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If you ask the average parent if they have discussions with their child about important subjects – or if their child can come to them with problems – the answer will usually be "Of course!" Really? Notice that I said "discussions" – not lectures - or one-way sessions – but discussions.  

What is a one-way session? A one-way conversation is where necessary or desired information basically comes from only one of the persons involved. The other party avoids or minimizes necessary feedback. An example would be; "Where did you go?" – "Out."  "What did you do?" - "Nothing." Another more subtle example would be; "Do you understand?" – "Yes."  

Having meaningful discussions with a child is a developmental learning process. It does not happen by itself and it takes a bit of practice and patience to do well. Children are not little adults and you should not assume that they know how, or are automatically somehow comfortable, sharing their innermost feelings and fears with you. A child views a parent as the absolute authority with all of the power. They are trying to figure out the rules and what they do that pleases or angers you. Deep down, they are cautious in this regard.

Since I will often be suggesting discussions in future columns, a good place to start at this point is to share some thoughts on how to have good and productive conversations with your child.

Here are some general guidelines that you can use. These guidelines are utilized consistently by Child Psychologists, therapists, and other professionals that work with children.  

 Techniques & Tips

  -  Believe it or not, height differences in conversations matters. Height helps establish power and control. It is not accidental that court judges and kings always sit much higher than their audience. Therapists will often sit on the floor with a child for this reason.  If possible sit on a couch or bed with your child.  

  -  Use open-ended questions whenever possible. This is one of the most important skills you can learn as a parent. Avoid closed-ended questions. A closed-ended question is one that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" or one-word response. An example would be "How was school today?" The answer will probably be "OK." An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered by a simple "yes" or "no" response. An example of such a dialog would be; "What did you like best about school today?" – "Art Class." "Great! What did you do in art class that you really liked?" – "I drew a picture of a horse."  

You will quickly find out that focusing on open-ended questions is not as easy as it sounds. It takes a little practice. However, soon it will become second nature to you and you will greatly enhance your discussions with your child.  

  -  Regardless of the child's answer, always encourage the conversation. You can do this by nodding your head in approval, smiling, leaning forward toward the child, or by making reinforcing comments such as "That's good!" or "That's what I thought too!"  

Nothing will stop a child from sharing their feelings faster than non-acceptance statements like; "That's stupid! There's no such things as ghosts – you are just a big baby!" How willing do you think this child will be to bring other fears to this parent? It will also add subtle fuel to the fire later in life when adolescent statements like "You don't understand (care) how I feel!" begin to appear.  

  -  Always pay attention to your child's facial expression and mood. Does the child seem bored - or tired – or distracted and disinterested? Does your child still not want to talk regardless of the approaches that you try? If this is the case, you may want to wait and pick a better time when the child is more receptive to talking and having discussions. By the way, pay attention to your own expressions. Otherwise you will convey that you are not really interested in what the child has to say. Children really do notice these things.

Remember that this is a developmental process and it will be very helpful if you and your child are used to having discussions before you engage in a very serious topic. Reading and discussing children’s stories is a wonderful place to start and practice.  

Next week I will specifically talk about using children’s stories as a fun and easy way to develop and practice these discussion skills with your child.  

Saying things like, "Come here! I want to talk to you!" does not produce a relaxed and pleasant learning situation for a child. Such statements are fine in certain situations where a lecture may be appropriate.  

By utilizing children’s stories however, you can provide both of you with a safe, relaxed, and non-threatening environment to develop these skills. Not only can you both learn how to really talk about important things, but you can have a lot of fun in the process.  

Here's a closing hint: Good discussion skills work wonders with adults too! Try it.

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.


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