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Beyond the Shoulder Shrug — Getting Kids to Open Up About School
Erin Nixon, Middle School Counselor


My kids are talkers. They are especially conversational if you want to discuss video games or YouTubers. They’ll go on all day if you want to rank Gatorade flavors from the best to the “okay-est” to the worst. Generally speaking, it is not all that hard to get my children to share their thoughts. Still, despite their chatty nature, I am not immune to the dreaded four-letter words that often accompany this question: “How was school?”

“Fine,” they say. “Good.” My face tends to look like that one emoji with a straight line for a mouth and the curious eyebrow. I need more info, but how to get it?

As someone who talks to children for a living, I have found that most kids do want to share what’s on their minds, but sometimes our well-intentioned approaches can kill the conversation before it even begins. Ask Siri how to get your child to talk about school and you will likely get a list of 20 or so questions that are aimed at specificity. Who did you sit by at lunch? How did your math test go? These are good questions, but unlikely to get much more than one-word responses. To kids, these direct questions tend to feel a bit, well – questiony, and direct questions tend to get direct answers. We can trick them into going a bit deeper in their sharing with a slight tweak in wording. Simply adding “I wonder” to the beginning of a question can help kids feel more comfortable. For example: “You had a math test today, right? I wonder how that went.” This sounds pretty much the same, but the power of “I wonder” is that it is open-ended and presents an invitation for deeper conversation and connection. 

Speaking of connection, sometimes kids just need a bit more of it before they are ready to open up. The drive home provides a nice opportunity for conversation, but it also might be too soon for kids who need time to adjust from the natural disconnect between school and home. Parents can reestablish this connection with physical affection, some downtime, and following their child’s cues. Forced conversations are not typically good ones, and you’re likely to get more out of a child who is emotionally regulated and has had ample time to adjust from one environment to the next.

It is also okay to allow for silence. Some kids don’t verbalize their feelings quickly. If we rush in to reframe our question, ask a new one, or draw our own conclusions, we inadvertently squash sentiments that might have eventually been shared. Some of my most compelling conversations with students have come after first sitting in silence. If I nod and show them I am listening, most kids begin to open up.

Another tip is to be conscious of how often we try to offer advice. It seems quite natural to provide words of wisdom when your child is having a hard time with something. The problem is, most kids find this annoying and will tell you as much. Instead of making suggestions for what the child should do next, first acknowledge how they are feeling. The child will likely feel safe to continue sharing as a result of this empathetic response. Once the child is done venting, try asking something like, “What do you think you’ll do about this?” and hear what they have to say. If you think there might be a better solution, you can suggest it by saying something like, “Yes that is one idea. Another option might be to…” The goal is to help the child feel as if you are working with them as opposed to going into lecture mode. Offering too much parental advice too frequently might cause kids to avoid talking about their struggles altogether.

While my own kids are generally forthcoming, there are still days when I can’t seem to get much out of them. When this happens, I pull out what is perhaps the most effective tool in my toolbox – I talk about my day. This tactic seems to work in the same way that yawning causes someone else to yawn, and it is almost foolproof. When you demonstrate a desire to engage and model communication, kids are likely to follow your lead. Hearing about your day-to-day events, triumphs, desires, or challenges inevitably reminds them of their own, and you’re off and running.

All kids are different and no two conversations are the same, but we can improve our overall communication with our children with some simple, thoughtful tweaks. If you feel you are really struggling to communicate with your child, you can always reach out to your divisional counselor for more personalized support.