“What did you do at school today?”
“Can’t remember. Hey, can we play on the iPad?”
If that exchange sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. Kids can find it tough to talk about their day and any problems they might be experiencing. And it’s not (usually) because they’re grumpy or don’t like you or are hiding anything. Here are some simple tips to help parents and children connect, open up, and start conversations.
Use Narrow Questions
“How was your day?” is actually a tricky question to answer when you think about it. Every day brings hundreds of experiences and interactions, especially in the classroom or playground. How do you summarise that? An adult learns to tailor the answer to whoever is asking the question, picking out the most relevant or suitable bits. Younger children, still learning communication skills, struggle to do this. Ask “What did you do at school?” and you’re more likely to get a “don’t know” or “forgot” than an “oh, we had lots of fun painting animals, and then did an hour of PE, with pasta for lunch and a spot of maths in the afternoon”.
Instead, go for simpler, more specific questions. Examples include:
- What did you eat for lunch today?
- Did you do any maths today?
- Who did you talk to in the playground?
- Did anything make you laugh today?
You can then use the answers as springboards for further specific questions.
Older children will be more receptive to broader questions. It’s important to ask in a way that’s supportive, positive and encouraging. So, for example, “Is there anything I can help with?” may be better than a plain “What’s wrong?”.
Talk About The Happies
If a child has something weighing on their mind, but they’re not forthcoming about it, you might be able to ease them into the subject by starting with happy or whimsical thoughts. Again, ask quite specific questions, like “What’s the best film you watched recently?” or “Where in the universe would you go if you had a spaceship?”. It might or might not lead on to talking about meatier issues, but you’ll certainly have fun together.
Play Word Games
Another fun and easy way to connect with a child is to start a simple word game. I’ve always enjoyed the alphabet game -- you pick a broad topic, like ‘types of food’ or ‘TV characters’ then you take it in turns to give an example that begins with the next letter of the alphabet (e.g. Apple, banana, cauliflower, doughnut…). You could then choose ‘Stuff you’d find at school’ if you want to get them talking about their school life, or “Things mummy really likes” if you want to talk about family. Throw in some more cheeky ones, too, to keep the energy levels up. “Really silly presents to get daddy for his birthday,” for example, will get the giggles flowing (“Albatross! Babywipes! Custard!”).
Make Room For Mindfulness
The world can be bewildering to younger children, with so many new ideas and experiences every day. It’s important to give them cushions from the barrage. Peaceful, mindful activities that help kids to explore and make sense of emotions are a good antidote to the constant inputs. Blow bubbles with built-in breathing exercises; make a happiness jar to contain positive thoughts; or get them to slowly chew on a favourite food and describe the tastes and smells. All these activities will help to calm a child, and make them more likely to share any thoughts, worries or confusion.
For younger children, the CBeebies Go Explore app contains a wonderful section called Your Mindful Garden, narrated by Stephen Fry. Created by mindfulness experts, it includes simple games and activities to put a busy young mind at rest. Many alternative mindfulness apps are available in the usual places.
Children, like adults, can struggle with their self confidence, especially when adapting to change. One way to get talking about this is to use ‘affirmations’. These are positive statements that remind the child that they are loved and safe, and a good person. One way to kick things off is to write down 10 or so positive statements and ask your child what they think of each one.
For younger kids, the statements might be:
- I am kind
- My friends and family love me
- I make people happy
- I am an amazing friend
- I am brave
For older children, you can try more complicated thoughts, like “I can make a difference in the world” or “What scares me today won’t scare me tomorrow”. You can tailor your list to match your own child’s biggest strengths and capabilities. This will encourage them to talk about what they are good at, and help build a positive mindset. If you’re looking for more inspiration, we’ve put together 45 affirmation messages here, suitable for all the age groups.
Mealtimes Are Sacred
Mealtimes have always been an occasion for families to sit down together and chew the fat, in both senses. For many families, it’s not realistic to expect kids to stay in their seats, ignore TV and engage in meaningful conversation every night… or even most nights. But it is a good idea to try to do this at least once a week. You could make a big thing of it. Trumpet that you’re going to cook a special Sunday roast this week, and you want the kids to help (either in the cooking, or choosing of ingredients, or both). Then tell everyone that they need to come to the table with one astounding fact, one hilarious joke, and one story about something that happened to them this week. Making Sunday lunch (or breakfast or brunch) an ‘event’ like this will heighten anticipation and get kids to share things they might not otherwise.
Music is food for the soul, and a peerless way of connecting with children. Share your favourite happy and sad tracks with a child and ask them how the songs make them feel. Then switch things around and ask them what their favourite tunes are, and why. You could even task older children with making a playlist for you -- they’ll love the challenge, and you can then have a heart-to-heart about why they made particular choices, or why they like a certain band, singer or style. Just don’t moan about how music is rubbish nowadays and things were much better when you were young!
Sometimes, the confines of the home can get everyone a little moody, especially after months of restrictions and lockdowns. A walk outside will lift everyone, and make talking easier. You can turn it into something of a game by including a scavenger hunt, or playing that old favourite of spotting shapes in the clouds. Follow familiar routes (perhaps the journey to an old nursery or friend’s house) to trigger memories and start conversations. Or take entirely new streets to enjoy the shared experience of exploring together. Whatever you do, walking is great for talking. Without screens or toys to hand, and the wider world to stimulate the senses, your kids are much more likely to open up.
Finally… Just Make Time
It’s the really obvious one, but also the most important. It can sometimes be hard to find the time to simply sit and talk with kids. There’s always dinner to be made, or baths to run, or spills to clean up, or last bits of work to finish. But finding just 15 minutes each evening to share time can make a world of difference. You wouldn’t skip a meal, so don’t skip a chat.
For most families, time is less pressing at the weekend. Use the opportunity to do shared activities like baking, crafting or exploring. Above all, just be there, give hugs, and let them talk about whatever they want to.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.