How to Get Your Kids to Open Up
In a culture that is becoming increasingly busy and distracted, with people more disconnected from one another, getting your child to open up to you can be a struggle. Feeling shut out stings, but there are simple ways to open the door to a deeper connection with your kids.
Jennifer Kolari, MSW, RSW, a Toronto-based parenting expert and author of Connected Parenting, helps foster open communication between parents and kids of all ages. Her approach also helps build resilience, trust and emotional regulation.
Kolari developed her C.A.L.M. method based on a therapy technique called mirroring, which is designed to create therapeutic trust. As a therapist and parent herself, Kolari saw how this technique opened up communication with her own children.
“What happens in those moments when we connect with our children is a really beautiful reward,” she says. “When I’m mirroring, we have this deep connection, and opiates, endorphins and oxytocin release into the bloodstream, sending a signal to the brain to calm you down.” This happens for both the child and the parent, which anchors the relationship and orients your child toward you, instead of away from you. And for parents of tweens and teens, Kolari believes this is vital. “The closer they are to us, the more resistant they are to forces outside such as peers and the media.”
The C.A.L.M. process follows four simple guidelines:
- CONNECT. When we connect with each other, feel-good chemicals flood the brain, creating a calming environment that feels safe. “Lean in; use your body language to get them to feel like you are really listening,” says Kolari.
- AFFECT. Match the emotions they are sharing with you. Instead of trying to fix or solve their problem, allow them to feel their feelings and show empathy. “This is different from active listening, where you say, ‘I see you are feeling angry about this,’” says Kolari. Use a similar tone of voice and expression to show you understand how they are feeling. Your personal agenda stays out of it at this stage.
- LISTEN. Paraphrase what your child is saying. Summarize and wonder out loud with them.
- MIRROR. Don’t try to solve, fix or cheerlead. “When we cheerlead, we are showing them someone else can solve their problem for them, and that it’s not okay to feel how they’re feeling,” Kolari says. “We all want someone to get us. Children are no different.”
Kolari says cultivating a deeper emotional connection with your kids is the foundation for improving communication. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Eat together. Have family dinners at least a few times a week and don’t discuss difficult topics at the dinner table. Turn off cell phones, tablets and devices and put them in a basket. Connect by sharing something new you learned that day, or take turns sharing your “high,” your “low,” and a “bet you didn’t know.” The car is also a great time to talk, share and laugh together.
- Stay neutral. “If we get angry, emotional or too intense,” says Kolari, “it doesn’t feel safe for your child to open up to you.” Also, if our parental agenda is too evident, that will also cause a kid to shut down.
- Give them space. If your child is upset but doesn’t want to talk, let them know you’re there for them and they can come talk to you whenever they feel ready. “[By practicing the C.A.L.M. technique], my child understands I can handle this and so can she,” says Kolari. “They often move to the solution phase on their own.”