It has been a turbulent 20 months for kids.
From the fear and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — the disruptive schedule and lifestyle changes — to the added stress placed on families — our kids are navigating their way through extraordinary times.
And while children may finally be enjoying a measure of normalcy with a return to the classroom, they remain vulnerable to the psychological impact of all they have experienced.
So much so that it prompted the declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association.
With soaring rates of mental health challenges, it’s more important than ever to be tuned in to your children.
Johns Hopkins All Children’s director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, will tell you a daily chat or “check in” with your child has always been important. But, sometimes, it’s easier said than done.
Here, she helps us break down the components of the essential “daily talk.”
1) Describe the elements of a good daily “check in” with a child.
An ideal scenario would be 10 to 15 minutes a day with no devices, no TV, no distractions. It doesn’t need to be a designated space. It can be more organic than that. Just find that time to check in and ask them about their day. Our kids need to know that we are present and aware of what’s going on with them and that we support them.
2) What if a parent asks a child about their day, and they just say “fine.” Not super responsive. How can you encourage them to open up?
Sometimes the way you phrase the question can be helpful. “Tell me about what your day looked like. What was good and what was bad?” Or try a more specific time of day, such as “Tell me about lunch time today.”
The point is not to “grill” your child with question after question. Just two or three questions, or better yet, statements instead of questions would be ideal.
If your child doesn’t have much to say, don’t get up and walk away and get busy doing things. That will teach him or her that you’re not really invested in that moment.
It’s OK to simply sit in the silence with them. Don’t feel like you need to fill it. Just be present with them. Be available.
It isn’t necessarily about us having their full attention in that moment. It’s more about us showing our kids we are there for them. Even if they don’t have much to share on a given day, they will learn that when there is something important to share, we are there to listen.
With daily practice, your child will open up. I promise!
3) What does it mean to listen well?
It means listening to hear, not to respond. Often, we begin listening, and we are tempted to share a response that we have in mind. We hold that response in our minds, and it stops us from truly listening to what else is being said.
If your child does decide to share something with you, try not to react with a huge response. Even if you are shocked. Remain calm, and take a minute (or a day) to process what was shared with you. If we respond immediately with a big emotion, that teaches our kids that talking about certain things isn’t right or appropriate. Respond calmly, even if it is to say, “thank you for sharing with me. I’m going to think about that and get back to you.”
4) But aren’t parents supposed to offer advice and guidance?
The advice-giving can stop for a few minutes. Maybe the problem-solving can happen later, but for this time, just listen to what is happening, what is going on. Sometimes our kids just need to vent, like we do. You can even ask them directly at some point, “Do you want me to help you solve this problem?” But it’s also important to allow your child the space to do some independent problem-solving.
5) How does the “daily talk” look different for younger kids versus older kids?
With children younger than 7 or 8 years old, you should be sitting down to share a game or a toy with them. We call this “child directed play,” where parents don’t ask too many questions or try to do a lot of teaching. Just play with them and let them take the lead.
With older children, you can just sit and chat, or share an activity with them that you know they enjoy. You know your child best. Maybe a chat over a game of basketball or an evening walk.
6) How much information should a parent expect a child to be sharing with them?
It isn’t so much that we should be prying information out of our kids. We don’t always need to be up in their business. Whether or not they share a big secret with us is irrelevant. The goal is for us to be present with our kids for this amount of time each day. Every day. So that when something does come up, maybe an issue or a feeling they are struggling with, we have already built that trust. They know we are there for them.