How to Start a Conversation with Your Kid
By Robert Dove, L.C.S.W
Director of the Student Counseling Center
There is nothing I like better than telling someone how to do something they already know how to do. You know your children better than I possibly could, and you’ve been talking with them for more than 18 years. You already know how to do this. The good news is that with some age-appropriate tinkering, what worked when they were 9 will work when they’re 19.
1. Reward behavior you want to see more of. All of us would rather do things that we enjoy. When I was 9, I enjoyed my allowance, pats on the back (figurative and literal) and pizza. Pizza still works.* If you want to talk with your student, invite them out to their favorite lunch spot. Why? It’s a nice thing to do. Also, eating pizza and playing with the straw in their drink will give them something to do with their hands if they’re nervous. Another important consideration: Most of us act better in public. If the subject is emotionally charged, I am less likely to end up shouting if I am in a quiet corner of a restaurant than if I am standing in my living room.
2. Ask open-ended questions. When we can answer a question with a “yes” or a “no”, we do. Parent: “Do you like your classes?” Student: “Yes.” or “No.” End of conversation. But, “What are your classes like?” has a better chance at prompting a multiple-word reply. It’s open-ended.
3. Be (gently) persistent. Parent: “What are your classes like?” Student: “I don’t know.” End of conversation. Parent: What are your classes like?” Student: “I don’t know.” Parent: “What classes are you taking?” At this point in the conversation, one of us is working harder than the other (think of it as priming a pump), but at least the conversation is moving forward. Woody Allen once said that relationships are like sharks. If they don’t keep moving forward, they die. Conversations are like that as well.
4. Be curious. Whether you just want to know what their life at college is like, or you’re concerned about falling grades or a lack of communication, curiosity works. We all want to believe that we are interesting people who lead fascinating lives. That is particularly important to us when we are 19 and plagued by all the insecurities that go along with being 19. Unfortunately, because of those doubts and insecurities, a parent’s well-intentioned curiosity can sometimes seem like an interrogation to a student. If I feel I’m being interrogated, you get my name, rank and serial number. If I feel fascinating, you can’t shut me up.
How can we compensate for a student’s heightened sense of vulnerability and defensiveness? There is no sure-fire method, but a good place to start is by making sure that we, as parents, are focused on understanding and supporting the student, rather than understanding and correcting the student. That is not to say that a student’s behavior may not need correcting at times, but students are much more likely to get to a place where they are willing to talk about correcting a problem if they feel understood and supported first.
Whether we are 9, or 19, or 49, most of us want to get along well with our parents. What makes that particularly challenging at 19 is that students are also trying, for the first time in their lives, to get along with their parents as equals, as one adult to another. That can make everyone involved a little anxious. When that happens, it helps to remember that the support and encouragement that worked when we were all younger can still work today.
* So do pats on the back.