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Take a Closer Look

How can we encourage our children to open up when something is troubling them? In this scene, the mother’s skillful use of five key elements helps her son express what’s bothering him.

Show Gentle Curiosity

Mom’s slow and gentle approach allows her son to open up when he’s ready. Kids need to feel safe before they reveal themselves. They want to know we’re not going to judge or scold if we hear something we don’t like. Instead of taking her son at his word when he says, “I’m okay,” she honors her own observations and gently names what she notices (“You don’t seem okay.”) By avoiding certainty and firm declarations, she doesn’t put him on the defensive.

“Tell Me More”

Once her son opens up, mom several times says with curiosity, “Tell me more.” It’s every parent’s magic phrase to keep a conversation going when it seems to have hit a dead-end. She knows she will be more effective if she listens a lot more than if she speaks (see 5:1 Ratio). 

Name Their Emotions

Mom uses empathic listening and names his emotions, giving her son room to feel his feelings (see Name Their Emotions). She knows that painful emotions pass sooner when they’re given expression, when they’re fully felt and accepted. It’s how kids come to trust that their emotions are okay. When I know my emotions are okay, I know that I’m okay. This becomes a basis for authentic self-esteem (see Trusting Emotions). 

Validate Their Emotions

Mom also lets her son know that his emotions make sense to her. She says she recalls feeling the same way back when she was in school. Of course we don’t always understand or relate to our children’s emotions. That need not prevent us from validating their emotions by saying, “I understand how, from your perspective, you feel the way you do.” (Question or challenge their perspective at a later time, if it needs challenging at all.) 

Appreciate Their Openness

Mom thanks her son for sharing his story, saying that she always wants to hear what’s going on in his day. By praising his willingness to engage in conversation when vulnerable emotions are at play, he’s more likely to be open with her again. Such openness is not always comfortable for teens with their parents, but empathic listening can make a difference in their willingness.

The mother in Bottling It Up makes something look easy that is, in fact, not easy at all. With her son’s opening comment — “I hate some of the kids at school” — she feels her heart ache at the sound of his pain. At that moment, her greatest wish is to make his pain (and hers) go away. But she knows it will benefit him more if he can talk about the pain, especially to a caring and non-judgmental witness.

Throughout their conversation, mom resists the urge to offer advice. She holds her tongue when he declares that he’s not going to be Jason’s friend anymore. She wisely postpones discussing that until later, when his emotional brain has settled down. For that conversation, she wants access to his logical — not his emotional — brain (see Two Brains). And when she later expresses feelings of her own — “I’m really sad to hear this, and I’m really angry that Jason’s treating you this way” — she’s setting an example of emotional honesty, which helps him feel more connected to her.

She brings their conversation to a close by reminding him that she’s always happy to help — “Let me know if you need any help” — without delivering help prematurely, or help that’s unsolicited (see Too Many Helpings).

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.