The key to getting a child to open up is to say very little. Simply use short phrases that reassure and prompt more conversation. This is particularly important at the beginning of a conversation because we want children to reach a point where they’re comfortable enough to express whatever is on their minds. To reach this point, they must know that we are present, paying attention, and have only their agenda in mind.
I am about to describe a way to talk to children that may seem stilted on first reading. It requires some practice to be able to sound authentic, rather than like someone who’s trying to impersonate a therapist. Therapists are trained to withhold comments because this is a tried-and-true way of making people feel listened to and accepted despite whatever they have to say. This keeps them comfortable enough to continue disclosing their thoughts.
Trust me that this is important. I suggest that you practice this technique with another adult until you can do it in a natural way, one that makes conversation flow, without your child thinking you’re a robot.
First point: Remember the power of silence. Saying nothing, while being in the present moment, sends a loud message that you are accepting of the person who is talking. This doesn’t mean that you approve of everything he says; it means only that you are glad he’s saying it.
Second point: As your child warms up and gets comfortable talking about an uncomfortable subject, listen attentively and silently. When you feel you will burst if you don’t utter something, feel free to nod and say, “Hmm,” and “I see.”
Then, when you are about to spew forth your wisdom, refrain! Just continue to give brief statements that let your child know you’re impressed that he is talking and you are eager to hear more. Some examples of these phrases include:
-Tell me more.
-Wow, you have quite a story to share.
-Please keep talking. I’m really interested.
-It sounds like you have a lot on your mind, so I’m glad you’re talking.
-I love that you’re so open and honest with your feelings.
-It means a lot to me that you feel comfortable talking to me.
-You’re doing a great job of describing what happened.
-Could you repeat that? I want to be sure I understand what you’re going through.
You’ll know when your child has unloaded. He finishes what he wants to say and feels an emotional release. The pace of his conversation may slow.
His body language may soften. He may even blow you out of the water with, “What do you think?”
When that happens, be certain you are completely clear that you have gotten the story straight. If you aren’t quite sure, you might say, “This is what I heard. Did I understand you correctly?” or check his emotions by saying, “It seems that you are feeling…. Is that right?” or “When something like that happened to me, I felt like…. Do you feel a little like that?”
We know that when 12 people hear the same story or witness the same event, the result is 13 different interpretations. It is important that we understand our child’s interpretation because that is what matters here. He will greatly appreciate that you want to understand it correctly and that you’ve listened so carefully to his story that you can recount it.
How to Respond
Sometimes, there may be absolutely nothing else we should do but be fully present as a sounding board. At other times, though, a child needs direct guidance. The best way to figure this out is to ask a simple question: “How can I be most helpful to you?”
When you sense your child needs guidance, you may not think your ideas can actually help him get out of a jam, or your own experience may not match his. But you can take the first step by starting with, “Hmm…how are you thinking of handling this?”
Now more than ever, it’s critical that families, schools and communities understand how to raise children and teens to be emotionally and socially intelligent so they will thrive in both good and challenging times.
The following excerpt is taken from “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings,” 2nd Edition (American Academy of Pediatrics, April 2011) by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP. In this award-winning book, Dr. Ginsburg gives sound advice to parents, caregivers and communities on how to help kids from 18 months to 18 years of age build seven crucial “Cs” competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control so they can excel in life and bounce back from challenges. For additional information, please visit www.healthychildren.org/BuildingResilience.