It is apparent that kids these days are dealing with a new set of problems on top of the old traditional issues that persist among today’s youth — from smoking, drinking, and substance abuse to cyberbullying and the (mis)use of various social media platforms. From mental health concerns, suicide, school violence, sexual assault to LGBT-related, the list goes on and on. These topics are boiling up inside millions of youth who are in need of platforms to express their voices.
How often do we see children running to adults and sharing their feelings? In the hit series 13 Reasons Why, there are some very graphic depictions of youth engaging in dangerous behaviors. The magnitude to which these issues affect kids warrant conversations in order to prevent or help someone in crisis.
Getting into a child’s mind and knowing what they are truly feeling, isn’t always easy. As a school teacher and someone who has worked with tween and teenage children for nearly two decades, I am aware of these problems and see that they must be addressed. I will admit that sometimes, it is difficult to hear what they have to say and I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them.
However, I recommend for parents, teachers, counselors, and mental health professionals who regularly are surrounded by children to start the tough conversations early. I realize that not all adults possess the tools necessary to know how to start these conversations and that is what inspired me to write this blog. You can never be sure of how someone is feeling. This is why it is important to have these discussions. It could sometimes be a matter of life and death.
1. “Actively” Listen
For a child to share their feelings with someone else requires a level of trust. For kids, trust is earned and can be easily lost. To gain the trust and respect of a child, they need to know that you care and are there to listen to their concerns. Active listening goes beyond just hearing what someone has to say and preaching back to them what and how they should do it. It is important to convey the message to a child that they have been heard and understood. In order to do this, a valuable technique is to acknowledge the message by making eye contact with a child and restating the message shared in your own words back to the child. This way of responding with reflection shows the child that you care and are paying attention to the details. This often opens up the door for them to want to share more and have a deeper conversation.
2. Demonstrate Empathy
It is common for a child and especially a teenager to think that no one understands their situation. Finding a way to relate with what children are going through, can be a big step for them to open up with you. Each child is different and will communicate with you in their own way and at their own pace. The key is not to change when and how much they talk, but to create a safe space for when they feel comfortable and are ready to have a conversation. I’ve noticed that when children feel they aren’t alone in their problems, they oftentimes open up about what is bothering them. This offers many children a sense of hope and in some cases, recovery.
3. Find the “in between” time to talk
Having a conversation with a child should feel natural. Finding that “in between” time, such as before or after school, at the dinner table, driving to a sports practice or music lesson, playing a game together, preparing a family meal or right before bedtime is a way to discuss important issues in a more casual setting.
4. Allow a Child to Speak Freely Without Judgment
It’s hard enough for a child to open up to adults about how they are truly feeling, let alone have to feel that their words will be analyzed, evaluated and held against them. The goal is to ultimately help a child resolve his or her own issues. By refraining from judgment and keeping the conversation flowing back and forth freely, a child will feel “on the level” with who is listening, rather than feeling inferior in any which way. Just by letting a child know that you are emotionally available and can talk with them openly about anything can make a big difference.
5. Ask Your Child for Advice
There is this notion that children should come to their parents for input and advice. While that may be true, reversing the roles can provide insight into what a child is thinking. Asking your child for their input empowers them and shows that you value what you have to say. This also makes the child have to formulate a response to help “solve their problem.” I feel this is an ingenious approach that we need to implement more with children. As adults, we can learn a lot from children of all ages, as they can learn from us. We all just have to start “asking” more often in order to discover and uncover those hidden treasures that can be found inside all of us.
In my best-selling book, The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens, I discuss a variety of conversation starters and ways to effectively break through with your child.
To Starting the Conversation!