Q. How do you get a child to talk about his day at school and about his feelings? Our son Joshua is eight–years–old and in the third grade. He rarely says anything to his father or me about school. I ask him how his day was and he replies “fine;” that is the end of the conversation. Sometimes I can tell he is upset, but he won’t talk about it. While I tend to talk a lot, my husband doesn’t say much. Maybe Joshua takes after his father. I would like to learn about his day and know more about what makes him happy or scared or upset. How can I help him if I don’t know what is going on? Do you have any suggestions?

A. Getting children like Joshua and adults like your husband to talk has a lot to do with trust. They need to feel safe talking to you. Feeling safe and trusting involves believing you will listen and hear them out without interrupting, and that you won’t react negatively or critically—verbally or nonverbally—or immediately give advice or solve their problems. To get your child to open up, you could make it a habit at meal times together to have everyone at the table say one good thing about their day. After everyone talks about that one thing, you can offer a chance to say a second thing, and then move on to talk about one emotion you had. If you and your husband speak about your feelings, Joshua will get the idea and join in. If this doesn’t work, ask if anyone at school had a bad day. This takes the focus off the child and gets him to start talking. Parents can also do this sharing of information back and forth at bedtime if meal times are not together. For people separated by distance–working two jobs or in the military or a family of divorce–sharing about the day and feelings can be done by e-mail or Skype, using the same ideas of avoiding unsolicited advice and being careful to be respectful and non-critical.

If your child likes drawing, another suggestion is to provide a snack after school along with some paper, crayons, colored pencils and/or watercolors, and have Joshua draw a picture about his day. After he is done, ask him to talk about it. Never try to interpret a child’s drawing; only they can do that for you. Date the pictures and assemble them into a book. You will love looking at these pictures in the future.

Building a relationship with your child is crucial to having good communication. One of the best moms I know asks her boys to shoot baskets and play with the Wii, even when she doesn’t really enjoy these activities. She says activities together open the door to communication. I’ll quote her here: “I am learning more and more that if I don’t have the relationship today, they are not going to talk to me tomorrow. Talking with kids can be a lot of fun. They can make you laugh just as you can make them laugh.”

Spend some time thinking about how to respond to things your child tells you. If your child tells you about a problem with another child, ask something like, “What do you think you need to do to make this better?” Thinking about what is going on is more important than reacting immediately. Most of the time you can even say, “Let’s think about this, and we can figure it out better later.” If a child says, “I hate my teacher,” a good response is, “Tell me one way this teacher is different from last year’s teacher.” It takes time to adjust to a new teacher’s differences and to figure out how to get the attention and recognition you need.

I suspect you may be uncomfortable with silences, and so you talk a lot–which you do admit. I suggest you practice more listening with your friends, and let there be some silent moments. Your friends may then end the silence by saying something important. Also, practice not being critical of your friends. This practice can then help in allowing some silent times with your husband and encourage him to talk more. That will be an important modeling of behavior for your son. You can also talk to your husband about the importance of his helping you to help Joshua have good communication skills for success in this modern day world.

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents, and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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