Thank you to Emily Jordan for this guest post about ways to have meaningful conversations with your pre-teen!
I can still see it clear as day: hopping into the front seat of my mom’s car after school, tossing my backpack in the back, buckling up, and her asking with this big goofy smile, “Sooo, how was school?!”
“It was good,” I’d say and proceed to look out the window.
Unsatisfied with my less-than-informative response, she would almost always ask follow-up
questions, fishing for details, desperate to get a peek inside my world. Looking back, I don’t blame her. In fact, I feel bad for not spilling my guts! As a full-time mom, after spending nearly 24/7 with my siblings and me until we reached school age, I can only imagine the loneliness and curiosity (and, admittedly, freedom) she felt during those seven hours we were away from her watch.
“It was good” was pretty much a punch in the stomach to her genuine desire to learn about my day. You joke about how you won’t, but you really do miss your kids when they go off to school, and when they’re back in your car or under your roof at three p.m., you want to hear it all!
In the early years, they’re quick to tell, eager to share about carpet time, recess, lunch, and all the new things they’re discovering every day. But as pimples appear and eye-rolling begins, the sharing gets less and less and your curiosity,—and eventually, concern— grows more and more. You’re caught between wanting to connect and not wanting to pry. You get it, you were an adolescent kid once, but you also wish things were different.
Here are 10 ways to have meaningful conversations with your pre-teen or teenager after school.
1. DON’T just ask: “How was school?”
If you want to lead with this question or use it to “test the waters,” so-to-speak, go for it but have something planned for after, too. Also, notice the type of response this question warrants, and rather than taking your child’s curtness personally, ask yourself how you expected them to respond. Speaking of which . . .
2. Ask what you really want to know.
If what you really mean by “How was school” is “Was that girl mean to you again” or “Did you get in trouble in math,” then just ask that. Of course, probably not wise to lead with an
interrogation, but don’t be afraid to just ask what you really want to know!
3. Give vulnerability to get vulnerability.
Most of the time, kids want to share. They need to release and let go of the events of their day, but they feel awkward or just haven’t processed all of the emotions themselves, yet. If you’re hoping for vulnerability from your child, try giving it first. You might explain to them why you want to hear about their day, or even share your own awkward, unprocessed feelings as a way of giving them permission to do the same. When in doubt, try first giving whatever it is you’re seeking from them.
4. Develop a fun “check-in” ritual.
To eliminate the same battle every day (and also to streamline the process with multiple kids!) develop (ideally, together) a “check-in ritual.” It can be as simple as asking and answering the same question every day (“What was your favorite part of the day?” or “What are three words to describe today?”) or even listening to at least one song before starting a conversation. Having a predictable, known routine can help ease the conversation on both sides.
5. Rate your day.
Ask your child to “rate” their day on a 5-star or 10-point scale. This makes them reflect back and consider how they felt about their day overall, and it also gives you an idea of where they’re at. You might follow up with, “What would make it a 10?” or “Why did you pick six?” These questions have more potential for real conversation than simply, “How was your day?”
6. Ask a random, fun question.
Think outside the box! Ask your child what the most unusual thing about their day was or what their teacher was wearing. Ask them to tell you about their day backwards or in third-person. You can often get to both the information you want and information you didn’t know you wanted by asking interesting questions that make people think and reflect. For fun, challenge them to ask you a random question, too!
7. You tell instead. Kid not in a chatty mood? Ask them if you can tell them about your day instead. Although it may seem mundane to you (much like their own day seems to them!), the “secret” life of a mom is often very interesting to kids! In addition, if they hear that you encountered some struggles in your day, they may be more inclined to share their own.
8. Listen to a book, podcast, or video together.
If things are super quiet (or maybe these are just more your style!) put on a book, podcast, or YouTube video to listen to together on the ride home. This will take the pressure off both of you and potentially crop up conversation topics as you listen.
9. Just two minutes.
Maybe you’re really working on getting your child to open up. Set a timer for two minutes and tell them all they have to do is talk about anything they want from their day for two minutes and then you’ll stop asking. If you explain to them how important it is for you to be involved in their lives and then give them a finite period of “forced” talk time, they’ll a) do it and b) be more likely to share willingly with practice.
10. Listen (for real).
Most importantly— listen when your child talks. Even if it’s boring. Even if you think it’s no big deal. Put your phone away, turn down the radio, and genuinely listen and respond to what they’re saying. Too many of us are guilty of asking “How was your day?” and then proceeding to think about what’s for dinner, who put money in the account, or that thing our partner said that really upset us. If there are things that need to be addressed, ask your child for two minutes to think about something, then give them your undivided attention.
If you want to engage more with your child, the most important thing you can do is be there in the moment with them.
About the Author
Emily Jordan is a former elementary teacher with a passion for helping girls + women feel healthy, confident and happy. She’s a personal trainer and the leader of an after-school program for middle school girls, Girl Talk, and can be found cooking, biking, running, or soaking up the Charleston sunshine when I’m not working.