Have you heard of the saying, “Listen to the small things so that they will tell you the big things”? Keeping the lines of communication open with your tweenager can be a challenge. On their end there are screen distractions and new moods to grapple with. On your end it’s the day-to-day busy-ness of work, home, family life. Sometimes it’s hard to meet in the middle. Both of you want to connect, and yet sometimes the conversations just don’t flow.
So how do you get them to open up about their day, their feelings, and what’s on their mind in more organic ways?
From the mouths of babes, in this case my stepdaughter (AKA my “bonus babe”) 11-year-old Natalia Fitzpatrick, here are three easy tips to make space for your child to open up to you.
- Spill the Beans!
Find a time free of distractions to give your tween or teen your undivided attention. You might make this known by scheduling the time or inviting them to do something simple with you (i.e., bagel run) or you might find a natural moment where you’re cooking or scrolling and notice it’s just the two of you in the room. And then, give them the air time. Start with an open-ended question and take their lead for the direction conversation flows. One of the most common ways that adults stop conversations is by jumping in with their own opinions. Give your child a chance to speak freely without interruption, and without judgment. Once they know they can get through a story without your input, they may be more likely to ask for it.
- Game On!
Rose, Bud, Thorn or Highlights and Lowlights
This conversational game can take place in the car, around the dinner table, or before going to bed and takes the form of a more structured conversation. Everyone takes turns naming their rose, a part of the day they enjoyed, their bud, something they are looking forward to, and their thorn, something that was challenging or upsetting.
An even speedier version is for each person to share a highlight and a lowlight from the day. As with Spill the Beans, it’s important to not comment on each person’s share or to try problem-solving. This is an exercise in listening for everyone and even young siblings can participate. After everyone has had a turn, you might build off each other’s responses with follow-up questions. Remember to keep the flow of conversation equal or, even better, let them take up more of the sharing space.
- Pave the Way!
It’s easier for children to open up when the adults around them are doing the same. There’s less pressure to be perfect or to keep mistakes a secret when kids know they can tell the trusted adults about them because they will understand. One way to open this type of conversation is for parents to take the opportunity during a low-stakes time to share a time when they were their child’s age that they made a mistake, learned something, felt left out, etc. When your child feels that conversation can be a two-way street and that you have experienced hardships too, they are more inclined to spontaneously share when something important arises that they may need help with.
It might take some getting used to stepping out of the “parenting role” and into a “listening one,” but that’s OK. These short conversations build the foundation of trust. By simply being heard, kids can often feel better about any outcome.
Kelly Fitzpatrick is a former elementary school teacher and school administrator, founder of family website Macaroni KID, and an educational consultant. She lives in Briarcliff with her husband, their three children, and an overly excitable, yet always endearing lab mix.