How To Get Your Kids Talking A Little More

Asking the 'right' questions can get your child talking and keep them safer.

Asking the 'right' questions can get your child talking and keep them safer. As a parent, I'm sure you've been treated to the "grunt experience".
This is a free entertainment package provided mostly - but not exclusively - by early teens to the sheer delight of all adults involved with said teen. 
The "grunt experience" involves short chats where you get to hear words like fine, alright, sort of, whatever, OMG, sigh, groan and of course - The Grunt #rollseyes (it's an added extra)
I often come across blog posts for parents about questions to get conversations started with their kids. But I'm often left wondering if they'll actually get conversations past these initial questions. Past the "yes" or "no" or,  yep,  The Grunt...
There isn't a parent alive who isn't driven close to the edge by The Grunt. So I wondered how could I assist parents to ask questions that result in actual sentences, where there's an actual back and forth?
I noticed that many of the posts I read provided examples of questions that were great thematically, but could do with a slight structural tweak: they could do with conversion from closed to open questioning.
  • Closed questions can only have 'yes' or 'no' as answers.
  • Open questions yield information. And that's where the gold is - a well-chosen open question.
Here are some closed questions:
Let's say you want to know how school went. You might naturally try "Was school good? Did today go well? Was today OK? Did you have fun?
Or you want to know how that birthday party went, so you might ask "Are Tom's parents nice? Were there many others there? Did she like her present? Was the food nice?
These questions might seem like they would prompt someone to give you information. But if they're not feeling chatty, or don't really want to tell you, or just aren't in the mood for you then it's easy to answer "yes" (to please you or get you to stop talking), "no" (same reasons), shrug or y'know, The Grunt.
If, however, you slightly change the wording, you'll get more:
"How was school? Why was that? What happened today? What was today like? What was good about it? What did you do that was fun?
As for that party, perhaps try these: "What are Tom's parents like? What did you like about them? What didn't you like about them? How did you feel in their house? What were the other people like? How do you think she felt about her present? Why do you think that? What did you eat?
Importantly, changing your questioning style will mean that you're less likely to miss information about things that are of concern. Things you might not get to hear about with a closed question. Did you play games? "Ya". If you turn that into  "What games did you play? Oh, that one where you rob stuff and shoot prostitutes  - it was super fun! Then we played lock me in the garden shed for hours 'til I cry.
Well... you see where I'm going here...
How we ask children about their day matters. Here are a few other tweaking ideas:
  • Did you do what you were told? Can become "How were you treated there?" because what if they did do what they were told but you wouldn't be happy about what they were told to do?
  • You feeling OK? This could be tweaked to "How are you feeling after it?"
  • You OK to go back there again?  can turn into "What would it be like to go back there?"
  • Did you like Katie's mom? "What was Katie's room like?"
  • Were Johnnie's parents nice to you? "What did his parents talk to you about?
  • Did you guys play together? "What did you guys do together?"
When we use open questioning, what might have been a simple "yes " may transform into a detailed description of how disgusting and smelly treasures were found in a bin and made into jewellery - for you!! Or it might lead you to learn that someone wanted to play mommy and daddy but it was to be a secret and they couldn't tell the other mommy anyway 'cos she was out somewhere so...
Your child or teen  (or indeed partner or friend) will have bad days and won't want to upset you by telling you that they were bullied, threatened, abused or just sad. And so they will take what they believe to be the easy way out for everyone with yes or no answers to closed questions.
When we open up a conversation with open questioning it gets people communicating. And crucially, it gets at information that might alert you to unsafe people or places.
Your child still won't tell you everything I know, but I also know that this way of asking is more likely to get you the answers you're looking for.
See you again next month - happy practising and take care of yourselves until then!

Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

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