You pick up your child from school, and can’t wait to hear about his or her day. So you turn to the passenger seat and ask, eagerly: “How was your day?”
You: “What did you do today?”
You: “Did you learn anything new?”
But don’t give up on having a real conversation with your child yet. Experts say there are some simple things you can do to help your child open up and talk:
At the end of the school day, kids are spent – emotionally, physically and mentally. “They need time to decompress and relax. Expecting something other than a tired, one-word answer when kids walk in the door or get in the car is unrealistic,” said Maggie Macaulay, president of Whole Hearted Parenting in Miramar, which offers parent coaching and workshops.
Give kids a snack or a little time to themselves to help recharge their batteries. “Do whatever is soothing for the child,” Macaulay said. “Parents can provide these things, and a conversation will naturally happen over time.”
You want to re-establish a connection with your child after school by quizzing them about their day. But that conversation doesn’t have to be immediate. Accept that, and a lot of your frustration will disappear, Macaulay said.
“Parents may have an attachment to their child answering their questions about the school day because they equate the conversation with love – ‘If my child really loved me, he couldn’t wait to tell me all about his day,’” Macaulay said. “The attachment to this mythical end-of-the-school-day conversation is what causes the frustration.”
To encourage conversation, share something about your own day. Or ask your child for advice -- what to wear to a party, what to fix for dinner, or where to go on vacation. If you show that you value their opinion, they will open up more.
“There probably still needs to be a bit of time between leaving school and having this sharing time,” Macaulay said. “Children may just need a bit of quiet.”
Ask good questions
Use open-ended questions, instead of yes-or-no questions. Instead of “Did you have a good day,” ask “What was the best part of your day?” Instead of “Did you make any new friends,” ask “What did you and your friends do at recess?” Instead of “Did you learn anything new,” ask “What was the most interesting thing you learned today?”
Know what your child’s “love language” is – what makes them feel loved and secure, Macaulay said. There are five kinds:
- Words of affection: spoken words, love notes or cards
- Acts of service: cooking a special meal, fixing a toy or other helpful task
- Gifts: something unexpected, such as bringing someone a memento from a trip
- Physical affection: hugs, kisses or hand-holding
- Time – quality time and one-on-one time
The more you listen, the more your kids will feel heard, and the more they will talk, Macaulay said. Use simple prompts like “Really?” and “Hunh?” to keep the conversation going, and let your child know you are listening.
Don’t try to fix problems as your child tells you about them. It will shut down the conversation. Instead, ask your child how they think the problem can get better. Then you can help them brainstorm ideas, especially if this is the first time you are giving them this opportunity.
Set up rituals
Eating dinner together, and having routines for bedtime and morning helps adults and kids feel secure and comforted.
At dinner, keep conservation light, instead of trying to solve problems at that time. “Don’t have dinner be about conflict resolution, you want it to be about connecting,” Macaulay said.
Family dinners are important
Paula Swope, director of programs for Informed Families, a prevention-based outreach group in Miami, said that eating together at least four times a week as a family not only helps foster communication, but can help in the prevention of substance abuse among youth. (Informed Families is a sponsor of Family Day on Sept. 23, which promotes eating dinner together as a family that day.)
Swope said family dinners were a practice she set up early with her two kids. Now 22 and 24, they still come over every Sunday morning for breakfast and family conversation, where they reconnect and catch up.
“When there are problems to solve, it tends to come out more in the open,” Swope said. And when families eat together regularly, “kids use drugs less … because the parents’ standards and expectations are set high, and set up in the open.”
Joanne Lopez, a Kendall mom of three, created a game to get families talking together at meals called “Today I ... The Art of Simple Conversation for Families.”
It "was created at our dinner table,” said Lopez, an advertising manager for the Miami Herald. “For years, we each shared a highlight from the day around our dinner table. One day we decided to start the conversation with other topics. We wrote down some ideas, placed in a tin on our table and used it to share events from our day with each other.”
The table is a place where everyone comes together, Lopez said. “For us it is the place of family team building. We share, coach, listen, laugh and learn from and with each other. Sharing moments from the day help to create the bond.”
Macaulay said every step helps in forging family bonds, and creating the sense of security and comfort that will help a child open up and talk.
“Focus on making connections throughout the day, and stop focusing on the time right after school,” Macaulay said. “Wait, and conversation will happen.”