Rachel Winston offers tips on how to get your children to talk to you.
Do you worry that your child bottles up their feelings and problems? Do you sometimes feel frustrated they don't tell you what's going on, or you sense there are some things they hide or even lie about?
You're not alone. It can be incredibly frustrating for parents to not know what's going on with their child, especially when all you want to do is be there for them and do what's best for them.
If this problem is persistent and you've noticed strong changes in your child's behaviour and emotions, you should consider seeking professional guidance, such as a play therapist, to help shed light on the child’s inner world (and work together with your community including teachers, family doctor and school counsellor).
There are many reasons why your child may not be sharing something with you. This article will help if you want to make sure your child knows they can tell you anything.
Let's start with removing barriers
Think of a time when you yourself kept something back. Perhaps from a boss or maybe your own parent? Think back and remember what that situation was like. What stopped you sharing what was going on? What were some characteristics of the person you found it hard to tell the truth to? Write it down...
Ask yourself do you ever show any of these traits?
Now write down characteristics of someone you do find it easy to confide in. Which of these characteristics do you already embody and which could you build upon?
Have consistent and regular playtime
A little and often is better. Even if it’s just five minutes of playtime together, this is really valuable. Play is a child’s natural language. It offers a great way for you both to relax and for your child to feel connected to you and safe, even when they show other sides of themselves through play.
Top tip - try to play alongside the child rather than sitting opposite them. Being alongside gives a feeling of “being with” and accepting them as they are rather than “opposing” them. Have you ever noticed how it’s easier to have more open conversations whilst on a journey? Sitting alongside can take the pressure off.
Keeping this playtime consistent and regular helps the child know that there will be a predicable time for connecting and sharing each day or week. If something is challenging, they may be able to hold on to it until that special time with their parent rather than react in the moment. This is less likely if they’re not sure when and where their next outlet will be.
Ask less questions
This can seem counter intuitive! Have you ever been on a bad date that felt more like a gruelling job interview? Too many questions are exhausting. Too many questions can make the child feel pressured and stressed which does not build trust. It is hard but we have to sometimes sit back a little and create space to allow our child to bring up what they need to. This takes trust. Trust takes time. Be patient!
If you are in the habit of questions and answers back and forth between you and your child, how can you break this? You may be thinking how else am I supposed to communicate? You can use more reflective statements. For example, if your child says,
“Today I saw Joan at recess.”
“what did you do with Joan?”
“Oh you saw your friend Joan today!”
and wait… Keep your attention and eye contact with the child. Try it and see what happens.
Model being honest
Although we may aspire to be the “perfect parent” in reality, no child wants this. Imagine it? A parent who always does the right thing, gets the right answer and does everything perfectly. How would that feel? TERRIBLE! What pressure as a growing human being you would have to be “perfect”. Something that is unattainable and, I would argue, an illusion. Children (and people) love authenticity. Put your hands up when you’ve made a mistake. Be honest, and brave enough to be imperfect. There can be a fear of losing one’s authority here. But what happens is you gain more respect. You gain in terms of connection and you help the child understand you and themselves. You give them courage to be honest about their mistakes and truly learn from them, rather than get stuck in a self-defensive response.
When you tell your own story of events and emotions you help your child make connections in their developing brain. They are learning about sequencing of events, emotional vocabulary and how they connect together. They are learning the skill of story-telling which helps them make sense of their world and others.
Practice regulating your own emotions
Pay attention to the little things and be empathetic. From our adult perspective, the size of the cup you gave your son or how you cut your daughter’s toast is not a big deal, but for a young child it may be! Whether we agree or understand the rationale for their outburst or not, the emotion is real to them. Empathise as much as you can. Start as early as you can.
"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos."
Now this is not easy and we certainly cannot get this right every time. Make sure you have some strategies for managing your own emotions such as deep breathing, regular exercise, friends you can vent to and perhaps your own personal therapy. Noting down when you feel triggered by your child and sharing with your therapist can be really useful for your own personal growth. Keeping such a journal can be very eye opening (and productive in terms of managing your child’s and your own needs).
Rachel Winston is a registered play therapist, Filial/parent play coach, licensed baby bonding practitioner and the founder of Full Cup Play Therapy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or www.fullcupplaytherapy.com
This article appeared in Playtimes Summer Issue 2018.