Getting Your Kid To Open Up and Talk to You

Check out these six strategies for talking to your child or tween.

Mom and Tween Daughter Sitting on Bed Talking
Photo: Blend Images/KidStock/Getty Images

Remember when you had a toddler who never stopped talking and asking questions? There were days you probably wished you could wear earplugs, to get a little peace. Then, almost overnight, your kid clammed up. Or perhaps they were a little on the quiet side, to begin with, then bloomed into a full-fledged introvert.

Welcome to the tween and pretween stage. A common side effect of not being little anymore: Talking with parents may be the last thing on a kid's mind.

The good news is that you can jump-start the conversation again. Read on for six common situations where communication between you and your kid may be stalled and how to fix them.

Your Child Is Stressed

"I think my son is anxious and stressed, but he just won't say what's bothering him. I don't know if it's school or friends or something else."

Imagine what it might feel like for your son to say, "Hey there, Mom. I'm starting to have some feelings about girls. Can we chat?" Ain't gonna happen. It can be scary or embarrassing for him to bring up touchy topics. And a lot of topics are touchy to kids this age. Try a tactful game of 20 Questions.

"Open with something such as, 'It seems like you're upset. Do you want me to try to guess what's bothering you?' Then ask your child to tell you if you're hot or cold," suggests Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Hewlett, New York. You could also ask if he wants to write a note for you to read—either right away or after he's in bed. Anything that takes your child off center stage may help him open up. If he's not ready to talk, let him know you're always available later, and then let it go for now.

Sometimes the indirect approach works even better. When you're hanging out with your child, and they're feeling comfortable, resist the urge to probe. Beat around the bush a little instead. Ask a question like "Hey, if a reporter interviewed you, what would you tell them are the best things about fourth grade? And the worst?" Or "If a genie gave you three wishes right now, what would they be? And if the genie could erase three things that really worry you, which three things would you choose?"

Yes, your smart kid may figure out what you're up to. But that's okay, according to Zelinger. If your child really does want to tell you what's on their mind, they may just need a safe way to do it.

Your Child Is Naturally Quiet

"My kid's never been much of a talker. Am I doomed now?"

This is a tough one—especially for parents with a natural gift of gab, like Mary MacRae Warren of Brooklyn. She has no problem saying what she feels, but her son? No amount of pushing can get 10-year-old Azar Shrestha to open up when he doesn't want to. So Warren changed tactics.

"My dirty little secret is that I started playing video games, watching cartoons, reading comics—things my son likes," says Warren. "Every now and then, when we're talking about these things, I can slip in something else."

Sneaky? Perhaps, but also loving, because you're finding common ground with your child, says Adele Faber, coauthor of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. You can also try to notice other times your quiet child seems receptive to conversation. "Boys, particularly, seem to open up a bit more when they're sitting beside you rather than face-to-face. So keep your ears open when you're alone with him on a car ride or working on a project together at the kitchen table," says Zelinger.

Just remember to let your child start the conversation—and then listen without judgment or jumping in to offer advice, Faber says.

Even if your child complains about friends or school, don't dismiss what he's saying or try to talk him out of what he's feeling. "That's the fastest way to get him to clam up again," says Faber. "Instead, nod to let him know you're actively listening, or say something neutral like 'Oh, that's what's bothering you.' Or 'Sounds as if that could be pretty upsetting.' The idea is to let him know that you really do get what he's trying to tell you."

Your Child Is Hiding Something

"I think my child's lying—or at least avoiding the truth—about the kinds of things he's doing. How can I get him to talk about it?"

First, let's get this out of the way: Just because your child might be lying right now doesn't mean he lacks moral character or is on a criminal path. "Who has never lied? Who doesn't embellish or rearrange the truth at one time or another?" asks Faber. "And kids often lie because they wish what they're telling you really could be the truth. Or they're afraid of how you'll react." Your child isn't going to fess up if he knows he'll get into big trouble or that you might lose your temper and turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Say you suspect your son is playing games online instead of doing homework when he's over at a friend's house. Before you start talking about something this sticky, pick the right time and place. For instance, don't jump on him, all worried and upset, right after school or at bedtime. He needs those times to unwind. Instead, consider striking up a more measured conversation while you're cleaning up after dinner or on a Saturday morning.

Let your child know straight-out why you're suspicious instead of asking trick questions, stresses Zelinger. For instance: "I'm worried that you're doing other things, like going on the Internet or playing online games, when you're supposed to be studying with Jack." When you start getting real answers, take many deep breaths. This is a time when you should be asking questions and listening rather than talking or lecturing: "Do you think being on those websites is the best way to use your homework time? How could you get back on track while you and Jack work together?" And so on.

Remember, your kid now needs to help solve some of his own problems—and not simply get a time-out and a stern warning from you. Those days (sigh) are long gone.

Your Child Gives One Word Answers

"All I want to know is how school was. What do I do with these short nonanswers?"

"Fine." "Not really." "I don't remember." These kinds of clipped responses can make you crazy! Layla Gafari of San Jose, CA, has tried every method she can think of to draw information from her 8-year-old daughter, Catherine, but she's still tight as a bank vault when it comes to sharing details about school.

All kids need downtime after an intense day of learning and social drama. Think about how you feel after a grueling day. Wouldn't you rather kick off your shoes and relax before giving your spouse the blow-by-blow of what happened at work?

"Instead of interrogating your child, try a warm, low-key 'Hi! Welcome home! I'd love to hear about your day whenever you feel like talking,' " says Faber. Your child might choose to talk with you later, or she might not—and that's okay, too. "Some kids don't feel the need to hash everything over with you," she explains. "Instead, they use the time to let their own thoughts and solutions grow. They're developing their own resilience, and that's wonderful."

But if your child just needs some help priming the pump of conversation, try asking more specific, open-ended questions like "What did you work on in art class today?" or "What do the kids actually do at recess?" It's even fair game to ask "Did anyone get in trouble or do anything funny today?" or "What was the worst thing about today and what was the best?" Give your child time to answer.

Faber says that some kids need to ponder the question for a few minutes before deciding what to share. The trick is not to push too hard: If you ask a few questions to show you're interested and then stay patient, you may get answers—in 15 minutes. Or an hour.

Your Child Won't Tell What's Wrong

"Her grades are plummeting and she seems so unhappy after school every day. I'm asking why, but she's not answering."

Laura Neiman's daughter claimed that everything was fine at school. But Neiman's spidey sense started tingling when 11-year-old Kayley couldn't tell her what she was supposed to be studying. The Denver mom knew something didn't add up, so she contacted her daughter's teachers and guidance counselor and found out her intuition was exactly right. "Kayley was completely behind, failing nearly all of her classes!" says Neiman.

If you, too, have tried to talk to your child but can't get through, it may be time to get in touch with the school. You might get some new information that makes starting the conversation at home easier.

Worried that you're going behind your child's back? Get over it, advises clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. "You're expected to be your child's advocate when she's this young," says Cohen-Sandler. "And talking to her teachers isn't the same thing as reading her diaries. It's another way to get information."

Other reasons for unhappiness that are hard for kids to articulate include bullies, fickle friends, and embarrassment in gym class. Your child's teachers may have insight into all these things; a new perspective may be just what you need to help you break through to your kid.

In Neiman's case, school officials helped Kayley drop a class and offered her counseling for her anxiety. It worked—much to the relief of both daughter and mother.

Your Child Won't Talk to You

"I don't know why he isn't talking to me—he just has so much less to say than he used to."

Your child used to tell you about everything, from neighborhood-kid battles to the latest music fads. Now they just roll their eyes and say, "You totally don't understand." Being shut out this way can feel almost as painful as childbirth. But hang in there—this is usually just a phase.

"The truth is that kids this age aren't pulling away from you, really. They're pulling closer to their peers," says Cohen-Sandler. Tweens are hypersensitive about what their friends think of them and how they fit in, so that part of their life is probably getting more attention than family right now.

Try this secret weapon: Carpool. "Offer to drive your child and their friends somewhere, then fade into the background. You'll overhear just about everything you want to know: Which kids are 'dating,' who's getting in trouble. The kids will forget you're there!" suggests Cohen-Sandler. (Don't throw in a comment—the chattering could cease, or they might start texting each other instead!)

Luann Udell of Keene, NH, used precisely that method when her son, Doug, was 12. While driving Doug and a friend to the movies, she finally heard her increasingly sullen boy chattering like his old self. "It was wonderful to hear him simply talking and laughing again," says Udell. "And though he still makes us want to tear our hair out at times, that experience made me realize his behavior is normal, and something he'll eventually outgrow."

One more thing: Watch for those few-and-far-between moments when your child actually reaches out to you. If they used to love going out to breakfast with you and don't balk at it now, hang on to that special routine. Or if your usually standoffish child plops down beside you while you're watching TV, pay attention. In tween language, that's sending a loud-and-clear "Hey! I need you!"

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