How to encourage your child to speak up

How to encourage your tween or teen to talk to you so that you can help them navigate puberty successfully. 

If you want a kid who speaks out against bullying, injustice, or even just a kid who will tell you when something is wrong so that you can help them, you have to start encouraging this behavior when they are young. You can’t take a kid who you have encouraged to remain silent for 15 years and suddenly start having them reporting bad behavior or things that trouble them.

Reporting has to be rewarded. Most of the time it is not. The adults around kids don’t want to be bothered by petty stuff. The problem is if a kid can’t trust you to listen attentively to the petty stuff, they aren’t going to trust you with the important stuff.

It takes time for kids to open up. I had one parent go through my bullying course with her 9 year old and it took about a month before her daughter starting actually telling her what was happening, which included her daughter receiving death threats on a fairly regular basis. The mom knew things were amiss, she just had no idea how bad things really were.

The lesson is that in order to get kids to report things that upset them or scare them or frighten them, we adults have to be willing to listen to and help them with the petty stuff first.

Most of us find the petty stuff really annoying and, well, petty.  I know I can only listen to my 7 year old talk about the layout of his 100 trillion room mansion for about 2 days before I start asking him to talk about something else. Regardless of how difficult it is, start paying attention. Your child is telling you this petty stuff to test you out to see if you can be trusted. Earn that trust by putting in the time needed. You will be rewarded by having a kid that will tell you when something is wrong later on.

If you have a teen and you want to start encouraging them to speak up, the best way I have found is to start having conversations about ethics and personal responsibility and decision making. This will help them think through who they want to be and help them ground their future decisions in a way they and you can be proud of. Kids want to have these conversations; it is up to the parent to initiate them. Talk about every day decisions, who to date, how to date, whether or not to drink, who is nice, who isn’t and why. Talk about how they might make decisions about who to hang out with in a way that benefits not only themselves but the people around them. (If you need help getting started - check out my book The Humanist Approach to Happiness)

Once those lines of communication open up and your child feels comfortable talking to you about things that are bothering them, they will start telling you about the stuff that scares them as well. Once you can talk about ethics and personal responsibility, your child will want to ask and discuss stuff they think is ethically questionable and/or dangerous. Just give them time and don’t freak out when they bring these things up. They need you to be calm and responsive and not a parent in freak out mode.

For instance, if they tell you a friend was talking about suicide, calmly ask them who and have them help you develop a plan for intervention. Don’t take this from them; help them take the lead in doing what is right.

Just remember, you have to work your way to that level of trust with your child. You can’t rush it. The only way to get there is through deep, meaningful and not annoying conversations.

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