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3 Strategies to Communicate Effectively with your Child

Communication is key in all areas of our lives whether it be for work, for the home, or for social purposes. Effective communication strengthens relationships. Communicating with your children is imperative, especially when it comes to their pre-teen and teen years. But as your child gets older, it gets harder to talk with teens as they change and we as parents can’t always speak to them in the same way we speak to them as children. So how do we keep our lines of communication open? To keep conversations flowing, we need to ask the right questions.

mother and son laughing and talking

The school bell rings as a line of students rush out the door. Waiting patiently, you stand there until the familiar face runs over to you.


"Hey you!" you beam. "How was school today?"

"Good! Today, we made a Lego block tower and had a contest to see which tower is the tallest! Oh, and we played soccer at lunchtime and I scored a goal! And...”


Your little one continues to give you their play-by-play as you walk home together.


The "how's school today?" question is a popular one with parents no matter what age their child is.

Whether it’s right after school at pick up, or when you come home from work and greet your children, this question is asked because it’s nice to hear about what they did at school, learn about their highlights of their day, or empathize with their playground kerfuffles. But you’ll notice that as your child approaches the intermediate and high school years, their response to that question dwindles, lacking much substance.


“Hey you!" you beam. "How was school today?”

"Good."

"Good. So what did you do?"

"Stuff."

"Like what?"

"I don't know...stuff."


During the primary years, your child narrates his day and talks like the Energizer bunny. But when they reach their pre-teen and teen years, their batteries seem to have exhausted.

Ahh, the pre-teen and teen years.


Communicating effectively with pre-teens and teens can be a challenge. A simple "how's school today?" now elicits a one word reply. Yet we know that these adolescent years are imperative to fostering relationships and that it’s a pivotal time to ensure that parents maintain open communication and be a part of their children’s lives. So what can we do to keep our lines of communication open with our kids and elicit meaningful conversations?


Here are 3 simple strategies that you can easily use to keep the conversations flowing.


1. Ask open ended questions instead of closed questions.

2. Tweak open questions by asking for something specific.

3. Be a genuine listener.


Let’s dive into each one a little more:


1. Ask open ended questions instead of closed questions.

A closed question allows for one word responses. The answer is most likely a “yes” or a “no”.

Here are some examples of closed questions. Notice the reply.


"Did you do all your homework?"

"Did you study?"

"Did you start on your socials project?"


When you ask a closed question, you get a closed response.

an open and closed door sign

An open question goes beyond the yes/no response. It strikes up further discussions.

Here are some ways you can reframe the closed question above to make it "open".


"How did you prioritize your homework?"

"How did you study for your science test?"

"So tell me, what’s your socials project all about?"


When you ask an open question, you empower them to respond with details and thoughts. You put them in control of the conversation.


2. Tweak open questions and steer towards a specific topic

Now that you know the difference between closed and open questions and have practiced reframing closed questions to be more open, work on being more specific.

Although "how's school today" doesn’t give you yes/no response, it also doesn’t elicit much more. This question is a big ask. That’s because it is so general that it makes it difficult to answer. Narrow down the question to a particular time of day in school and then they can recall that moment and provide you with an answer beyond the word "good".


Instead of asking, "How was school today?", try asking questions that help your child focus on a specific point. Here are some examples:


“What did you do right after lunch?”

“What was the most exciting part of your day?”

“What did Mr. X talk about today in science class?”

“What topics did you learn about in Ms. Y's class today?”

“How did you and your friends spend your time during recess and lunch?”


If they had a test, don't ask "How did you do on your test?” Instead try:


"What kinds of questions were asked on the test?"

"Were any of the parts that you reviewed last night on the test?"

"How were you feeling before the test?"

"How do you feel now that you have taken the test?"

“Is there anything you would do differently the next time you study?”

a camera lens that focuses on an image

Reframing the question to something more specific helps your child answer with more details. When you ask an open question that is more specific, it shows you are curious about their process and experience rather than probing on outcomes. Just be mindful of how many questions you ask.

Do not ask too many questions at one time. If you ask too many questions, it sounds like they are being interrogated which then causes them to feel like you are nagging. Be the listener, not the talker. This brings me to the third strategy to keep meaningful rapport with your children.


3. Be a genuine listener.

Don’t listen with just your ears. Only 7% of communication is contained in the words we use. This proves that listening with just your ears is not good enough. The other 93% comes from our body language and how we say our words to reflect our feelings.

mother and son playing and having fun

When conversing with your child, make eye contact and position your body to show you are listening. Don’t be on your phone, or pretend you are listening. Stop what you are doing, focus on your child, and be engaged. If you are preoccupied with something else, don’t start the conversation. Wait until you are both physically and mentally present.


When talking, be aware of your tone and the feelings you reflect in your voice. Avoid the “nagging” tone and don’t just start advising and judging. Let them talk, and pay attention to their tone and body language. If you aren’t genuinely listening with your body and your voice, you are only listening 7%. How would you feel if your child was just paying attention to 7% of what you are saying?


While I still ask my little guy “how’s school today”, I’ve learned to reframe my question with my older two. When my preteen and teen come home, I greet them and ask, “What are your priorities for the rest of the day?” I find this question useful as it allows them to think about what what they did at school and what they need to get done and to think about their time management. As they respond, they are verbally walking through their plan for the day, and I get to know more about their schoolwork without directly asking them about school. I’ve found that this really helps them tell me more about what they do at school and makes them build accountability for their schoolwork. Give it a try and see how your teen responds.


Summing it Up

mother and daughter hugging

I encourage you to reframe your questions so that the answers go beyond the yes/no response, and have a two-way conversation with your teen rather than lead with questions. Be a genuine listener and pay attention to your body language and tone. Providing a non-judgemental environment will help them feel safe enough to open up about bigger topics down the road. You may be surprised at all they have to tell you!


Not only will this create a more open relationship with your child, you help model a better way to communicate. Your positive modelling will encourage your child to communicate more effectively with their peers and teachers. They will be better communicators and ask the right questions to get the answers they need, and that is the skill needed to be constructive and analytical thinkers which in turn will be an asset to their learning. It’s a win-win situation.


Start today and ask the right questions!


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