Remember when your kids would talk your ear off, say the darndest things, tell you often how much they love you? Well, things change. Getting older kids, especially teens, to talk at all can be tricky. Pinning them down for a heart-to-heart is a feat. That is, unless you get them in the car.
Cruising down the road with your child is a surefire way to find out what’s really going in their life. There are fewer distractions, kids can’t squirm away (at least physically), and there’s a limited amount of time to tackle the topic at hand.
“People say things in a car that they’d never say to someone on the street because there is a perceived separation.”
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Plus, people tend to feel more comfortable in cars than in other places, says Fred Peipman, Ph.D., a family psychologist in San Francisco and author of Parenting Across the Gap: Raising Teens in the 21st Century. “You are out and about in the world and at the same time a bit isolated, so people can be somewhat disinhibited,” Peipman says. “People say things in a car that they’d never say to someone on the street because there is a perceived separation. This is not so good for road rage, but for a parent-child discussion dynamic, it’s great.”
Car rides also ease the parent-child power imbalance — by getting rid of eye contact and offering a shared sense of purpose. “Few situations highlight the power dynamic more than facing someone else. When the child is beside or behind the parent, it is a bit easier to talk freely,” says Peipman. To add to that, “you are moving together which can lead to the psychological or emotional concept of moving toward something together.'”
How to Have a Successful Car Talk
Cars may be uniquely suited for heart-to-hearts with your kid, but getting the conversation started is still challenging. Peipman suggests what he calls the “sandwich approach”: Start with the “fluffy” bread, move into the meat, and end with more bread. In other words, lead with day-to-day details; then get to the more serious discussion (keeping it short and avoiding rants); and finally follow-up with something breezy.
Peipman offers some examples of this approach. “Open with a relatively innocuous topic — like, ‘are your friends doing anything cool this summer?’ — and then move into something more substantive,” he says. “For more challenging conversations, say, ‘Look, you came home past curfew the other night — what’s up?’ Then be quiet, listen, and hold back judgment, even if they’ve done something absolutely foolish. You’ll get more information by asking open-ended questions and listening.” To wrap it up, thank them for talking and make a joke, or switch to a breezier subject.
“There’s a relaxed informality about car journeys — unlike sitting round the table at meal times, for example, with everyone looking at you.”
At some point, your kids will likely retreat — and for older kids this often means they go to their phones. “Wise parents just engage with that,” says Dr. Laurie Hollman, a psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in You Child’s Behavior. “Ask about friendships they are carrying on with on the phone, plans they are making to socialize over the weekend, and show an interest in the fun they are planning.”
Above all, aim to make the car a safe space and conversation in it a laid-back affair. “There’s a relaxed informality about car journeys — unlike sitting round the table at meal times, for example, with everyone looking at you,” Hannah says. “If you fear being judged or ridiculed, the lack of eye contact in a car conversation can lessen the blow. It’s disinhibiting.”
After all, any good conversation requires an easy pace and a pressure-free atmosphere with limited outside distractions. The car ride happens to offer just that that, and the conversation can spill outside of the vehicle afterwards. “At a quiet time at home, the parent can bring up the subject again making sure not to sound judgmental but empathic and open-minded about their child or teen’s perspectives,” Hollman says. “Be careful not to share your vantage points until you have heard your child out without interruption. Then ask if they would like your opinions. This not only leads to further communication but also strengthens the parent-child bond.”