these answers.
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Figuring out if our kids have any fears or worries isn’t as much about them getting better at telling us about it, as it is about us getting better at listening and decoding the clues. It’s a skill — and all this week, we’ll use the tips above to acquire/hone that skill.