Engaging kids are in meaningful conversation when you’re face to face is tricky enough.
When your kids are with their other parent, and you’re trying to chat to them over the phone it can be almost impossible. “How was your day?” is usually met with a one-word response “Good” or “OK”, and “What did you do?” with “Nothing” or “Not much”.
Here are some tips that can help to take it a little further:
1 : LEARN
Become a student of whatever it is your kids are interested in. Develop an interest in their interests so you can engage knowledgeably with them and ask relevant questions. ASK them about whatever it is they love to do. Maybe one of your kids loves reading. Pick a book for you both to read, so you can talk about. Ask about the main character in the book they’re reading. Snowboarding. Soccer. Sewing. Singing. Whatever they love, find a way to connect with them about it. Just remember, what they loved in January, may not be the same by July.
2 : LISTEN
Actively listen to what they tell you about what they do, who they talk to, what they watch. Even if you have to remind yourself to TAKE NOTES. KNOW their friends and what they most like doing with them. Know the games they play and TV programs or movies they like to watch. Know the names of their teachers, and sporting coaches. Subjects they are studying. Where they went on the school excursion. Books they are reading. You Tubers they are following.
3 : BE ATTENTIVE
When your kids DO talk, fully attend to what they are saying. Reflect back to them what you’ve heard. Ask them a question to clarify what they’ve already said. Kids know if you’re really interested and have your attention by the way you respond. Actively attending and engaging with them shows them you care about what they have to say and encourages them to talk more. Kids are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings, even just the daily stuff of their life, if they feel you think what they have to say is important.
4 : ALLOW THEM TIME
Kids often take time to gather their thoughts or find the right word. Listen like you have all the time in the world. (In fact, make sure you DO have all the time they need; try not to schedule a call when you have only a short window of time.) Hear your kids out. Avoid cutting them off or offering them a word or phrase if they are taking a long time. It’s easy to jump in, offering a thought, opinion or solution for your child but resist the urge. If anything, offer a gentle “yep… I’m listening…” and allow them the time to find their own way of expressing whatever it is they want to tell you.
5 : TIME IT RIGHT
Choose the times you call wisely. Not dinnertime, bedtime or when kids are likely to be tired, cranky or otherwise engaged. Not when you know your co-parent is trying to get them out the door to an appointment or get homework done. While a fixed communication schedule will help some kids and families, and alleviate anxiety (for both kids and parents) about when communication will take place, it won’t work for others. As above, make sure you schedule a call for when you have plenty of time. You never know… they may want to chat for hours!
6 : DON’T FORCE IT
Communication between you and your child when they are with their other parent is purely for the benefit of the child. Although gentle encouragement may be necessary, children should never be forced to talk and nor should this chat time be used to extract information from your child about their other parent and what’s going on in their home. It is for you to maintain a healthy connection to your kids while they’re not with you.
7 : TAKE IT TO THEM
A voice call is just one way of staying in touch with your kids when they’re with their co-parent. There are also plenty of other options, offering voice, text and video communication. Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Voxer, Skype, Zoom. Take it to them. Communicate on their level and in the mode they are most comfortable. This is easier, safer and more relevant with older kids are who have access to their own device. With younger children, phone or iPad / laptop communication remains the most common and may require some supervision. Supervision however doesn’t mean stalking. For your kids to have a meaningful conversation and share freely, they need some degree of privacy. Finding a balance between supervision and privacy is important but of course, both parents need to be on board, with the safety and wellbeing of the child being most important.
8 : IF ALL ELSE FAILS
A simple text telling your child that you’re thinking of them; a photo of something you saw that reminded you of them; a gif they will think is funny or silly… all can keep the communication channels open.
HERE ARE SOME QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR KIDS (age and stage appropriate) to get your kids talking:
- Tell me 3 things that happened today…
- What was the best / worst / funniest / silliest thing that happened today?
- What was your favourite / least favourite part of school / soccer /dancing / your day?
- What music have you heard today? Did you have a song in your head today?
- If you could eat ANYTHING for dinner tonight / lunch tomorrow, what would it be?
- What did you like better today? Recess or lunch? The morning or the afternoon?
- WOW! I didn’t’ know that. Can you tell me more about…?
- What else can you tell me about that?
- Really? What happened then?
- That’s so interesting. Is there more you know about that?
- And what did that make you think?
- So, how did you feel about that?
- What do you think you’ll do next?
- What are you looking forward to tomorrow / next week?
- What was one thing you did to help someone / someone did to help you today?
- What’s one thing you want to learn how to do?
- Was there something that made you laugh / cry / feel happy / sad today?
- What was the last dream you can remember having?
- If you could invent one thing what would it be?
- If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
- On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your day today? Why do you say that? How could you make tomorrow a 10?
- If you could be famous for one thing, what would it be?
- If you were a Disney / Marvel character who would you be? Why?
- What makes (name one of their friends) so special / such a good friend / so much fun to be around?
- Tell me about 3 things that went well for you today?
As the conversation comes to an end, praise the positive. Finish with something that will make your child happy they’ve talked with you and more likely to want to talk again.
“I’m so glad you shared that with me” or “I really like hearing what you’ve been up to”, or “It’s great to hear about what you think / feel.” Reassure them about when you will talk next, “talk to you tomorrow / on Wednesday / next week,” before saying goodbye.
When my kids were little, we had a sign off we used at the end of every phone call “Bye. Love you. See you.” It was a way of finishing our conversation, knowing the connection is over for now (BYE), reaffirming that we that we love one another (LOVE YOU) and that we will be together again soon (SEE YOU).
Maybe you and your kids will find your own unique family sign-off? However you choose to end your conversations with your kids here’s hoping they are filled with love and laughter and are at least occasionally longer than it takes to dial their number!
Sallyanne is a Divorce Coach who works with clients to make their journey through divorce and beyond smoother, less painful and less costly – emotionally and financially.