“How was your visit with your friend?”
“How was your day at school?”
“What did you think of this movie?”
“It was ok.”
How often have we heard these monosyllabic answers from kids? It starts in daycare, where the lack of vocabulary seems to excuse it, but it continues in the school years, and often gets worse in the teen years.
It always amazes me to see that in spite of being told it’s ok to directly share their thoughts and feelings, people still need opportunity and encouragement to speak up. Especially, kids…
As grown ups we need to make the habit of sharing happen, as it’s critical to helping the young person in our lives overcome the inevitable challenges life brings and to build healthy coping strategies. The 2nd biggest killer for teens after car accidents is suicides – and that group is overrepresented by kids who suffer without speaking about it. The Canadian Mental Health Association has tons of evidence that helping kids early on to form the habit of talking to others saves lives.
So how to make it happen?
1. Create opportunities to talk (quiet activities that do not require eye contact)
Kids seem to formulate their own thoughts about issues that they worry about only when there is a quiet moment or some activity that often doesn’t require eye contact. Think about it – how often do they share their concerns and fears while walking somewhere or driving in the car? So make sure every week includes some activity – art, crafts, cooking, eating, gardening, even reorganizing the house – something where you are side by side, doing something and just chatting.
Another great opportunity is an event – real or in a movie – that can be discussed and explained. Kids often make sense of that external happening by drawing on things in their own real or inner lives and they become very engaged when given the chance to discuss it. What adults often miss is that they can be “done” with a topic without exploring all of it. These conversation also happen better when not sitting face to face.
2. When talking happens – listen, listen, listen
How long does it take a physician to interrupt a patient after asking an open ended question such as: “So, what brought you here?”. Yes, it is on average only 23 seconds, even though the intent is to let the person describe, instead of jumping in to guide them. What people don’t realize is that adults do that to kids too!
Just listen to grown ups talking to a toddler or a kid on the phone… They ask a question, pause for three seconds, and rephrase the question thinking that the child doesn’t understand and by then, the child starts to speak… Hard to get into a rhythm!
So the rule of thumb is to say something and then not speak for a long, uncomfortable, seemingly unending, definitely unusual, even anxiety provoking time, and then add even more time, counting to 42 in your head if you must. This is where point number one makes it easier – when doing something these pauses in speaking seem more natural to us.
Conversely, I must reassure you – kids will not even notice these seemingly unending silent moments. They are processing their own thoughts and feelings and need this time. They will just think it’s easy to speak to you.
Similarly, once they say something, don’t interrupt, don’t clarify, let them continue. Acknowledge non verbally (nod etc.), and look like you are interested in hearing more. I guarantee you will be amazed at what comes next.
3. Kids need role models – show them how sharing is done
Last, but not least, kids learn from what they see, not what you say, so you need to step up and do it first. When you come home from work share a story about something that happened at work and mention how it made you feel. Refer to something that you saw in the news and explain your opinion. Reminisce about something that you remember from your own school days or your childhood – ask how that has changed.
There are lots of great books on these topics, but these 3 strategies are the starting points. And remember, on January 28, Bell will donate 5¢ to mental health initiatives for every:
- Text message sent*
- Mobile and long distance call made*
- Tweet using #BellLetsTalk
- Facebook share of the Bell Let’s Talk image.
Easy to do and last year – led by Olympian athletes Clara Hughes – this program led to 96,266,266 calls, texts, tweets and Facebook shares by Canadians. This meant that 2013 Bell Let’s Talk Day led to an additional $4,813,313.30 for mental health programs rounding up the total Bell committed to Canadian mental health to over 62 million $. (*note: I don’t have personal advantage to promoting Bell’s program – just like it!).
Alexandra T. Greenhill, MOM MD, co-founder and CEO myBestHelper