How to Have Successful Conversations with Kids
Not gonna lie. The last few years have been a long string of horrific events. Especially for parents who have to keep explaining what the hell is going on.
Most of those conversations, frankly, could and probably should have happened much later in kids' development. But you can only dodge questions for so long.
Here's some good news though. There are easy ways to make uncomfortable conversations with kids as successful and comfortable as possible. Let's dig in.
Conversations with kids rule #1 - don't force eye contact
The older they get, kids need an increasing amount of time and personal space to process whatever it is you’re telling them. It might feel counter-intuitive to you to avoid eye contact when trying to explain something important, but kids are different.
Looking directly in their eyes when you’re talking about something they need to understand could potentially make them feel like they did something wrong. And the last thing you want to do here is to make your child spend the entire conversation trying to figure out what they did wrong.
Instead, to get your point across, it’s best to have meaningful conversations when your child has the option of looking straight ahead (i.e., when you’re in the car together, or on a walk, or cooking, or watching T.V., etc.).
But do maintain the option of looking at each other if parts of the conversation warrant comfort from you. For example, if you’re driving in your car together and looking straight ahead, you can avoid looking at each other when parts of the conversation are uncomfortable. But you can always turn your heads to look at each other when you feel like your child needs your emotional support.
Conversations with kids rule #2 - Wait for the right time
You know that old saying about how timing is everything. It's actually still true!
Trying to have a conversation when your child is playing a game (digital or otherwise), reading, or watching TV seldom works. They’ll probably find it intrusive before you even start talking. Plus, you won’t have their full attention.
If it’s not the right time, wait.
Also, try to have your conversation immediately after a scenario that illustrates what you want to teach. Kids learn most efficiently when they can relate concepts to real-world experience. If too much time elapses, it can be hard for them to make a connection between an incident and what you’re saying.
For example, suppose your adult brother, Jim, makes a racist comment during a holiday gathering, and your 9-year-old son hears the comment. Try to take him aside shortly thereafter and explain that, unlike Uncle Jim, your family believes that everyone, regardless of their race, deserves the same kindness and respect as everyone else.
TIP: Honest communication is the single best parenting tool there is.
Conversations with kids rule #3 - listen intentionally
Once you've said what's needed, your child will no doubt want to respond. It's so important for them to know that their opinion matters too.
Try to listen attentively and silently. The only words you need to utter, if any, are to communicate that you're eager to learn more. If you feel like you're going to burst if you don't say something, feel free to nod your head and say "hmmm."
Otherwise, here are some phrases you could use to let them know you're listening and you want to learn more:
- “Tell me more. “
- “Wow, you have quite a story to share. “
- “Please keep talking. I'm really interested. “
- “It sounds like you have a lot on your mind, so I'm glad you're talking. “
- “I love that you're so open and honest with your feelings. “
- “It means a lot to me that you feel comfortable talking to me. “
- “You're doing a great job of describing what happened. “
- “Could you repeat that? I want to be sure I understand what you're going through. “
Listening with the intent to understand is not easy, but it can be done. Most of us are half listening or listening with the intent to respond instead of listening to understand where the other person is coming from. It’s really common.
Good listening is ‘an act of love’ - it really is.
Finally, when your conversation is over, if you feel like your message was heard and it sank in, pat yourself on the back!