For the first few years of your little ones’ lives you know everything about them. There isn’t a human being on the planet you know better.
But as they get older things change. ‘Can’t remember’, ‘don’t know’ and ‘nothing’ are just some of the disappointing answers we get when trying to find out about their day. This contrast of going from near perfect knowledge to near complete absence of understanding is hard on the heart.
Researching how to get them to open up reveals a few principles and practices to help reverse this saddening situation. It’s an incredibly important situation to shift too. Not just for the present and that feeling of connection us parents seek, but for the future and their safety growing up. Building a relationship where they can open up and tell you anything is critical to good parenting. As teenage years hit, they will go further exploring the world and face tough challenges. If they can’t open up to you, then they have few other places to turn to for help. Suffer in silence seems like the easy answer, but you don’t need me to tell you where that could end.
Enough fear, back to getting the good stuff. For now, I’ve found three things that work.
A core principle of being a great dad is being a great role model. Be the change you want to see and all that. If you want them to tell you about their day, start by telling them about yours. You’re not only role modelling the behaviour you want to see, but you’re also teaching them about life. The hard things you had to deal with, how you picked yourself up after a setback, the brilliance of trying and succeeding, what empathy and discipline mean and many more things too.
A core principle of asking good questions is making it easy for the person to answer. The harder they have to work, the poorer the quality of answer. You know this when someone asks you how you’re doing. Do you tell them what’s hard? Do you start with work? Do you mention your holiday? You have to answer these questions and more before you can event start answering theirs.
For kids, it’s best to get specific in your questioning. Who did you play with? What made you laugh? What did you have for lunch? These answers then give you a point to move off from by asking a follow up question to get more insights into their day.
Finally, use an exercise. The Blob Tree was shown to me by my amazing wife. She’s an adoption social worker and play therapist. This comes from the therapy toolkit. When we did it with our kids it was great.
Our eldest has been struggling with friendships at school. Most lunchtimes he’s by himself in the playground, something that breaks my heart. Every day. Things are getting better, but as with all kids, his friendship group is complicated. Solace for me comes from knowing it’s just a phase and that it’s going to make him more resilient in the future. Neither ease the pain now, but that’s just part of parenting.
The Blob Tree
Back to the Blob Tree. You print out the tree and ask them questions. This guide gives you lots to choose from.
We kept it simple, asking which feelings they’d felt recently and why. They picked out the figures, coloured them in and told us, or wrote about what caused them. The feeling of relief that washed over me when they did was incredible. I think it was because there was no real surprises, just more detail helping me understand them more. Let’s hope I can keep it that way.