QMy 6-year-old hates it when I ask her questions about her day. She rarely opens up to me about the things that happened at school or the friends she made. How do I communicate to her that I’m interested in what she has to say without asking questions? I’ve tried sitting in silence and waiting for her to talk, and it sometimes works, but as soon as I make the slightest noise of acknowledgment, she gets angry and clams up again.
I chose this question because many children do not want to talk to their parents when they come home from school, camp, day care, etc. I am going to try to explain the reasons for this dynamic and how you can move toward positive communication.
Let’s begin by using an example of the average adult. You have worked hard all day. Your clients were late and difficult. Your co-workers were lovely but extra chatty while you were trying to complete projects. It rained all day, you forgot your umbrella, you didn’t sleep well last night, and you’re hungry.
You come in the door, grateful to be home and desperately wanting an easy chair and a cup of camomile tea. Instead, your spouse assaults you with 100 questions: “How was work? What did you do? Who did you see? And then what happened? Was that client still unkind? What are you going to do about it?”
The average adult would feel annoyed and attacked and begin to shut down. Why? We need a transition. We need a break, a pause , a moment to breathe. We are finally in our safe place (home), and we are feeling bombarded. This is how your daughter might feel, too.
Why does she arrive home overwhelmed? Children who are at school or camp are giving their best all day. They are listening, dealing with friendship issues, sometimes sitting too much, trying to please the teachers and working hard. And because children are young and immature, their brains are not adept at navigating the transition from “work” to home. When they are overwhelmed, their brains are fried. Children cannot hold on to their maturity when they are that tired. To add to this dynamic, children who are extra sensitive may show even more signs that they are overwhelmed.
We know that your daughter is feeling burdened and that she is shutting down a bit. But what is contributing to that extra layer of anger?
I am going to say the following with a lot of love, and also as a parent who is as curious as you are about her children’s lives: Stop showing your neediness.
My sense is — and I could be wrong — that your daughter feels pushed by you to share everything about her day. When you ask her what happened at school, where is she to even begin? For the average 6-year-old girl, a million things are happening all the time. She cannot answer that. The questions about friendship may begin to feel like: “Do people like you? Do you like the other children? Are you a ‘nice’ girl?” And you may not mean this at all (parents rarely understand the true impact of our statements), but we often pressure girls to be friends with everyone. To be good and nice. This pressure is subtle, but it becomes strong when we ask them every day about their friendships.
Young children’s friendships are fluid and based on what they have in common (gender, toys, etc.) and are not meant to be taken that seriously. Children’s friendships are not a measure of their well-being at school.
So how can you better connect to your daughter after school?
You are already doing it. When you are silent, she opens up a bit. So stay quiet, even after she opens up (because she clams up as soon as you speak). See what happens when you do not allow your need to learn about her day to eat up the space and energy. Focus 100 percent on being a listener.
You could also be more specific in your conversations. If you know what she is working on in art class, ask about the progress. If you know she is excited about an upcoming field trip, talk about what she will learn. Resist asking questions about social dynamics and friendship drama. Stick to the joys of learning and intellectual curiosity.
If you have concerns about your daughter’s friendships, then movies, shows and books are your best bet. Approaching the conversation through those topics can provide an easier way for your daughter to reflect and share what is in her heart. But this will happen only if you maintain a listening and calm presence. Remember, pressure equals anger and retreat for your daughter. Give her some space, stay compassionate and become an expert listener.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for July 20.