How to get your child to open up

Kids need to develop their own world as they mature. But the stereotype of the zip-lipped pre-teen doesn’t have to be your reality.

Prisma Staff
• 
January 3, 2023


“Hey honey, did you have a good day?”

“Yup.”

No spoiler alert: These two lines of dialog go together like peanut butter and jelly. Some kids may be more chatty. But if you ask a tween or high school student, “How was school today?” odds are good that you’re going to get a one-word answer. (Some parents report grunts in the place of perceptible syllables.)

In response to this kind of stingy communication, parenting experts might suggest that you change your approach: ask open-ended questions (“tell me one thing you learned in school”) or specific questions (“what did you learn in science lab?”). Other communication strategies emphasize being a good listener: pay attention to their answers, make eye contact while talking and display open body language.

These are good parenting tips. (And certainly, we could all use a regular tune-up of our listening skills.) But they tips skirt two fundamental questions: what’s the problem and what is your ultimate goal?

1) What is making it hard for your child to open up to you?

Before digging into communication techniques, consider your child — their personality and their level of social emotional development. A child who is shy by nature might need the right context to open up, while a child who doesn’t yet have a grasp of their emotions would benefit from extra practice naming their feelings (and hearing you name yours).

Other considerations:

-Are they engaged and supported in their school environment? (More on that below.)

-Are there external factors interfering with your communication? (Are they getting one-on-one time with you? Is your child exhausted at the end of the day when you try to engage and less inclined to share at that time?)

As you’re gathering answers, seek input from other trusted adults, such as your child’s teacher, coaches, or mental health counselors.

2) What does good parent-child communication look like to you?

It’s no secret of child development that we imitate what we observed growing up — and if we want to adopt new mindsets and behaviors, we need to be all the more deliberate. In that gap between our experience and our aspirations, we can identify the next steps. Here are some things to think about to take an inventory of what communication looks like to you.

What would it mean for your child to “open up” to you? (Be as specific as possible.)

-Are you looking for them to share more details about their life?

-Are you trying to create a safe space for them to share fears?

-Are you hoping to be a sounding board when they’re trying to make big decisions?

What kind of communication did you have with your parents, teachers, and other adults in your life at your child’s age?

How do your expectations for your relationship with your child differ from the relationship you had with your parents? (Would you answer your parents with one-word responses when you were that age?)

Can you think of an example of a relationship you had as a child with an adult, that comes close to the dynamic you want to have with your child?

Once you have a more concrete sense of your communication challenges and goals, you’ll be in a better position to wade through the sea of advice about how to get your kid to open up.

While we’re not going to claim to exhaust the subject here, we have some recommendations, drawn from the parent-child dynamics we’ve had the privilege to witness in our Prisma community.


Curate their community

Whatever messages we’re giving our kids at home, they’ll be more likely to absorb them if they are reinforced at school. If they’re in an environment where student involvement is limited to following directions and answering set questions — or if they’re one in a sea of hundreds of faces on a mic-off Zoom call — they won’t have the kind of opportunity to learn self-expression that they would find in a child-led environment.

When kids have a consistent community of peers and adults who give them regular opportunities to develop their voice, they’ll feel more safe to experiment, explore and express themselves in any context.

Our small, close-knit cohorts are a place where every child feels seen. Under the attentive guidance of a coach, Prisma learners practice authentic communication, then take those skills back to their homes and out into the world.


Teach communication through collaboration

Communication and collaboration go hand-in-hand. (That’s why we fuse the two skills into one Prisma Power in our curriculum.) In workshops designed to help kids open up, we explicitly teach these skills by designing situations where kids solve problems in groups and debate fun topics.

These kinds of activities can translate into a home environment. Choose a theme — ideally related to your child’s interests — and hold a family debate. Team-building activities don’t have to have a direct academic function: Schedule a regular game night or take a field trip to an escape room. Then, when it’s time to pivot to more challenging subjects (like the mysterious: “What did you do today?”), you’ve already started to open the channels of communication.


Take an interest in their interests

People like to talk about their passions, and kids are no exception. That might mean letting them describe their videogame creation or detail the latest gossip about their favorite pop star. While the specifics of their favorite tv show might not be the information you’re hoping for (although you never know what tidbits might surface inadvertently), the fact that you’re listening, asking questions and showing interest will lay the groundwork for future conversations.

Better yet, participate in that activity along with them: Let them walk you through their Minecraft world, critique how you shoot penalty kicks, or teach you how to make their favorite recipe.

Ideally, their interests won’t just be extra-curricular. If they get a chance to choose projects that excite them as part of their daily routine, they will likely have more to say about their school day when you inquire.


Give them chances to shine

There’s a sense of pride that comes along with taking ownership in their education that tends to inspire kids to open up. Once your child has found the spark, give them the opportunity to show it off: framing their artwork, holding a launch party for their podcast, or reading their short story as a family.

Make these opportunities a regular part of your family routine (especially if you have a shier kid who might need practice to break the ice). We get kids used to the spotlight in low-stakes moments — such as in our daily standup or workshops — to build up to the Expo day when the Prisma community gathers to hear about what each learner did during the previous six-week cycle. While some learners start by sharing a recorded video of themselves talking about their project, after several cycles they develop the confidence and self-esteem to present to the whole community — and even look forward to the Q&A they once dreaded.


Be patient

Kids make the most amazing leaps — at the least expected times. If you’re comfortable with the approach you’re taking, stay the course. When you introduce new elements into your relationship, it might take them a little while to settle in, let alone absorb and externalize it. If you’re not seeing immediate changes, that doesn’t mean you’re not making an impact. You never know when something will click, and they’ll start relating to you in a whole different way.



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