How to talk to your child to spark meaningful conversations

We finally unravelled the secret to finding out what's going on in your child's head. Read on to find out.

If you have a toddler, preschooler or kindergartener, it’s likely that you are clueless about what exactly is going on in their heads. Trying to ask them how their day went, what they did in school or how they are feeling is somewhat like going on a wild goose chase for you almost never get the responses you want. Well to make things a little easier for you, here’s how to talk to your child to spark meaningful conversations and to elicit responses that actually tell you something about what’s going on in their heads. 

Before we get to how to talk to your child, here’s how not to talk to your child. If they are anywhere between the age of two to five, here are some questions that you should avoid:

1. How was your day?

What you’re not looking for is a general, all-encompassing answer like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but that’s exactly what you are likely to hear if you ask them this question. 

2. What did you do in school?

Unless they did something terribly exciting like simulating an explosion, a science experiment involving a lot of texture and bubbles or celebrating someone’s birthday, you are likely to hear something along the lines of nothing, I don’t know or the all famous, I forgot. 

3. How are you feeling? 

Again, be prepared to welcome the infamous ‘good‘ and ‘bad‘. Other variations of answers include hungry, happy, sad or angry.

So how do you talk to your child then?

It’s not rocket science really. There’s a really simple way to go about doing this and trust me when I say that you will be extremely satisfied with the outcome of the conversation.

How to talk to your child 

As I tucked my five-year-old child into bed, I once asked him, 

Hey sweetheart, tell me three things that made you happy today.

how to talk to your child

Bedtime is a good time to talk to your children about their day.

I expected a superficial response like candy, playing with his toys and something along the lines. Instead, my son launched into an elaborate explanation of how he was happy to hear good things about himself during the parent-teacher meeting earlier that day, it made him feel good and proud of his accomplishments, it made him realise that his teachers have taken notice of him during lessons and so on. That was just one out of three things so you can imagine this conversation took longer than I had expected. 

I then went on to ask the next question, 

Tell me three things that made you unhappy today.

The very first thing that he said left me rather perturbed. He said he was unhappy that I had made him cry by telling him that I had changed our plans and we weren’t going out that day. He cried when I told him about the change of plans for it was an outing that he had really been looking forward to. I thought it was harmless and I was just joking but he did take offence to it and he didn’t find it necessary that I made him cry that way.

A simple question made me understand that my son was probably more sensitive than I thought he was.

So you see, when it comes to how to talk to your child, you really have to work backwards. Think of what you want to hear and what you want to learn more about.

If you get straight to the question, it’s unlikely you will elicit the response that you want. But asking them in this manner will give you responses that you never thought you would hear.

how to talk to your child

You will be surprised at some of the things they say!

You will hear of your child’s favourite teacher and why he likes her so much, you will probably find out that your child had been punished and sent to a naughty corner and he will tell you exactly how he felt about that.

You will learn of the sweet things his friends do for him and you will also learn of the times he was bullied, or someone pushed him. You will know what he ate and how his teacher might have said something about how long he took to eat. You will discover that your little one is aware and understands enough to take offence to certain comments.

And here’s the most important part – you will learn of your own strengths and weaknesses as a parent. It’s almost like a debrief after every parenting day. You get better insights about what you did well, or what you child really loves about you. On the other hand, you will be surprised at how seemingly innocuous comments or actions may have scarred your child. 

Why this approach?

The thing with little children is that they don’t always have the language to verbalise their thoughts. They have many things going on in their head but they aren’t able to make the connections between their complex web of thoughts and your broad, general, open-ended questions.

The same way that they need scaffolding to complete their tasks in school, they also need you to scaffold their communication with you. When your question gives them some focus and direction, suddenly they are able to pour out how they feel and they start making all the connections.

When you master how to talk to your child, conversations become more adult, more meaningful and most importantly, more two-way. It won’t be so much of you doing all the asking and most of the answering. You are actually helping them to understand the conventions of conversations and communicating.

how to talk to your child

When your child can communicate with you, trust is established.

When you get the hang of how to talk to your child, you help them to build trust in you. You provide them a safe and happy environment and they know they can open up to you without getting judged or told off. This trust will set the tone of your relationship and open the doors of communication that last a lifetime.

If they can open up to you as a child, it’s more likely they will do so as a teenager.

So mums and dads, remember how to talk to your child. Don’t get mad at them if they can’t answer your questions. Instead, look at it from their point of view, and come down to their level. Ask questions that show them that you give importance to their feelings and the happenings in their life as opposed to just what they learnt, if they finished their food and if they behaved well.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to pen down some of these conversations to look back at years from now. Some answers will make you laugh heartily, some will tug on your heartstrings, some will make you cry, some will amuse you and some will bewilder you. And there will be those conversations that really hit you hard and make you relook your values, beliefs or maybe your entire approach to parenting.

Good luck and have fun chatting!