How To Get Your Kids To Talk With You

Jack is standing by the curb. As he sees his mother’s car pull up, he heaves his stuffed navy backpack over his shoulder, grabs his lacrosse stick and nods a goodbye to his teammates. Jumping in the back seat (his younger sister is in front), he braces for the inevitable onslaught of questions. Like many parents, Jack’s mother has read many articles citing research that the best time to talk with your teen is while riding in the car together.

It's important to give your children space.

Give your child space if you want them to talk with you.

Parenting Educator Rosalind Wiseman disagrees. The best-selling author of Queen Bees and Wannabees has spent countless hours in the past year working with boys who served as co-writers of her new book, Wingmen and Masterminds. When she asked boys what they needed from their parents, she heard a variation on this sentiment:

“Tell them to stop interrogating me when I get in the car. We’re trapped and we just want to relax.”

Wiseman asks parents to consider a reverse of the situation. Imagine coming through the front door after a long, stressful day at work and your 16-year-old daughter greets you with a barrage of questions before you have even said hello:

“Mom, did you check all your email today? How did that presentation go? Have you done anything about that sabotaging colleague? Let’s role play.”

 It is funny but also illustrates what many of us do to our kids everyday. So what should parents do instead? The boys working with Wiseman said they wish their parents just said “hi” or voiced some other sentiment of affection—and that’s it. Wiseman believes that no matter how nice their school is, teens walk around a good part of the day wearing armor of some kind. So it is important to be able to come home and release. Parents can then follow up later in the evening. Around 9:00 PM or so check in with your teen, using a warm tone, “How are things going? Everything good?”

Thanks For Telling Me

“If everything is good, don’t hang around being weird—leave,” said Wiseman. And what if things are not okay? If a child implies that there is a problem, a parent can ask, “I want to be sure I understand; can you tell me more?” Then, “I’m sorry this happened. Thanks for telling me. I don’t have an answer right now, but we are going to work though this together.”

It is important for us as parents not to rush to judgment, draw hasty conclusions or show the anxiety we may be feeling. And there is no need to come up with a rapid-fire solution. It demonstrates positive problem-solving skills to show your child that important matters deserve thought and consideration.

According to Wiseman, the worst thing a parent can do is to say, “I am going down to that school and…” (Or call that girl’s mother…) That is when the anxiety has taken over. “If the parent advocates for the child in a crazy way the child will stop talking to them,” said Wiseman.

If kids feel safe sharing, they are more likely to open up.

If kids feel safe sharing, they are more likely to open up about the difficult problems.

Parents should make no promises when a child says, “I am going to tell your something, but you cannot do anything about it.” Instead, respond by saying something like: “I cannot promise you that. Whatever the problem is, we may need to get help to solve it. You and I will find the right person together.”

Talking About The College Search

Another potential hot spot for parent-child communication is the college admissions process. We live in a culture that is overly focused on college admission to an unhealthy degree. Sometimes anxiety around admissions gets to even the most loving and thoughtful of parents. Like any other discussion, timing is everything. We strongly recommend limiting college-specific discussions to once per week during the busy months of junior and early senior year. Every conversation should not be about school, SATs, grades or college planning. Likewise, before family holidays and gatherings, warn off relatives from asking about college plans to keep the events stress-free and enjoyable for all.

These are good lessons for all of us. Be present so your child can talk when he needs to, but don’t force a conversation at the wrong time. And don’t give up completely on the car conversation. During a long, leisurely drive, you might get away with a question or two.

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