Do you often feel like your child is a mystery and doesn’t open up emotionally to you as much as you’d like? You aren’t alone. Many of the parents of my youngest patients often ask me for guidance on how to help their children become more open and to share what’s on their minds. Understandably, they are looking for an easy-to-implement solution with instant results. But the key to getting your child to feel secure enough to confide in you is to build a foundation of trust with him. And building that foundation takes time.
What usually happens when you ask your child how his day was or what’s on his mind? If you are like most parents, your children often answer with a vague “fine” or say nothing at all. And when you continue to press them for information, they quickly grow annoyed and stomp away in a huff. To them, your seemingly innocent and thoughtful questions come across as nosy and nagging rather than caring. Nothing shuts down a talkative teenager more quickly than asking a probing and pointed question. On the popular show The Middle, the mother, Frankie, is often chasing her teenage son, Axl, around the house asking him how his day is but it doesn’t get her anywhere. And when Axl does choose to confide in her, she is overjoyed. But, when she starts to press him for more information, he quickly grows annoyed and shuts down. What’s a parent to do?
Building a Foundation of Trust
As a parent, you are the adult your child is closest to and so you have the responsibility to cultivate an open line of communication between yourself and your child. Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, notes that “The family is the primary setting for socialization, since it is where we first learn to relate to others, to listen and share, to be patient and show respect, to help one another and live as one.” Parents have the privilege of helping their children learn how to listen, respect others, and express themselves in a healthy way. Yes, it can feel like a weighty responsibility, but it is also an honor. Francis goes on to say, “What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy…The questions I would put to parents are these: ‘Do we seek to understand ‘where’ our children really are in their journey? Where is their soul, do we really know? And above all, do we want to know?’” When you feel frustrated that your child is not sharing his thoughts and feelings with you, you are seeking to answer that very question. You are wondering where your child stands on his or her journey. The key to unlocking this secret is building that critical foundation of trust.
Building a foundation of trust with your child is one of the best things you can do for your relationship. And, best of all, it’s never too late to start. Building that foundation of trust with your child starts with the two of you spending quality one-on-one time with one another. What do the two of you like to do together? Perhaps you enjoy bike riding, puzzle-building, drawing, or exploring museums. If you’re stumped, ask your child what they would enjoy doing with you. If they’re having trouble identifying activities, suggest a few. It could be as simple as going out together for coffee or ice cream. It can be as short or as long as you and your child would like. It’s best to schedule this one-on-one time regularly so that your time together is consistent and your child knows that you are making it a priority.
Know When to Keep Quiet
The challenging but vitally important part of spending quality time with your child is not asking probing questions. Yes, this will be incredibly hard to do but if your child senses that you are only spending time with him so that you can pepper him with nosy questions, he’ll be quick to avoid your requests to do things together. This is where patience becomes very important. Don’t push your child; remain content to just spend time with him. The more quality time you spend together, the stronger the foundation of trust. By spending quality time together, you are communicating that you value your child for who he is. You want to spend time with him simply because you enjoy it.
Don’t push your child; remain content to just spend time with him.
As you patiently build that foundation of trust, you’ll find that your child will feel more and more comfortable sharing his thoughts, feelings, and concerns with you. And when he does, gratefully accept what he shares with you but don’t push him to share more than he is comfortable with (as tempting as it may be to do so). Children often feel comfortable talking about their feelings when they are engaged in another activity rather than sitting down to discuss their concerns more formally.
Therapists often use play in their therapy sessions to help children feel more comfortable communicating and feel more free to express themselves. Some forms of play therapy, such as filial therapy, take this principle one step further. The therapist teaches the parent how to engage in non-directive play with her child to help the child heal. The premise behind this lies in the fact that parents are the most significant adult in a child’s life and are more likely to have the greatest influence on the child, according to Rise VanFleet, founder and President of the Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center, Inc., in her book Filial Therapy. Engaging in enjoyable activities with your child strengthens the bond between the two of you and provides you with a deeper understanding of your child.
It takes time and effort, but patiently establishing a bond of trust with your child has many benefits. You will feel emotionally closer to your child and your child will also feel closer to you. As a result, he will sense that he can trust you with his dreams and fears. And you will be able to answer that elusive question that Pope Francis asks: where are our children on their journey of life?