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Getting Your Child to Open Up
Good parents want to know how their children feel about different events in their lives. Simply saying, “Let’s talk,” however, won’t motivate your child to open up. Instead, try these four approaches to encourage your children to share their thoughts.

Let them say it with pictures
Since children don’t always have the vocabulary or the willingness to discuss what’s bothering them, child psychologists often ask them to draw how they feel. You can use the same technique whenever you’re concerned that something’s going on with your child.

Your specific instructions can vary according to your circumstances. For example, I remember asking a 6-year-old girl to draw a picture of the one thing that worries her most. She responded by placing her left hand on a piece of paper and tracing it with a pencil. This little girl had lost parts of two fingers in an accident, so her picture showed three full fingers and two stubs.

I then asked her to talk about what bothered her in the drawing. She responded: “My missing fingers. Do you think anyone will like me?” This child’s drawing helped get her talking about her feelings of not being like other children.

Make bedtime “talk time”
Most children don’t like to go to sleep. This is one time of day when they especially crave their parents’ attention. It’s also when they mellow out and let their defenses down, so they’re more likely to reveal their true feelings.

To get a child talking at bedtime, a parent can start off by reviewing some positive things that happened during the day. Next, the parent can gently approach an area of concern with her child. She might say, “I noticed you looked sad today when Grandma came over with a present for your baby brother. Why were you sad?”

When approached like this, your child is prone to open up and tell you that she felt left out and jealous. This, in turn, gives you the opportunity to respond with supportive words and ideas to help her feel more secure.

Bedtime is often overlooked as an opportune moment to talk with a child. I think you will be surprised how much more expressive your child is at bedtime.

Read your child’s mind
Parents are not mind readers, but they often have a good sense of what’s on their child’s mind. That’s why you should trust your intuition and put into words what your child isn’t expressing.

For example, a single mom might notice that her 5-year-old daughter is angry when she returns from a weekend with her dad. At a time like this a mom might make an educated guess and say, “It’s hard going back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s house, isn’t it?”

Since most children from divorced families find it hard to leave the parent they’re with for the other parent, they’re often angry about the divorce. Reading a child’s mind and putting her feelings into words can get her talking.

Have fun
Children love playing and doing things with their parents. Many children let their guard down when they’re having fun and spontaneously reveal their feelings.

I find that parents communicate better with their children when they’re having fun than by sitting their child down for a talk. These sit-downs are usually a big turnoff for children, while fun inspires them to discuss things that have been kept private.

Open a book
Bookstores and libraries have hundreds of children’s theme books. There are stories about children whose parents have divorced, who have lost a grandparent, who are being picked on or who were adopted, to name a few. So if there’s a particular subject you want your young child to talk about, search for a picture book with that theme. Children love to read stories, and to have their parents read to them. A book with a certain theme will prompt a child to open up and talk about their feelings.

Make a face
Give your child several pieces of plain paper and some crayons or markers. Tell her that you’re going to have some fun drawing pictures about kids’ feelings. Ask your child first to draw a happy face, then a sad face, an angry face, a scared face and a surprised face. Once all the faces are drawn, ask your child to pick one face that best shows how she feels today. Not only do children love to draw these faces—once they select a “feeling face” they’re inclined to open up about their feelings. Here’s another way to use these feeling faces to prompt a conversation. Choose one of the faces—the one indicating sadness, for example. Show it to your child and say, “You know, I thought you were feeling like this picture yesterday, when your grandmother had to leave. Were you sad yesterday?”

Spend quality time together
Nothing makes a young child happier than to have Mommy or Daddy all to himself. When parents make plans to spend one-on-one time with their child each week, they make their child feel like an only child. This, in turn, motivates children to talk more to their parents. So schedule one-on-one time each week with each one of your children. You’ll be surprised how much they have to say.

It’s important for parents to encourage their children to communicate. These approaches can get your child to open up. Good luck!

Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist