What to Do When Your Kids Won’t Talk to You

It is 9:00 pm and my youngest child has just awoken from a nightmare. I walk her back to her room and turn on the lights to ease her fears. I lie down beside her in the bed and stroke her hair, and she begins to talk. And talk. And talk. In the quiet of this dark room there is space for thinking and for sharing. She has chosen this moment to unload, one in which I feel I have no social energy or empathy or nurturing left in my bones.

But I’ve learned that conversation with my children is one of the primary keys to a warm and close relationship, even for the ones who don’t wish to talk that much. And I’ve learned that there are simple things I can do to nurture quality conversations with them and also to squelch them.

Kids who talk are kids who feel heard.

In Kelly Corrigan’s insightful book “Tell Me More” she learns and uses this simple phrase “tell me more” to encourage her children to continue talking until the conversation is played out.

My first impulse when my oldest child starts talking is to say something back. She’s talking about the weather. Well, I want to talk about the weather too. Even worse are the occasions when she says something I think needs correcting. She speaks, trusting me with the precious thoughts in her mind, and I come in like a bulldozer and bust the whole conversation up with my sparkling advice.

As a teacher, one of my favorite things to do is teach. But not every moment can be about that. Many moments have to be about learning the unique people I’m parenting. Many moments are about listening as they figure things out on their own and grow confidence in their own abilities.

What children need most is to feel heard, sometimes much more than they need verbal affirmations.

Being heard says to them, “I really care about you and what’s on your mind. Your contributions are valuable.”

And when they regularly feel heard, they are more likely to say more and to speak about the things in their heart you would never know otherwise.

Kids who talk are kids who feel safe with you.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received was this: You always want to be the safest person in the room. I heard this advice at a time when I wasn’t a very safe person. I wasn’t physically harming my children. But my high levels of personal stress, frustration and, sometimes, anger were causing me to lash out at them on a regular basis. I excused this behavior as typical of mothers with small children. It was socially acceptable to be frustrated.

Then that passing statement from a conference speaker landed like a punch to my gut. Because I knew my behavior toward my children wasn’t healthy, and was even harmful. Despite my abiding love for them, I came across as angry, distant, even cold at times. I was wrestling with adult problems that had nothing to do with them, but were affecting them enormously.

This wasn’t something I could fix overnight. I’ve labored for years over resolving my reactions to stressful situations. And I still screw it up sometimes and have to apologize. But the moment I heard those words I knew I would never again justify behavior that made my children feel they couldn’t trust me and open up with me.

In this way, children are just like us. They can effectively suss out what people are worthy of their time and their innermost thoughts. They know who will listen and care.

Positive interactions between you and them day after day build up a sense of trust that enables them to share.

Even in the midst of having to hand out consequences or to show disappointment, the tenor of our voice and the expression on our faces communicates volumes. We are either telling our children “I love you anyway and we are still good despite this hiccup” or “you don’t measure up with me; you are not okay.”

The feeling of safety in your home is not simple to define because it’s an environment that’s created from a variety of factors. If you’re unsure how your home feels to your children, you can always ask them. Just be prepared for the truth.

Kids who talk are kids who receive empathy not judgment.

You know that feeling when you’re in a group at a social gathering and you venture a little comment to add to the conversation at hand, and then someone immediately and strongly says the opposite of what you just said? It’s like a slap on the hand. The last thing you want to do is speak another word.

We all want to be received as if our opinions carry weight. They may not be 100% accurate or shared equally among others. But we want them to have merit because they are ours. Our children are the same way. They want to be received gently and with empathy.

When a sliver of a paper cut is barely visible to your naked eye and yet your child hollers that it’s the worst pain ever and they may not be able to go to school, which approach works better? “Buck up kid, I can’t even see it!” or “That sounds like it hurts. Good thing you’re so tough!”

Empathy cures many ails in the heart of a child.

It doesn’t mean we agree or even understand an iota, but it means their personhood and their thoughts are valuable anyway. Their thoughts matter. Their feelings about their own predicaments are real, even when wildly exaggerated.

The easiest thing to do is the hand slap, the correction, the judgment. When we start with empathy and focused listening, we might be given an opportunity to speak some truth into our child’s mind that they can receive. More importantly, we are making space for their perspective. As a bonus, we might become privy to how they are coping and feeling.

Kids who talk are kids whose parents have made space for it.

You will notice a pattern with your children. Some of them are most open at night right before their eyes close for sleep. Some want to talk when you’re driving in the car. It’s not always a convenient time for you. But when you sense they have something real to say, it’s time to shut up or say, “I want to hear about that.” It’s even better if you can get down to their level or be eye to eye. That shows respect.

When we fill our children’s every waking hour with activity or noise from electronics, there is little space left for conversation. Sometimes the boring wait in the doctor’s office when we’re staring at a blank wall is time your child will say “I don’t feel like I have any friends” or “Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?”

And that’s gold. That’s an opportunity to be let into their world a little.

Anyone with a teenager can attest that knowing some of your child’s inner world is incredibly valuable. These are not just our children, but developing human beings. They are learning how to communicate and love others, skills they will use for a lifetime. Those conversations and skills begin at home.

Hopefully, we will create the environment they need to speak freely and show us their inner brilliance.

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