Helping Kids Open Up: 7 Tips to Improve Communication

girl in pink dress, clasping hand behind her.

You’re greeting your child after her first day at a new school. Barely contained excitement barrels out as you ask, “How was your first day, honey?!”

 “OK,” she says. 

“Oh, just OK? Well, do you like your new teacher,” you press on.  

“Sure,” she says. 

“Alright. Well, do you have anything else you can tell me about your first day?”

“No,” she replies. 

Despite any further prodding, all questions lead to a dead end. 

After patiently awaiting all the juicy details from the first-day festivities, these reluctant one-word answers are anticlimactic and frustrating. (Especially when your friend’s daughter gave her an entire rundown of the day—including who has a crush on who, what Emma ate for lunch, and that Mrs. Spurgeon’s dog got sick last night—all in a total of five minutes.)

Without explicit details, how can you gauge how the day really went? Did she say “OK” as in just fine? Or as in kinda bad?

Was it just her abrupt way to dismiss your question and avoid talking about all the things that went wrong?

Or, maybe even more concerning, what if you sense there is something bothering her but she won’t talk about it? In this case, a one-word-answer can’t explain what you’ve been noticing; it only raises your suspicions.  

We know our children better than anyone else. While some kids may be more talkative than others, we always want to create an open environment where kids feel comfortable opening up about their problems, successes, and…well…anything! 

From preschoolers to teenagers, the same strategies can help open the lines of communication. 

How Can I Get My Kids to Open Up?

1. Greet Your Kids With Positive Statements

Despite our best intentions, inquiries and interrogations aren’t always the best way to start a conversation. 

Sometimes questions can be overwhelming—especially to kids who’ve spent their entire day being cross-examined at school. We can unintentionally superimpose our feelings onto them, and—if they sense the questions are filled with nervous energy or doubt—they may be less likely to share information.

Instead, keep your greeting simple. “It’s so great to see you! I’m happy you’re home.” 

These kind words set a loving, positive tone. Avoiding immediate questions also lets your child decompress after a long day of school and allows for a more thoughtful conversation later. 

2. Ditch the Judgment

If your child decides to open up about something troubling, try to stay calm. Even if your daughter just admitted to leaving a banana peel on the floor next to her teacher’s desk, on purpose, take the news with as much civility as you can muster. 

Children are less likely to talk if they fear harsh reprimands and punishment against themselves or their friends. 

Kids also tend to lie if they feel perpetually judged and criticized for what they share. Creating an environment where we don’t burst into anger or rush to conclusions gives them a safe space for confessions—even if there are necessary consequences to follow. 

It’s always more important to encourage honest communication than to condemn less-than-desirable actions.

On the other hand, if it’s fantastic news your child decides to share, then celebrate away; unless he gets thoroughly embarrassed by you jumping up and down in the school parking lot shouting “He got an A! He got an A!” 

(By the way, be sure to celebrate his hard work and determination—not just the final grade.)

IMPROVE COMMUNICATION QUOTE

3. Be a Good Listener

It’s a reality for many parents that we don’t always give our children full, undivided attention. Between cell phones, work, TV, and socialization, many parents struggle to be fully present with their kids. 

Make sure when you’re having a conversation with your child, whether it’s simple or complex, that you are really listening. Otherwise, they might feel like their information isn’t valued.

If our attention is diverted time after time, it’s easy to see how quickly kids might become frustrated. Eventually, they’ll lessen—or even altogether stop—their attempts at communicating with us. 

4. Unless You See Red Flags, Try Patience 

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, kids still won’t open up. It’s possible they need time to process their experiences and emotions before they’re ready to talk. 

It’s also possible they want to figure things out on their own. In many cases, it’s great to let them go through these problem-solving skills without intervention. 

It’s helpful to remember that asking too many questions too soon can feel like nagging. This approach is guaranteed to make your child feel less competent, less confident, and more unwilling to communicate.

This is especially true for teenagers moving towards independence. Attempt to balance your desire for information with a recognition of healthy personal space, but always assert that you’re available any time your child wants to talk.

Please Note: It’s possible your child could be dealing with a serious emotional issue like bullying, anxiety, or even depression. Familiarize yourself with the signs of these issues. If in doubt, it is always best to investigate the problem and enlist help from either a counselor or medical professional. 

5. Focus on Quality Time Together 

The best relationships thrive on communication. The more you focus on your bond with your child, the more likely she’ll share things with you. 

It doesn’t matter whether or not she has become tight-lipped or distant. Daily and uninterrupted one-on-one time (while doing something that she loves) is the best way to improve your emotional connection. 

When you prioritize this time, you might even be surprised what your shy kindergartener or sullen tween is willing to share with you. 

It’s easy to let our busy schedules push this extremely important tactic to the side, but whatever you do, fight against this tendency

Even if you find time to be one-on-one with your kids, it might be a mental struggle to play Candyland for the 100th time, or to feign interest in your teenager’s latest video game. Just keep in mind the effort you put into this daily interaction with your children will be limitless in its rewards—for both you and your child. 

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6. Avoid Questions With “Yes” or “No” Answers

One way to avoid short, non-detailed responses from your kids is to ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” 

Parents tend to ask the same generic questions or focus on questions that are too broad. “Did you have a good day?” may be a friendly way to start a conversation, but it certainly doesn’t beg for details. Unless questions are specific, kids may choose the easy answer more often than not. 

Instead, a question like, “What did you like about making a craft today?” could be met with a fun-filled description of glue and glitter. 

“What kind of topics do you think would make an interesting science fair project?” might set your child off on a tangent about the solar system. 

A weightier subject opener could be, “How did it make you feel when your friend moved away yesterday?”

In any of these cases, you could still be met with a passive “I don’t know.” Regardless, your method of questioning invites a more detailed conversation and may work in your favor.

7. Model Healthy Communication

Our children are always learning from us—even when they’re older and we wonder if they’re listening. Try opening any voids in communication by talking about your day or mentioning something that’s on your mind.

If you’re always willing to express your feelings, they should feel free to do so, too. Also, try to end your conversation by saying, “Thanks for listening. I feel better when I can talk about things with you.” Next time, you may even hear those same words echoed back.

Final Thoughts

Parenting is hard enough, let alone without the information you need to guide your kids through life’s obstacles. Even if it’s just simple, basic details—we want to hear from our kids!

Next time you’re hungry for news, give any number of the strategies above a try. Just be sure not to complain if your kid becomes the next chatty Cathy. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.