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How do you get your child to open up?

In the first of our new monthly parenting blogs, Gary Crossing realises that family disputes about the digital world can often have simple, real world explanations

Nothing prepares you for when children attack. For months, your beautiful eight-year-old boy has been happy, chatty and incredibly well-behaved. The model child. Then, one sunny morning, you ask him to get dressed and come and eat his breakfast. And no, he can’t use his iPad before school. Suddenly you are facing an out of character torrent of tantrums, tears, disobedience, rudeness and the great storming upstairs.

Seconds ago you were annoyingly smug about your parenting skills. Now panic and doubt are looming. What could be wrong? Surely it must be something serious to provoke this amount of out of the blue outrage. It can’t just be down to the clothes-breakfast-iPad thing? Removing a smartphone from under their glazed eyes can sometimes result in the same bloodcurdling howls of indignation. It’s a ruddy minefield.

So, as a voice inside your head nags ‘You’re going to be late for work!’ you follow him up the wooden hill and try to coax him out from under his Scooby Doo duvet to find out what’s wrong.

Only it’s not that easy. He simply sits fuming, refusing to look you in the eye. Refusing to speak. Like a nightmare date, he sits there and lets you make all the conversation, ask all the questions and volunteer all the answers. ‘Are you having trouble at school?’ ‘Has somebody upset you?’ ‘Are you not feeling well?’ ‘Are you going through the eight-year crisis?’

Silence. And you realise that you hate the sound of your own voice, that you have started whining.

Sometimes, getting a child to open up can be hard. Although some people clearly have the knack. At one of our sons’ birthday parties, a little girl sat in the corner sulking for half an hour. One by one, each adult at the party approached her and asked her what was wrong. But she wouldn’t talk. Finally, a woman who had been our childminder said gently, ‘come and sit with me and tell me all about it.’ And the girl did. Just like that. Magic! Minutes later she was back in the party, laughing with her friends and whacking the dangling Darth Vader piñata with gusto.

For those of us who aren’t natural born child whisperers, advice on the web is rich and varied. In fact, there’s so much it can be baffling. But here are a few things that I’m going to try next time: suggests trying a tactful game of 20 questions: Open with something such as, “It seems like you’re upset. Do you want me to try to guess what’s bothering you?” Then ask your child to tell you if you’re hot or cold,’ suggests Laurie Zelinger, PhD, a child psychologist in Hewlett, NY.

You could also ask if he wants to write a note for you to read—either right away or after he’s in bed. Anything that takes your child off centre stage may help him open up. If he’s not ready to talk, let him know you’re always available later, and then let it go for now.

‘Sometimes the indirect approach works even better. When youre hanging out with your child and hes feeling comfortable, resist the urge to probe. Beat around the bush a little instead.’ 

‘Ask non-judgmental questions that require real answers. Questions that begin with “Why” often make kids defensive,’ says Aha Parenting.

Don't jump in with solutions and advice. Your child needs a chance to vent, and he cant hear advice until he does. Then he needs a chance to figure out his own solutions, which is how he develops confidence and competence.

Stay available. Nothing makes them (kids) clam up faster than pressing them to talk. Kids talk when something is up for them, particularly if youve proven yourself to be a good listener.

And at the beginning of its interesting 20-step guide, the Child Development Institute says, ‘An assertive way of communicating is firm, consistent, clear, positive, warm and confident. Communicating with kids in an assertive way is a real skill yet it shows your kids that Mum and Dad know what they’re going on about and to listen.

All good tips. One of the main things I’ve learnt is to take it slow. Don’t try and force the issue. Children don’t process feelings, emotions and situations as quickly as adults. They need time. And while you may want things all sorted out so that you can get the next bus, children don’t operate to your timetable.

It may take days before your child opens up. And when they do it will be when you are doing something else and have forgotten all about the ‘incident’. Thankfully, so far, the reasons my boys have had a meltdowns have not been rooted in anything more serious than just being a child. It’s simply because they’ve been tired and I have stopped them doing something they enjoy, like playing Minecraft for hours on end, and made them do something that they didn’t want to do, like getting dressed for school. And who can blame them? Some days, given the choice, I’d probably spend all day in my pyjamas on the settee playing Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ahh, the stuff dreams are made of.


For Parent Zone's tips on starting a difficult conversation with your child, click here.

For tips from Parent Info on dealing with anxiety in children, click here

Image: CC0 Public Domain