Getting information out of children at any age can seem like serious detective work at times. Trying to gather specifics about their day at school, friendships or emotions can sometimes lead to a dead-end for a number of reasons—distraction, fatigue or even shyness and discomfort.
However, just because your child might feel shy or uneasy about sharing something with you doesn’t necessarily mean they are afraid of you, so don’t jump to conclusions if you feel hesitancy from your child in regards to open and easy communication. Rather, it could be as simple as finding the right time and place to initiate a conversation when they are comfortable and feel safe.
One of the most surprising environments to get slow-to-share children to open up is actually in a place we all find ourselves daily: the car.
Psychologists have found that getting information out of kids is easier when questions are posed in an unexpected (and confined) context. The car makes the perfect environment because whether sitting in the front seat or the back, children don’t have anywhere to retreat to when they’re in the car and they can’t distract themselves with normal play habits. They are more inclined to expand on a topic in the car than they would at home amongst other distractions and routines.
Another reason is that eye-contact is not really possible in a car setting. While eye contact is usually a positive thing when it comes to successful communication, lack of eye contact can give a child the feeling of privacy and safety when it comes to sharing something personal or difficult.
Whether the ride is 10 minutes or 45 minutes, car rides are an opportunity for parents to set up an environment for their children to communicate if they are intentional about taking the steps to utilize the opportunity.
The most important way to start setting up this environment is to make the car a technology-free environment. If you can, resist the urge to hand over an iPad or turn on the car TV so you can call a friend or catch up on a business call. Turn on appropriate music at a low level to set a comfortable atmosphere and set the expectation for conversation.
Stay away from questions that have the potential to result in one-word answers. Instead of “How was school today?” try asking, “What was your favorite part of school today?” Conversations about an event can lead to broader conversations about school dynamics.
Psychologists have found that getting information out of kids is easier when questions are posed in an unexpected (and confined) context.
Instead of “How was lunch?” try asking, “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” This provides an opportunity to talk about social interactions without bluntly asking if they are getting along well with their peers.
Sometimes even the most open-ended questions asked in the perfect environment can lead to a dead end. If this is the case, start talking and musing over their day or yours. For example:
“I see you look a little tired today. I wonder if it was a tiring day at school. I know it was a tiring day for me at work.”
Or, “I saw that John was a little tired today during drop-off. I wonder if that is making him less excited to play with his friends than usual. Have you noticed anything?”
Your own musings will often spark a thought or help a child reach a conclusion that they might not reach on their own—and furthermore, lead them to follow up with you and carry forward an otherwise dead conversation.
Take advantage of your time in the car and work to find conversation starters that make your child comfortable and inspired to share with you. However, just like adults, sometimes the car is also a safe place to decompress from a tiring day at school or difficult activity. Pay attention to signals that may indicate that your child might just need some calming music and 20 minutes to look out the window and enjoy some silence.
You know your child well enough to know when the right time to push them for conversation is, and when the right thing is to let them relax. Although they may be young, in the end, their needs are not far from our own.