How do I get my child to open up to me?September 09, 2019
Raising resilient children who can tackle their own challenges is something we all strive for as parents. But how do we also ensure they seek our advice if they encounter a difficult problem or they feel anxious about something? Or, in their teen years, they find themselves swayed by peer pressure and taking risks that might result in serious trouble?
The foundations of an open, supportive relationship starts when children are toddlers and remains an ongoing project right through to late adolescence. The basic rule is that children are more likely to talk to you about their problems if they know they will be heard and supported, not judged or criticised.
You won’t be able to influence them if you dismiss their concerns, or you are always trying to muscle your point across.
Unfortunately, I see a number of parents and children in my family therapy practice where communication has broken down. I often get a call when something big has happened and a secret has been uncovered, leaving the parents feeling shocked and hurt.
I work closely with parents and carers to help them develop good listening skills while also maintaining their role as boundary-setting parents.
Here are some dos and don’ts to follow if you want your child to turn to you for advice.
- Be available when your child wants to talk. Key times of the day for a conversation are during breakfast, when they arrive home from school, driving in the car, at the family dinner table, and in their bedroom as you say goodnight.
- Be aware of your child’s attempts to make a connection with you. Sometimes these attempts are subtle, such as them casually expressing an interest in something you are doing, or coming into the living room and sighing. Ask a simple question like: “What’s happening?”
- Be real. Speak to children in a normal, calm voice. This shows you take them seriously and you have the emotional composure needed to help them with their problems.
- Have a mental map of what your child is doing throughout the day so you can ask specific, open-ended questions such as: “What happened on the excursion to the science lab today?”, rather than the standard boring question: “How was school?”
- Teach your children about emotions by listening carefully to what they say and make an informed guess about how they feel. Say something like: “It sounds like you are feeling hurt” or “I wonder if you are feeling a bit angry about that”. This will show you are open to their emotions, even the negative ones.
- Practice problem solving together so they understand you respect their opinion, and you are someone to turn to if a problem arises. Break problems into manageable parts and talk through the pros and cons of different solutions.
- Ask questions, but don’t overdo it. If every interaction feels like a grilling, your child might hesitate to share.
- If your child tells you something alarming, stay calm as best you can and gather your thoughts before responding. Take a few breaths if needed. Measured responses are better than panicked ones.
- Don’t give the impression you are always too busy with work or overwhelmed with domestic duties. Or, worse, constantly distracted on your phone! Your child will assume there isn’t room in your world for their concerns.
- If your child approaches you with a concern, never ask “What’s wrong?” as this can sound like something is wrong with them and is more likely to elicit a defensive response. Ask “What’s happening?”.
- Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings or ideas as “silly” or “childish”. This teaches them that some topics are shameful to talk about.
- Don’t tell your child “not to worry” about something when they are clearly showing they are anxious. Dismissing feelings teaches a child not to trust their gut instinct. Instead, get them to talk about why they are worried, acknowledge their fears, and then, if needed, help them to identify reasons why their worry might be out of proportion.
- Don’t allow strong emotions to go unaddressed. It is healthy for your child to express strong feelings such as anger and sadness, but they need help to regulate these emotions and resolve problems.
- Don’t immediately jump into telling stories about your own childhood. While this can help to normalise what your child is feeling, it can also sound like you are dismissing their own experiences or not listening attentively.
- Sometimes kids don’t want to talk, and that’s okay. If you pressure them to open up, they might feel hesitant to come to you.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Research by emotion coaching specialists Gottman and Declaire* shows that parents should aim to get communication right about 40% of the time.
Keeping it going through adolescence
The arrival of the teen years brings a new set of communication challenges for parents. The child who once thought you knew everything about the world, now thinks you’re decidedly uninformed and uncool.
This is the time when children naturally start to look outside the family for guidance and confide more in their peers, but we still want them to come to us if something goes wrong or they need advice.
If the foundations of a supportive relationship are already in place, the teen years will be an easier job. Here are a few tips to keep communication lines open:
- Know the names of your teen’s friends and ask about what is happening in their lives. Showing a non-judgemental interest in your child’s wider circle will encourage them to let you into that circle.
- If your teen tells you about someone who has let them down or is making them angry, avoid siding with that person immediately (even if it is a teacher). This comes across as disloyal. Once the conversation has progressed, you might be able to explore why the other person is behaving in this way, but not before.
- Avoid chatting with your teen by text or instant messaging only. Teens can feel awkward and like to hide behind a screen. But conversations about real issues and emotions should be held face-to-face as it teaches your teen how to interact at a personal level and it settles their nervous systems (and yours!). Never argue with your teen over text.
- Ask their opinion before jumping in to give advice on how they might solve a problem. Teens love the opportunity to flex their decision-making muscles.
- In my experience teens like to talk later in the evening, usually when parents are zonked and everyone in the house should be winding down for sleep. If the hour is late, acknowledge their wish to chat and make a time to talk tomorrow.
- Teens’ sleep hormones take longer to subside in the mornings. Avoid morning chats if you know your teen is slow to wake up.
- Don’t take their rejecting comments personally. Teens can wield sharp tongues and have a knack for making outsized statements like “I hate you” or “I wish I could live at [insert name of best friend]’s house.” These things are usually said in the heat of the moment and, save for abusive language which should not be tolerated, it is best to let some comments slide. Debrief with a partner or an adult friend about how horrible this can feel.
- Don’t expect your teen to behave like an adult. Teens might have adult-size bodies but their brains don’t reach full development until the age of 25. Teens are still children and need help with problem solving and emotional regulation.
Raising children who can communicate well, and seek help when they need it, sets them up for a more productive life. They will experience lower stress levels, be able to form lasting friendships and intimate relationships, and be more resilient through life’s challenges.
If you are having trouble communicating with your child and/or you are caught in a pattern of conflict, make an appointment with a skilled family therapist who understands child development and can arm you with the right skills to improve your relationship.
* Gottman and Declaire The Heart of Parenting (1997)
Cherie specialises in family and relationship counselling in the areas of anxiety, grief, life transitions, separations, trauma, child behaviour and complex adolescent issues.
Cherie is a reflective, insightful therapist. She is fair and supportive, and works hard to help her clients find solutions. Clients say Cherie is gentle but firm when she needs to be and they feel safe with her.
Cherie brings years of experience to her clinical practice. She has a particular professional interest in blended families, foster/adopted families, rainbow families, single parents, and those with teenagers presenting with worrying behaviours such as self-harm, suicide ideation, eating disorders, gaming/social media addictions, and mental health diagnoses.
She has extensive experience with child access and Family Court matters.
“People are often anxious about what is going to be discussed or revealed in therapy sessions. That’s completely understandable. Please know that it’s my job to provide the necessary structure to ensure safety and respect throughout the sessions. Therapy is not about laying blame. It’s about bringing information out into the open and being able to see it differently. With the right support, you can move through what might feel ‘stuck’ right now; you can experience your relationships differently.”.
Families and couples who come to see Cherie can expect to leave sessions with a deeper understanding of relationship dynamics, tools to improve communication and the confidence to move forward.
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Cherie holds a Masters in Psychotherapy and Counselling (WSU), a Diploma in Counselling (WSU) and a Bachelor degree in Communications (CSU).
She is an accredited group facilitator for the Melbourne University’s Tuning into Teens parenting program, and the Jacaranda Project for adult survivors of child abuse. Cherie is a committee member of the Children and Adolescent Sexual Assault Counsellors’ network and was a former editor of Breaking Free – the monthly newsletter of the Blue Knot Foundation, the peak body supporting survivors with complex trauma.
Cherie is a Clinical Member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA).
“We saw a number of psychologists and they all wanted to pathologise our daughter — calling her resistant and disordered. Cherie was different. She listened and validated us. She guided us as a family to speak in new ways and express our needs. We feel like we’ve got our daughter back.” Susan (48) mother to two teenage daughters aged 13 and 17, and dad Leon (53) who saw Cherie Marriott for family therapy.
“Our family fights could get pretty heated but this didn’t seem to faze Cherie. She stayed calm and stepped in to cool things down. Everyone felt heard. In the end, something just changed and we stopped spinning our wheels. I think it was Cherie’s belief in our strengths that made all the difference.” David (47) father of two children and step-dad to 15-year-old son Josh, and Josh’s mum Lucy (45) who saw Cherie Marriott for blended family work.