Use Your Words

How To Trick A Kid Into Talking About Their Day

When children won’t talk, your best tools are patience and gentleness.

by Matthew Utley
Originally Published: 
A boy sits on his dad's lap on a couch as they talk.
FG Trade/E+/Getty Images

When children go to school, a sort of strange magic happens. You see them leave and welcome them when they return, but what happened in between is a mystery. Who did they talk to? What did they do? What did they learn? Talking to your child about what took place when they were at school is, of course, an important part of being an involved parent. It lets you know about new friends. It helps you identify hidden passions or new interests. It lets you know if they’re struggling with a bully. But getting a child to talk about their day — and by that we mean getting them to say something besides “fine” or ‘okay’ — can be difficult. Breaking through is possible, and it means switching up the same old playbook. And it starts with recognizing that you and your child are on the same team and fighting a shared enemy: silence.

“Your kid loves you and wants to talk to you, but there is some natural resistance. The resistance is your foe, not your kid,” says Shane Owens, Ph.D., a behavioral and cognitive psychologist. “You’re talking to your child, not a suspect in a crime. Patience and understanding are key.”

The long game is best — asking them about their day from a very young age makes it a habit in later years. Parents can model the kind of behavior they want to see by talking about their days, before encouraging a preschooler to talk about what happened at daycare. Starting with positive, gentle conversations can help ease the transition into more emotionally-fraught territory. A kid with a tradition of sharing information who suddenly stops talking about school might be an indication that there is something wrong. That’s when parents need to double down on the patience.

Kids who are reluctant to open up about their day aren’t likely to share any faster because their mom or dad is firing off questions at them. Simply sitting with them and doing something else allows them space to organize their thoughts and bring things up when they are ready. It also allows parents to simply have a good time with their child, which makes it easier for the kid to open up next time.

But say the child never makes any effort to open up, even after an hour of Legos. It’s okay to ask questions, although parents should be aware that straightforward questions are easily answered in a straightforward way that doesn’t necessarily lower the child’s reserve. Sometimes the more effective approach is to ask a jokey question. That can disarm a guarded child, if the humor’s done correctly.

How To Convince a Child to Talk About Their Day

  • Start Early – Establishing a family of tradition of talking about the day builds communications habits in kids.
  • Be Patient – A child may resist answering questions. Simply spending some time with a child doing something else can give them the space to open up.
  • Be Silly – Kids can be disarmed by an off-the-wall question that makes them laugh or gives them a chance to correct their parents.
  • Be Sly – Asking for advice on a situation that mirrors the child’s can encourage the child to open up.
  • Make It Count – Parents need to really listen to their kids, particularly if the kid is generally taciturn.

“You can knock a kid’s resistance off balance by asking a question in a deliberately silly or wrong way,” Owens suggests. “My wife and I will often ask our daughter things like ‘Did you eat three bagels for lunch today?’ to get our daughter—who is a picky eater and reticent with details — to talk to us about what she actually ate. She likes to call us out on being wrong or ridiculous.”

Once a child gets old enough to roll their eyes in disdain at their parents’ clowning, that approach may not work as well. In that case, parents can draw on what they know about their child, make an educated guess on what the issue is, and phrase the question as a request for help.

“Something that often works with older kids is asking them to help you solve a problem similar to those they might be having,” Owens explains. “For instance, if you think your daughter is having trouble with one of her friends, you might say something to her like ‘I’m having this problem with a friend of mine who isn’t answering my texts. What do you think she’s trying to tell me? Do you think she might be mad at me?’”

It’s both a display of empathy from the parent and an exercise in empathy for the child. It gives parents information into what their child is dealing with, and it’s an opportunity for kids to think about their own problems at some remove. And whatever information is revealed by any technique, parents need to make sure they listen and remember what their kid is talking about, especially since they may not get a second chance.

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