First things first: you will never know every single thing your kid is thinking or even doing as they grow through each stage of life. BUT. You can be generally “in the know” about the goings-on in your kids’ lives if you follow some simple, but not always easy, steps.
I have drawn from my experience and the example my own parents set for me for the tips I found most helpful while my children were growing up. These tips aren’t new, nor are they one-size-fits-all, but everyone can use a refresher, and maybe a different perspective.
This is the most important factor in keeping lines of communication open between you and your child, no matter their age. When smartphones were becoming popular, I loved texting and playing Words with Friends. My then nine-year-old son said to me, when he was trying to tell me something, “Mom, when I think of you, I think of you looking at your phone.”
Punch to the gut.
I have tried to be more mindful since then–and admittedly, we as a society have all been learning phone etiquette together. We all have our faces in our phones too much of the time. Putting it away is the first step to encouraging our kids to talk to us.
Related to step one: don’t talk. This is not the same as listening. This means letting them get their thoughts out without being interrupted, without trying to finish sentences for them, or solve the problem for them. Let them get it out first before you try to jump in. We all know how much better it feels as a human to get things off our chest. When you are tempted to jump in when your child is explaining something, remember that letting them finish is a gift. It’s a gift you want when you need to unload, so give it to them.
Use the Car
Just about every parent I know will agree with me on this one. The car is especially suited to difficult conversations because it contains you AND your child. You have no choice but to discuss what needs discussing. You don’t have to make eye contact, which makes saying hard things a lot easier.
Here’s another useful tip when you are carpooling: become invisible and just listen to what is being said right behind you. Always be willing to be the carpool driver! It has many advantages.
Neutral Facial Expressions
This is HARD. It is. We have to give our kids standards to live by, that is true. The first thing we want to do is show how horrified and disappointed we are when they’ve not met our standards. But the quickest way to shut down communication with anyone is to judge immediately.
Especially as teenagers, kids need us to be a safe place to admit their mistakes. If we want to be that safe place, our initial reaction needs to be calm and neutral. As soon as the situation has been assessed, go ahead and ground them for life! But you will get more information–and they will learn more from you–if you stay chill when they come to you with an issue.
How Important is This?
If you freak out when your kid slides in the dirt in their white baseball pants on team picture day, they sure aren’t going to want to tell you about cheating on the spelling test or getting sent to the principal’s office. No matter what, take a deep breath before you (re)act. If you weigh the importance of various offenses and respond accordingly, your kids won’t receive mixed messages about big versus little mistakes. They will also be more likely to talk to you if they know you usually see things in perspective.
Eat Meals Together
This is probably the easiest–and yet most overlooked–way to build a foundation for comfortable conversation. I asked my kids why they talk to us–and they generally do. One thing my daughter said was, “It was the norm, and fun, to have deep conversations at mealtime.”
No, we didn’t always eat at the table, especially when the kids were knee-deep in activities, but it was (and still is) a priority when we were all home at dinner time. And it gave us the chance to talk, often long after the dishes were cleared.
This is my favorite method, especially for children who need time to process thoughts or events. Parents can usually tell when something is bothering their child, and of course we want to KNOW so we can HELP. If they don’t want to talk yet, give them space. If you have consistently paved the way for your kids to talk to you, they will eventually share whatever it is that is bothering them. They are more likely to open up if it’s on their terms. And when they do, try to keep the questions to a minimum. Remember . . . let them talk.
When I asked my kids about why they felt they could talk to us, my daughter replied, “It was drilled into our heads that we could always tell you stuff.” (My son said, “What she said.” They don’t always talk . . . )
I’m not sure when my husband and I started “drilling it into their heads,” but apparently it had some effect. Setting the stage early on and reminding your kids that they can talk to you are simple steps that lead to open communication. They will act annoyed when you remind them for the thousandth time that they can come to you with anything, but they will hear you. And it will be worth it.