My mom came home from work one day to an oddly placed vase in the kitchen. It was right in the middle of the counter’s usable space. I’d put it there to hide a bleach mark I had made. Yep, my mom was ticked. I would be too. She asked why I hid the spot and I responded, “I knew you’d yell at me.”
One of the biggest reasons kids lie when they’ve messed up is that they are afraid parents will overreact. But a bleach spot on the counter is small compared to some of the big issues kids face and we want them to know they can always come talk to us, even if they think they’ll get in trouble. So here’s how to get a child to talk about feelings, fears, and mistakes they’ve made. We’ve got 3 tools for you to try.
1. Come up with a family “cool word.”
A family “cool word” is your code for, “I have to tell you something, but you have to promise to keep your cool.” Here’s how it works. Let’s say your “cool word” is “frisbee.”
You’re driving to school and your daughter pipes up from the back seat, “Hey, Mom! Frisbee.”
You take a moment to breathe and brace yourself. Then let her share with your promise not to yell or freak out.
Your daughter says, “I just realized I left my lunch on the roof of the car.”
Because you promised not to go berserk, you are forced to deal with the issue in a way that isn’t going to scare your child.
Most of the time, the stuff your kids will share with the “cool word” will be minor, but that’s good! If they can come to you with lunch on the roof now, they’ll be more inclined to “frisbee” sex or drugs later. Bonus: Parents can use the word, too, when they have to tell the kids something they know will upset them.
2. Let them express emotions that make you uncomfortable.
One of the tricks to knowing how to get a child to talk about feelings is not to squash any emotion of theirs because it’s difficult for you. Some adults are uncomfortable with anger, so they tell their children not to be angry when, in truth, the anger is justified. Kids have a right to own their feelings and when we allow them to cope instead of negating or avoiding those feelings, we are telling them we are a safe place to express any emotion. Our kids need to know they will be heard when they talk to us.
3. Don’t make any topic taboo.
One of the best answers for how to get a child to talk about feelings, fears, and mistakes is never to make any topic off-limits. When your daughter gets in the car and says, “Today in class, one of the boys said the word ‘sex’ and everyone started laughing,” and you react by saying, “You’re too young to even repeat that word. That’s an adult topic,” you’re shutting down a line of communication with your child. Who knows what he or she will think the next time he or she has a question about sex? “Am I old enough now to talk about it? Will I get in trouble for saying it?”
Bonus tip: Watch how you talk about the decisions other kids are making.
Word has spread that a teen from church got caught sexting, and your response in front of your family is, “I’m not surprised. That girl dresses too provocatively and looks like she’s just inviting boys to treat her like an object.” You’re sending a clear message to your children about what you think of kids who make bad choices—that they are bad kids. If your child makes a bad choice, he or she won’t want to tell you and risk becoming bad in your eyes as well.
What do you do to make it clear to your kids that they can talk to you about anything?