Mealtime is often when the whole family gets together. Here's what you should be talking about and how to get your children to share what's on their minds.

By Michele C. Hollow
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illustration of dinner plates with topics in them
Illustration by Emma Darvick

Jaime Alter, a mom from Chicago, IL, knows it can be next to impossible to get her two children, ages 7 and 9, to open up. "It used to be that I'd ask them 'how was your day?' and their standard response was 'fine.' She wanted to have deeper conversations with her kids but didn't know how.

If Alter's situation sounds familiar, Sarah J. Lynn, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Livingston Center for Enrichment in NJ, suggests asking a more pointed question than 'how was your day?' Instead ask, 'what made you smile or laugh today?' And consistency is key. "Consistent family mealtime can provide security and also create opportunities for positive interactions among family members,” Dr. Lynn says. “If dinner during the week isn't convenient, find another time like breakfast or by having meals together over the weekend."

Then be sure to listen to what your kids have to say. "Show them that you're listening by asking follow up questions or by reflecting back what you heard," Dr. Lynn says. "If they have a concern or problem, don't immediately tell them what to do. Encourage them to come up with some solutions on their own first. Then suggest other options if they're having a hard time figuring out the best way to handle the situation."

You can also try to start a conversation without using questions. Share your own day's activities including those moments that made you laugh or smile. "You want your children to welcome these family moments," says Patricia Harte Bratt, Ph.D., director of Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (ACAP) and ACAP's iStrive program, says. "It's not the time to bring up problems, criticisms, or to push an agenda. The more you can model a curious, explorative attitude, the more your children will feel safe revealing themselves to you."

Alter says she got much more detailed answers from her kids when she changed her approach to starting conversations. Now that you know how to get your kids talking, here are some conversations that are important to have as a family. And remember, no topic should be off-limits.

1. The News

Dr. Lynn says some topics may be scary, but your child is likely exposed to them in conversations with their peers, hearing it mentioned on TV, or seeing it online. In general, if your child asks about newsy topics like fires, accidents, or school shootings, keep the conversation aligned to their developmental levels. Ask them what they heard, and if they have any concerns. Be sure to remind your children that they are safe and secure, even if we don't have all the answers.

2. Climate Change

When it comes to climate change, discuss all the things you can do as a family to help the environment. Brainstorm ways you can conserve energy like shutting off lights when you leave a room. Suggest picking out reusable water bottles and lunch bags to limit single-use plastics. Set out a recycling bin in your kitchen to encourage your kids to reduce waste. If we identify ways to address a problem, it can help children feel somewhat in control and that they are making a difference.

3. Special Needs and Disabilities

"When considering children with special needs, we often focus on what makes them different from us, rather than what makes us all alike," Dr. Lynn says. "Help your children see the ways they are similar to those with special needs. Connecting these similarities helps your children build empathy for others."

4. Politics

“If you want your child to talk to you, you need to discuss the pros and cons of a political decision without being judgmental,” Dr. Bratt said. Break down examples on more simplistic terms for young children. For older children, watch a news show or political debate and let your child know he can ask questions. If your child appears upset by a political outcome, or a political movement goes against your family's values, encourage your kids to get involved and express their opinions. Even a young child can write a letter (with your help) to a local politician sharing their views, telling them how they'd like them to vote on a local bill or national cause, or asking how they can get involved.

5. Drugs, Alcohol, and Smoking

You and your child may have seen a character in a movie smoking or using drugs. Maybe your child knows an adult or a friend's older sibling who smokes. Take advantage of those teachable moments by explaining how cigarettes, vaping, alcohol, and drugs can affect a person's body. Both Dr. Lynn and Dr. Bratt said to keep this conversation simple. For little ones, break it down by talking about the harmful effects that these substances can have on the body. You can go into more detail for children ages 7 to 10.

6. Death

"Use simple words, listen, and be comforting," says Dr. Bratt. You can talk about funerals and rituals. Give your child a chance to express his feelings about the deceased. If a relative, friend, or pet recently died, ask your child to talk about his feelings. Ask your child to remember what was so special about this person or pet.

Young children don’t understand the permanence of death. One of the best ways to explain this to young children is to watch Sesame Street’s episode of when Mr. Hooper died and read the related book, "I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper." Be sure to watch with your children. Watching together can get the discussion started.

7. Bullying

“Not all topics are easy to talk about,” Dr. Bratt said. If you suspect your child has been bullied, understand that your child may be embarrassed to talk about it. Tell your child to speak up and tell the bully in a clear and calm manner to stop. If that is too hard or it doesn't help, tell your child to walk away from the bully and to find a teacher who can intervene.

You should also tell your child it’s important to stop bullying. If your child sees someone being bullied, have him call a teacher to stop it. You don’t want your child to get hurt, but he can quietly find a teacher to put a stop to it.

If your child is bullying others, explain to him that his actions can deeply hurt others. If it continues, consider having your child meet with a counselor.

8. Mental Health

Along with asking kids 'how was your day?', parents should be sure to also ask "how are you?" to let kids know it's alright to talk about their feelings. When it comes to discussing mental health, preschool-age children need less information and fewer details than elementary school kids. What works for both is to compare mental health to a physical ailment. Kids should be able to express feelings of sadness, stress, or depression in the same way they can tell you if they have a headache or their belly hurts.

If you want to explain a specific illness or symptom, do research on your own first and then use simple words. You can tell your child a person with that illness or condition may be feeling sad, anxious, angry, or may have trouble controlling one’s actions.

Both Dr. Lynn and Dr. Bratt said to explain treatments and solutions to your children. Kids know you go to a doctor when you have the flu. Let your child know that there are also special doctors and medication to help treat mental health issues.

9. Sex, Consent, And Boundaries

All children should learn about what is and what isn’t appropriate when it comes to touching or being touched. From age 2 to 5, children should learn about boundaries. Skip explicit details and focus on simple touch-based games—ask permission to tickle them and then have them tell you when to stop. Explain they should tell you when it’s not comfortable and emphasize that they can talk to you if they’ve ever felt they were inappropriately touched.

For children ages 6 through 10, establish rules about talking to strangers, sharing photos online, and “if they see something that makes them uncomfortable online or in-person, to discuss it with you," Dr. Bratt says.