5 Ways You’re Shutting Down Dialogue With Your Kids
And how to reopen the conversation
Pretty much every day, at least one of my kids will ask me a probing question about a tough topic: death, racism, bullying, sex. Just this morning, my son asked me why his friends told him that the word “gay” is “bad.” Over the past week, my daughter has wanted to debate both iPad privileges and friendship issues.
These questions often come out of nowhere — but as parents, we need to be ready to field them. It’s something I struggle with even as a child-development specialist who focuses on difficult dialogues with kids every day. In heated or uncomfortable moments, it’s normal for our personal agendas and amplified nerves to take over and stop a great discussion in its tracks.
Let’s break down the blunders that shut the door on open exchanges with our kids.
You told them what to do
Your child is telling you about a friendship frustration or trouble with a classmate, and you launch into a step-by-step plan for solving their problem. I mean, you’ve dealt with this before, so why shouldn’t you share your wisdom, right? But no one likes unsolicited advice, kids included.When you try to give your children guidance before they ask for it, you’ll probably be met with irritation — or tuned out altogether.
What to do next time: Drop your agenda and open your ears. You may know what their next step should be, but that doesn’t mean they came to you to hear about it. They might want to be comforted or simply let off some steam. They may want a sounding board or a hug. Find out what they need and how you can be helpful, rather than providing what you think they need and how you would like to be helpful.
Ask them, “Would you like my advice, or would you just like me to listen?” If they are just looking for a compassionate ear, let them know you are there for them. If you feel like advice is warranted, ask permission before giving it. Research has actually shown that when we ask permission before giving advice, it’s received much more openly.
You forgot to watch your face
As parents, it can be hard to keep our emotions from taking over our faces — and sometimes, that expressiveness is the problem. When your child is talking to you about a dilemma, you don’t want to look overly concerned. Why? Because it makes kids stop talking about what’s bothering them and start focusing on what’s bothering you.
Think back to when your children fell on the playground. If you kept your face neutral while they assessed if they were okay, they typically got back up and started playing again. But if you screamed “Oh no!” and went racing over with a panicky look, the tears probably came tumbling down as they adopted your worry.
What to do next time: Michelle Icard, the author of Middle School Makeover, explained to me on my podcast that parents can use a technique called “botox brow.” This simply means relaxing your face and not scrunching up your forehead. Practice in the mirror to get the hang of it. You want to send the message to your kids that they can keep talking, and that the conversation isn’t so distressing to you that they need to hide what they’re really thinking.
You jumped into ‘fix-it’ mode
Terms like “helicopter parenting,” “bulldozer parenting,” and “snowplow parenting” have become commonplace — and they all describe a parent who takes over, removes obstacles, and fixes a child’s problem for them.
Picture this: Your child comes to you and says they got a D on a group project, even though they worked hard on their part, because no one else in the group did anything. Some parents might jump into action, calling or writing the teacher and telling them how unfair this is to your child. A few may even go in and meet with the teacher in person to underscore the point. These types of reactions tell your child that they can’t manage this problem.
What to do next time: Remember that this is their problem, not yours. Ask, “What would you like to do? What are some of your ideas?” If you’d like to offer help, suggest that the two of you brainstorm some ideas together. With this response, you’re telling your child you believe in their ability to solve the issue.
Even if the decision they make is not the one you would have gone with, if there is no inherent danger in their choice, allow them to take the lead and try. This is how they learn from experience. They can always try something else if the first idea doesn’t work.
You told your child you’ll talk about it when they’re older
When asked about death, drugs, suicide, or other uncomfortable topics, it’s normal to want to punt the question. But this does not squelch their curiosity. In fact, it can ignite it.
One example of how putting off a discussion can backfire: I once heard a story from a mother whose young daughter asked her what sex was. She replied that it was for adults, and they’d talk about it when the time was right — but a few weeks later, her daughter said they didn’t need to talk about it anymore, because one of her friends had told her. It turned out that friend had learned from her curious older brother, who had searched “sex” online and found himself watching porn.
When our children ask us questions, it’s because they want answers. It gives us, as parents, the opportunity to tailor those answers to our child’s needs and developmental age, while engaging in conversations that educate and illuminate. It also opens the door for communication that can deepen the parent-child relationship. When we choose to shut our child’s question down, we can inadvertently abdicate that privilege to someone who may not be as knowledgeable, age-appropriate, or sensitive.
What to do next time: If your children are asking a question, they are old enough for an answer. So give them one. If you’re not sure how to make your response age-appropriate, look for resources online, at your child’s school, or at your local library.
You gave them a lecture
A discussion involves more than one person. However, it’s easy to find ourselves pontificating about a topic when trying to make a point with our kids. When you give a lecture, you are talking at your children, not to them or with them. Children tend to tune out as the parent sounds more and more like Charlie Brown’s teacher (waaah-waaah-waaah-waaah-waaah-waaah) and less like a guide, mentor, or coach. You also miss out on the opportunity to hear what your children think, know, and want to know.
What to do next time: Remember this is a discussion, not a soliloquy. If you find you’re the only one talking and your kids’ eyes are glazed over, stop. Engage. Ask a question. Listen.
Now, perhaps you’re reading all of this and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really screwed up.” As I mentioned, so have I — and I study this stuff! Please know that you can go back to your child and ask to have the conversation again. And you can approach new conversations differently. Each day gives you an opportunity to participate, talk, listen, and connect.