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How to get kids to open up

Parenting experts and authors of How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, Joanna Faber and Julie King, share their tips to get your children to communicate better.

When Michael started nursery, I was dying to know about his day. Did he like school? Was he making friends? I couldn’t get any useful information out of him. Our conversations always followed the same script: ‘How was your day?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Nothing.’

It’s frustrating when our kids venture out into the world, leaving us to wonder how they’re doing. It’s hard to accept that they won’t always want to share the details of their lives. But there are strategies that will help keep the lines of communication open.

1. Model the behaviour you want to see

It occurred to me that I needed to show him how it’s done. So the next time I picked him up from school I asked him, ‘Do you want to know about my day?’

He looked a little confused, as if he were thinking, ‘You have a day? You exist without me?’

I made a point of telling him stories that included feelings. ‘I was worried that our cat was lost. I was so happy when I found her hiding in the laundry basket!’. Then I asked him, ‘Is there anything you want me to know about your day?’

After a few days of this routine, Michael answered that question with an emphatic, 'Yes! My friend Lenny climbed up on the bookshelf. And then he fell out the window!’ ‘What? That sounds scary! Is he okay?’

‘The teacher said he was lucky he fell into the bushes, so he didn’t get hurt.’ I called Lenny’s mum. ‘Is Lenny okay?’ She replied with exasperation, ‘How come you know? I had to hear it from the school. Lenny doesn’t tell me anything!’

2. Turn daily sharing into a game

Open-ended questions can be difficult for a young child to answer. ‘How was your day?’ can be just as hard for a youngster to respond to as ‘How was your year?’ to you. We can simplify the challenge by providing structure and making it playful. My family plays ‘One Truth, One Lie’ at dinnertime. Each person tells two events from their day and the listeners guess which one really happened. This game often results in great hilarity, as well as sharpened listening skills.

3. Don’t demand a daily report

When kids come home after a long day at school they don’t appreciate being met with a parental debriefing session: ‘Did the class like your presentation on dogs?’ or ‘How did you do on that maths test you were worried about?’ They’d rather hear, ‘Hi. Would you like a snack?’ So, how can we demonstrate interest without prying? Offer an invitation instead of a demand for information: ‘I’d love to hear about your class trip when you’re in the mood to talk about it.’ It’s very likely that minutes later, you’ll feel a tap on the shoulder. ‘Mum, do you want to hear about my trip now? I’m ready to tell.’

4. Acknowledge your child’s feelings

When a child is upset, the last thing he needs is a barrage of questions. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Why are you so upset?’ will almostm always elicit responses along the lines of: ‘Nothing’ and ‘I don’t know.’

Questions are threatening. A child may not be able to explain exactly why she is upset. She may feel unable to justify her distress. Maybe her parent will respond ‘Oh, that’s not so bad. It’s nothing to be upset about!’ 

It’s infinitely more helpful and comforting to a child when the parent simply accepts the feeling without requiring an answer. Instead of ‘What’s wrong?’ try ‘You seem sad.’ Instead of ‘Why are you so upset?’ try ‘It looks like you had a rough day.’ Instead of ‘What happened?’ try, ‘Something happened.’ These responses don’t put kids on the defensive. A child will feel free to talk if she needs to, or to simply take comfort in your sympathetic words and a hug. 


Mother and daughter chatting while lying on a bedLET IT GO 

Much as we would love to know everything, sometimes we have to be content to remain in the dark. It’s fine for children to keep some of their adventures out in the world to themselves. It’s part of growing up and becoming independent. We can be there for them when they need us without knowing every detail along the way. 

Joanna Faber and Julie King are co-authors of How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7.

Leave a comment

    From Richard Kendall
    Found this quite helpful and saw some things from a different perspective. My daughter definitely was a "nothing" kind of answering child when asked about her day. It's harder for us as her mother and I have separated and I only get to see her twice a week after school so do want to hear more about it. However by telling her about my "interesting" day first has started to make her open up and tell me at least something about school and not just about lunch or playtime. Give it a go. There's nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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