Sick of the silent treatment? Get your kids to open up with these expert ice-breakers.
This is how a conversation with my 14-year-old goes:
“How was your day?”
“How was the math test?”
Mumbled grunt words that make me think I need a hearing aid.
“What?” [Looks at phone.]
If you ever find yourself peppering your kid with questions only to get a crumb of a reply, congrats: You’re the parent of a typical middle-schooler.
One-sided conversations are actually developmentally healthy at this stage, says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, a Utah-based child therapist. “Older tweens in particular are starting to develop a sense of identity that is separate from their parents,” she says. Translation: They’re less likely to share their feelings and details about their life.
It’s all part of healthy separation—though it can be maddening for those of us craving heart-to-hearts. “When a child starts pulling back and sharing less, you may feel a sense of loss, and wonder what happened to your close relationship,” Hanks says. Do. Not. Fear. Your bond is still there, unspoken.
Still, sometimes a parent needs information. And we long to know what’s worrying our kids, or making their day. Here are Hanks’s favorite strategies for getting the conversation going.
Talk while driving to soccer.
Or biking in the park. Or shopping for new Uggs. “Doing something together takes the pressure off,” says Hanks. “And not having to make eye contact makes it easier for them to open up,” she adds, because they don’t feel like they’re getting interrogated. (Not that you or I would ever do that.)
Shake up your timing.
If your kid clams up after school, it’s possible he feels drained and just needs time to decompress. By figuring out when your child is bubbly, you’re more likely to hit talk pay dirt. “Some children are more talkative in the morning, others in the afternoon, and some are more open in the evening,” says Hanks. It’s easier to work with these rhythms than try to fight them.
Emulate Katie Couric.
People who interview others for a living are trained to ask open-ended questions, ones that can’t be answered with a yes or no or other one-word answer. That’s also an effective strategy for having deeper conversations with teens and tweens, points out Hanks. “Closed-ended questions like ‘Did you have a good day?’ don’t open up a conversation,” she says. Instead, try open-ended, specific questions like, "Tell me about the highlight of your day,” or "What's it like for you to be the oldest in your school this year?"
Don’t make it about you.
Sure, it can feel personal when a former Chatty Cathy turns into a Mute Maddie. But adding your hurt feelings to the mix only puts your child on the defensive. Who wants to open up when they’re being accused of something? As Hanks puts it: “Questions like, ‘Why don’t you talk to me anymore?’ can make kids feel guilty, and that shuts them down even more.”
Get comfortable with the silence.
We know, we know—this sounds like you’re admitting defeat. But by letting the quiet linger, you may just set the stage for more intimate conversations, says Hanks. “Some parents feel like they have to fill up the silence with small talk. Allowing some space in conversations may help your child open up.” To practice being comfortable with silence, try meditation, yoga, or asking your husband what he thinks about The Crown.