Middle School

4 min Read

How To Get Your Child To Talk To You

If your child usually answers that question with “fine” and a shrug of the shoulders, here’s how to get them to open up.

As a member of the Behaviour Team with the Toronto District School Board, Chris Hoisak sees pretty much every type of child. But regardless of the behaviour issue, one of the common goals with every student is to build communication skills and develop the trust to speak honestly and with purpose to their parents. It’s a two-way street. “It’s never too early to begin that face-to-face time with your kids,” says Chris, father of Cuyler, 6, and Riley, 2. It’s important for adults – teachers and parents – to model “attentive listening”. That’s when you turn away from the computer, television or newspaper and focus solely on what your child is saying.

When kids are roughly five to nine years of age, parents have a window of opportunity when kids want to talk to you and dominate the conversation, says Chris. “This is the time to be patient and help them develop their speaking skills.” However, after age nine, that window can start to close. If you’ve laid the groundwork, tweens will feel you are approachable with an attentive ear, readily available to listen without judgment and help find solutions to problems. But in some families, engaging tweens in conversation can be a struggle. Chris says that some kids talk more to their peers as they try to build their own independence. Engaging them in conversation can be hard. It’s tough to compete with text messages, Facebook accounts and tweets.

This is when your communication skills get tested. Rather asking point-blank ‘how was school?’, circle around the subject by talking about something else that interests your child. You can learn a lot about your child by asking non-intrusive or open-ended questions about a show or movie or news report that you’re watching together. “The whole purpose is to help them build a vocabulary so they know how to express themselves when the need arises,” says Chris. “It doesn’t have to be about school. Maybe they’re watching a cartoon and you can ask them why they think SpongeBob did that. Take advantage of the fact that you can pause a movie at home and ask them how they think that character feels or what they think will happen next.” Not only does this exercise open up lines of communication, you’re also helping your child build basic literacy skills of inferring information, predicting, making connections to real-life events or examining alternative viewpoints, says Chris. “It’s also a wonderful jumpingoff point for a serious topic worthy of further family discussion…but wait until the movie’s over!”


Here are some ideas to keep the conversation flowing:

  • Practise attentive listening. Finish what you are doing and focus on your child.
  • Instead of asking “How was school?” try “Tell me one thing that happened today that made you laugh.”
  • Choose your time and place. Don’t limit yourself to a formal dinner-table talk. If it’s been a good day, words might come more easily, but if it’s been a bad day, kids are likely to clam up.
  • Allow siblings to join in. Debate can be a very healthy and fun family activity. It’s also an opportunity to promote your own family values.
  • Use open-ended questions that don’t elicit a yes-or-no response and keep the conversation going.
  • Recognize your child’s feelings rather than pass judgment on them.
  • Avoid asking direct questions such as “What do you think of this?” and instead try the indirect approach: “What are kids saying about this?” This allows kids to add and refine their own thoughts.

Published in August 2010.

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