McNerney: The Art of Conversing with Children and Teens

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

One of the biggest compliments I receive from my minor clients is when they tell me that I truly understand their lives in a way that other adults don’t. 

I used to attribute this to my own youth. When I started counseling at 25, I could relate, especially to teens, since I was so close to their age. But as I approach 60, that reason doesn’t hold up. When I have asked my clients why it is easier to talk to me vs. other adults, their answers were illuminating. There are some ideas that I use with clients that we can all benefit from during our conversations with our kids.

“You don’t judge me.” This is almost always the first answer I receive when I ask them why it’s easy to talk. This is often followed by a comment that it seems I am truly interested in what they are saying without any other agenda going on in my mind. This got me thinking that there are some things that I do as a counselor that all of us could use to help our conversations with children and teens.

Listen Like It’s Not Your Child

Imagine that you are talking to a neighbor’s child instead of your own. Try to remove the anxieties about what she might be saying. Recently, while talking with my daughter, she mentioned how much she enjoyed talking with one of her friend’s father. “He is always interested in my opinion and what I have to say. I always enjoy talking with him.” The mere thought of imagining your child to be someone else’s allows you to relax and truly enjoy the conversation. Try to keep the internal dialog to a minimum, and just listen.

Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended question is one that cannot be easily answered with a yes or no. This is a closed question: “Do you think you played well during the game?” This question just requires a yes or no answer. It doesn’t encourage more conversation. An open-ended question will encourage more talking: “How do you think the game went?” This question can’t be answered with a yes or no, and allows for more conversation. You might still just get one word answers, but it increases the chances of more back and forth.

Avoid Advice

Giving unsolicited advice is almost always a conversation killer. In my opinion, parents give far too much advice. In fact, I believe that the more advice we give, the less likely it will be taken. Our children will begin to think that we don’t have faith in their abilities and always need to be told what to do. Their eyes will glaze over, and their minds will go elsewhere. If, however, our advice comes less frequently, there is a better chance it will be heard.

Your Childhood Was Different

It is our natural tendency as humans to find connections in other’s experiences. It fosters intimacy. With our children, however, it can be a conversation killer. When we try to share a similar experience from our childhood, it is often taken to mean that their experience is common and not so special. The more we try to communicate that their experience is unique, the better they will feel in sharing it. 

Their Emotions are Real and Intense

When our kids are expressing strong negative emotions, our tendency is to try to make them feel better by telling them it’s no big deal, or they are over-reacting, or that it will be OK tomorrow. Although our intentions are good, these ways of responding actually decreases connection and increases the likelihood of stronger emotions. Our kids want to know that their feelings are real and that it’s OK that they are feeling them. For instance, your child shared that their best friend ignored them during lunch today. It’s tempting to start with trying to make them feel better by saying: “Maybe he was having a hard day,” or “You two have been friends for years. I’m sure it’s nothing.” 

When we start with these comments, it invalidates their feelings and will shut down conversation. Instead, try starting with comments such as: “That must have been really hard. You’ve been friends for years. I bet that made you worry.” These comments allow your child to know that you are truly understanding their emotions. After you have validated them, it is then fine to try to reassure, but I think reassurance has limited effect without first validating.

Hopefully these tips will help you in having quality conversations with your children and foster a closer connection that will benefit the entire family.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

One thought on “McNerney: The Art of Conversing with Children and Teens

  • 2021-12-23 at 11:02 am
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    Great advice. Thanks Dr. McNerney! Happy Holidays Loudoun!

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