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Don’t Interrogate Your Kids – Try this Instead!

A mother with joint custody emailed me (I’m a parenting consultant) with this question:

My kids complain about being interrogated by their dad when they are with him. I want to know what’s going on in their lives, but I don’t want to follow in his footsteps by plying them with questions all the time. How else can I get them to talk?

Here’s my response:
Parents are often eager to hear what happened while their kids were away at their other home. It’s hard to feel excluded from 50 percent of your child’s life!

And yet, if you suspect you may be asking too many questions, you are probably right. If your kids respond with “I don’t know,” it may be kidspeak for, “I don’t care enough about this topic to bother talking about it,” or “This is an uncomfortable subject,” or “I don’t want to tell you.” Sometimes, it might even mean, “Dad said not to tell you.” In any case, it’s a dead end.

One of the realities of joint custody is that we miss out on sharing some experiences with our children. It’s not fair to ask them to fill you in on every little detail just to satisfy your own curiosity. It can be tough to let go of this, but it’s important that we learn to connect with our children in the present moment, rather than trying to dredge up their past.

Sometimes, especially if we are worried, we push for more information by asking probing questions even after our kids have sent the “that’s enough” signal. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to encourage your kids to talk is not to ask more questions, but to do more listening.

So just sit down. Be still. Wait for him to unwind a little, and give him a stationary target for his communication. To increase the odds of being noticed in all your receptive glory, sit in the kitchen close to the snack cabinet.

When he ventures into your vicinity, smile and say something mild like, “How’s it going?” Your reaction to his response is important. Kids are always probing—will she freak out if I tell her the truth? Will she get mad at Dad when she hears this? Will disclosing that create a hassle for me?

To increase your odds of passing those kinds of tests, be like Switzerland: stay neutral. Don’t freak out, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t raise your voice. Just take in it stride. Nod your head, sit back a little bit, take a breath, say Hmmmm. Don’t share your opinion unless asked. Don’t consider it a teachable moment and try to make a point. Just accept the information calmly, and leave a lot of empty silence around it.

Mom: Hey, how’s it going?
Son: Aww, okay I guess.
Mom: Yeah? What’s up?
Son: I’m pretty mad at Dad. He took my cell phone away.
Mom: Ohhh, hmmm. That’s a bummer, huh.
Son: Yeah.
Mom: Nods, waits, and says nothing. Trusts that if she gives him some time, he’ll say more!

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