How To Get Them Talking With Open Ended Questions

By Sarah Lyons

When your child comes home from school and you ask, “How was your day?” you may receive the frustrating answer of “Fine.” and no other information. Parents can encourage kids to open up and elaborate on their answer by asking open ended questions that foster communication rather than the conversation ending with a quick, one word response. Every parent desires a healthy and open relationship with their children but this can be challenging, especially if you feel like your child is not sharing the ups and downs of their day.

An open ended question is one that requires a more in-depth answer than a simple “yes”, “no”, or other one word response. Instead of asking “How was school?” try to ask specific questions like “How did the math test go?” or “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” Listen to your child and ask follow-up questions when possible.

Roe Hunter, marriage and family counselor at Lifeworks Counseling in Madison, MS says “I suggest that you ask a question like “How are you today?” and then wait patiently. Allow for silence to feel uncomfortable. If the child is quietly thinking, wait some more.” Giving kids the time to speak when they are ready is key. There are many benefits to asking open ended questions.

Strengthen your relationship

Asking open ended questions and allowing your child to respond in their own time shows your child that you care about what is going on in their life, what is important to them, and that you are available when they are ready to share. Parents can take this one step further and ask follow up questions. If you know your child was worried about a test, experiencing a conflict with a friend, or excited about an upcoming event, check in and ask how the situation turned out. This helps build your relationship with your child and also shows them you are listening and that you care about them. The long-term benefit of regularly having conversations with your child is a stronger relationship built on trust.

“It is important to be aware and actively listen to your child,” says Hunter. “Tune into their desires, needs, wants and interests. Ask engaging and curious questions about what interests them.” When you show your child that you are interested in what excites them you are actually showing them you are interested in them as a person. We may not be thrilled by the latest toy craze, video game, or sports statistics but if we show kids we are interested in what they say and are really listening to them, it will make opening up about other, more difficult, topics easier in the future.

You may learn something new

When you ask your child open-ended questions, you may get an answer that isn’t what you expect. This can be something positive and give you the opportunity to celebrate with your child, but it can also be something that is alarming. For example your child may share that they are having feelings of anxiety, that they are being bullied, or that they are failing a school subject. Kids will start to share when they feel secure and comfortable. “In order to get a kid to open up regardless of age, you must embody safety,” says Hunter. “Safe people are Secure. Aware. Forgiving. Empathetic. (S.A.F.E.)” Everyone needs a place where they can feel secure and safe to share what they are feeling without judgment or criticism. When a child shares something that surprises you, remain calm. Listen and talk through the situation and try to be understanding. Overreacting or anger will cause the child to shut down.

Encourages self expression

Kids are naturally creative but open ended questions encourage your child to be creative with their vocabulary and develop habits of healthy self expression. Good communication skills are an important skill your child will use throughout their life. When answering an open-ended question your child must think about how to respond in a way that tells a story, expresses their feelings, and communicate in a way that you will understand them. When you ask follow up questions using what, where, why, how, or tell me about that, it gives them the opportunity to critically think about the situation and communicate what they think happened and why. Effective communication skills  will not only build their confidence, self esteem, and their relationship with you, they will use these skills for the rest of their lives.

As you try to continue the conversation with your kids, remember to ask open-ended questions, show interest in what interests them, and to be patient and give them time. “Quiet kids seem to need a longer period of ‘warming up’.” says Hunter. “Give the child the message that this is okay.” Letting your child know you are available when they are ready to talk will help foster communication over time.

Sarah Lyons is a freelance writer and mom of six, including triplets. She enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time outdoors with her family.

Other articles from Sarah Lyons on AZParenting:

Teaching Your Kids About Money

Raising Thankful Kids



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