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Help Me Sara: How to get your kids to open up

When my daughter gets into the car after school and I ask how her day was, she always responds with “fine” or “good”. I’m happy to hear that it’s been good, but I’d love to know more. Sometimes when I ask what she wants f or dinner, she responds with “whatever” or “I don’t know.” I want to hear more from her and for her to communicate with more than one or two word responses but I’m not sure how to make this happen. Help me Sara!

Silent treatment - help me sara: how to get your kids to open up


When your child is a baby, you communicate with each other through more than just words. Through inflection and tone, you communicate caring. With your eyes and touch, you communicate love. Although your infant cannot understand your words, she learns quite quickly what they mean. Pretty soon, she is goo goo and ga ga ing and you develop a language that only the two of you understand.

As your infant grows into toddlerhood and childhood, her repertoire of words increases rapidly. By the time she’s around age five, you’re looking for the off switch. You swear that you might go crazy if you don’t get a moment of silence. No matter when or where, she’s constantly asking questions and talking. Remember these times when she’s 11 or 12 and you feel like you’re working overtime to get a conversation going.

It’s completely normal for children to pull back from you and instead share more of their thoughts with their peers as they get older. It’s also normal for even chatty children to be less so at certain times. At the end of a long school day, for example, tired and cranky children are less likely to want to engage in conversation about the day’s events. One or two word responses, or grunts if you’re less lucky, are typical. Don’t take this personally or try to force the issue. Give her time to unwind and she’ll likely chat about her test, who she played with at recess and what the teacher said to her friend later on.

You may have noticed that your child is most willing to share the happenings of the day when you are at your most tired and cranky – bedtime. At this time, your child will likely do everything in her power to delay going to sleep and will likely recount, in great and vivid detail, the A to Z’s of that day’s activities. Although you may now only feel capable of being able to grunt, take advantage of this opportunity to encourage more sharing and connection.

In regards to monosyllabic responses to requests for dinner choices, for example, you can create consequences for this. You may tell your child that if she says “whatever” when asked what she wants for dinner, you will take this at face value and really prepare whatever you want with the understanding that there can be no complaints. You may instead decide and let her know that you won’t prepare dinner until she gives you an answer.

The Bottom Line: Open and caring communication cannot be forced. However, if you listen attentively when your child is sharing his or her thoughts, validate and acknowledge (even if you don’t approve of what’s being shared) then you will encourage more of what you’d like to see.

Break the Ice with these Conversation Starters:

  • Share something about your day first.
  • Instead of asking a question, comment on what you are observing at that moment.
  • Ask your child for an opinion on a topic he or she is passionate about.
  • Listen to the news while in the car and invite your child to weigh in on a topic of interest.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2013.

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