Tips &

Tips &

Eight ways we can help children to open up

May 2021
Janthea Brigden
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Interpreting the word ‘fine’ is perhaps one of the most frustrating and frequent parental occupations. It is the standard response to questions, no matter how carefully phrased, about school or activities. Discovering how your child’s day has actually been is a delicate process and navigating your way through a host of possible emotions, including the perfectly rational one of ‘not wanting to talk right now’, needs a great deal of empathy and tact.

Here are some of the things we can do to encourage more open communication:

1. Listen to the feeling not the words.

Delivery tone and body language are the key to knowing how to respond.  If the feeling is upbeat and light, then it is generally safe to comment. “Sounds like you had a pretty good day then?” If the feeling is heavy and sad, then acknowledge that. If the tone is snappy and the body language is drawn, the feeling is probably still raw and some processing time might be needed before they will open up.

2. Try not to be emotionally drawn into their battles.

It’s important they know they have your support, but fighting every dragon for them isn’t going to help your child’s self-esteem.  Of course there are times when they may need you to handle tricky situations, particularly if teachers need involving, but it’s easy to be sucked into solving situations that they could handle themselves.

Try: Asking them what they would like to have happen and work out a way to enable the answer so the personal power stays with the child.


3. Talk about and name emotions

Talking about emotions early on, helps children to become more understanding of their own and others feelings.  Think about where and how we feel emotions in our bodies and explore the changes that happen. For example, shortness of breath, racing heart, and sweaty palms might mean we are feeling anxious. If we know how our body reacts, it is easier to recognise strong feelings creeping in at the start. If we can name them early, it helps to defuse and manage them.


4. Support and soothe when overwhelmed

Remember that for little children, they are often experiencing situations and strong feelings for the first time and the changes happening in their body can be very scary. A ‘tantrum’ is just emotional overwhelm, similar to a ‘panic attack’.  The inability to breath, the coughing and choking, is simply the body's reaction to strong feelings and children need to be supported and soothed back into a calm state.  This doesn’t mean giving them what they want, it just means being loving and empathetic.  It is okay to really want what we can’t have and to feel annoyed and upset about it.

Try: Once you have given your child a chance to calm down from the peak of the tantrum, try some simple breathing exercises with them. Returning to breath helps to lower your heart rate and anxiety levels.


5. Listen

Listening is perhaps the greatest way to enable someone to open up. Really listening with full concentration, eye contact, body empathy and total connection can make someone feel they are really cared about and that what they have to say matters. Allowing them the space to gather their thoughts without endless questions (often for our own benefit rather than theirs) is key. It is hard, as the listener, to say nothing at all, but actually just sitting with someone who is thinking things through, or crying it out, can be hugely helpful.


6. Build trust

Trust will be an important factor throughout your relationship with your child.  They need to know that if they tell you something in confidence, it will remain in confidence. I often see parents whispering things about their child over the top of the child’s head as though they can’t hear!

Fear of being laughed at, hurt or pigeon holed is another reason that children (and adults) keep things to themselves. Accepting whatever your child tells you with respect and acknowledgement is key to building trust.  When something a child says is humorous it is hard not to smile or laugh, but remember, the way you receive each confidence will set the path for future conversations.

Understand that children face dilemmas between being heard at home and feeling unheard elsewhere. Insecurity comes from conflicting messages they receive from home, school and other influences. There isn’t much you can do about this other than acknowledge that it will happen and can be confusing.


7. Respect their viewpoint 

Have the courage to accept your child’s viewpoint even if it differs from your own. As children grow older they will start to form their own opinions about things and these may differ quite strongly from your own. How you react will be a life lesson in how they react to others who don’t agree with them. Find out about their views, interests and beliefs, read around the subject and encourage them to do so too.  

Try: Next time your child shares an opinion you don’t agree with, instead of expressing your disagreement, ask them about it. Find out how they have arrived at this opinion and have a conversation about it. Heated discussion is a great learning process and a healthy, respectful debate can help you understand how your child thinks, opening the way for more conversations.


8. Be open yourself

Talk about and share your own experiences. Be open and honest about mistakes you make and be quick to apologise to your child if you are in the wrong.  Being a positive role model is the best way to help children feel comfortable talking about and owning their feelings.

Try: Naming your own feelings to set an example and make children feel more comfortable to do the same. Many adults are not comfortable with naming feelings and so they build and come out as rudeness, aggression, distrust and fear.


It is important that children are aware that many of us, regardless of age, struggle with naming and taming our feelings.  If you are able to give your child the confidence and skill to open up, talk about and eventually learn to manage their feelings, the research shows that regardless of ability, they are more likely to succeed in life. Another good way to do this is through play.

Photo by jcomp