PARENT EDUCATION: Getting Kids to Talk without Bribery, Begging, or Bawling

By Cassy Wimmer, Community Education Director & Staff Therapist

Getting kids to talk about their day is difficult!  Give a second-grader a buddy in the back seat of the car, and it’s nonstop banter, whether it makes sense to the parent driving or not.  But affront that same second grader with a smiling mom and the question, “How was your day, sweetie?” stark silence always follows a quiet, “Uh, I don’t know.” Next time, instead of barking, “Of course you know how your day was!” or begging him for one little piece of information, try the following tips:

1. The problem: kids are exhausted after a full day. We parents are worn out by the end of the day with just a couple kids underfoot.  Add twenty more kids to the mix and a schedule filled with new information to learn, and it’s no wonder our kids don’t want to talk when they get home from school!  They are exhausted.

Tip:  don’t ask how their day was right when they get home.  Kirk Martin of Celebrate Calm suggests providing children with ways of relaxing after a long day, such as a bath, a family game of cards or catch, or a half hour of family reading with some scented candles lit.  Teaching your children how to recognize when they are overwhelmed and care for themselves could be a great asset!

2. The problem: kids don’t automatically know how to talk to grown-ups.  Depending on where children are in their development, their brains may not know how to make sense of time passed, how to make sense of what feelings and experiences are separate from a caregiver’s, or even what types of things are appropriate to share.  Children learn the skills of conversation through parents modeling it well.

Tip:  find a time during the day when you can model how to talk about your day.  At the dinner table, everyone in our family enjoys asking and answering the following: What is the rose of your day (something great), what is the bud of your day (something new), and what is the thorn of your day, (something not-so-good).  This gives children an opportunity to learn through both modeling and practice how to 1) ask about other people’s experiences and 2) share about their own. When you do get the opportunity to ask more questions about your child’s day, limit the number of questions you ask so you don’t overwhelm.

Tip: make your questions more specific.  “How was your day?” is daunting for a little mind without an adult sized frontal lobe:  just answering this question takes skills of summarizing, remembering, organizing thoughts, and changing memories into words, which little brains are just learning to do.  Asking more specific questions, like, “Did you get to have pizza for lunch today?” or “What book did the librarian read to you today?” can make the sharing feel manageable.

3. The problem: sometimes we parents are too busy trying to solve our kids’ problems to listen.  As I’m sure we can all admit, there have been many times when our children have shared a problem and we and start spewing our mothers’ aphorisms all over the poor kids:  “if so-and-so jumped off a bridge…,” or “it doesn’t sound like you treated him like you want to be treated.”  Or worse, we immediately try to tackle the problem ourselves:  “I’m going to call his mother right now,” or, “you better get that homework done tonight then, or else!”  For some reason, we forget how horrible it feels to have someone respond this way.  Our children may just decide it’s much easier just to say “I don’t know” when we ask how their day was.

Tip: stop giving advice! Parenting experts Barbara Coloroso of Kids are Worth It and Jim Faye and Charles Faye of Love and Logic suggest weeding out all unsolicited advice from our parenting.  (What the what?!?) Coloroso suggests using language that helps our children to understand that we trust them to solve their problems and that builds their problem solving skills, such as, “You’ve got a problem there, but I know you can handle it.”  Faye and Faye suggest parents say to their children, “Let me know if you want any help with that,” or “If you want, I can let you know what other kids have done with that problem.”   So many of us try to protect our children from failure and pain without realizing that we are stealing their opportunities to learn.

Tip: be your child’s emotional sponge.  When the opportunity comes that your child wants to share, sit with your child.  Listen to your child, but don’t advise or lecture or solve.  Understand and feel your child’s feelings.  Soak up the pain with your hugs and empathy.  Does it hurt?  Yeah.  Can you handle it?  Yeah.  You got this.

(Disclaimer:  Obviously, use your best judgement with this one.  Parents need to take action when someone is getting hurt or could get hurt, the consequences of your child’s actions are too big for your child to handle, or your child’s actions are affecting others.)

4. The problem: when our children pull away, parents automatically assume there’s a problem.  The truth is, it’s normal and good for kids to move apart from their parents.  We’re supposed to work ourselves out of a job!  The fact that your child has increasing freedom from you probably makes your child feel self-confident and trusted.  In psychobabble, it’s called separation-individuation, and it’s a sign of a healthy kid!

Tip: get a hobby! Joking aside, parents of young children have a very difficult time taking quality care of themselves.  Now is our chance!  Use every one of those moments your child has started giving back to your advantage!  Your children don’t want to tell you about their day?  Wow!  An extra ten minutes to finish that chapter you’ve been thinking about!  Your child would rather read tonight than go over the day’s events before bed?  Great!  Eight more minutes of alone-time with your spouse!  I hear you; you’re afraid your child will feel ignored.   If your children do feel this way, they will come to you.

Tip: ask yourself, “Does my child need me to know what’s going on, or do I need to know what’s going on?”  If your child needs you, by all means, get more involved.  Afraid your child is being bullied?  Afraid of drug use or bad influences?  Afraid that your child is not safe at that friend’s house?  Then your child needs you!  However, if it’s more about you and your needs than it is about your child, maybe it’s time to check that and figure out where the anxiety is coming from.      

Woman and young girl in living room with flat screen television
Anchorpoint is available to serve you and your family.  We offer counseling to help you and your loved ones connect. Private Parent Coaching will equip you with positive parenting tools. Parenting workshops and support groups are also available. Call us today at 412-366-1300 or visit for more information.