In my first semester of grad school, I took a mandatory course called Clinical Interviewing. It taught the therapeutic skills necessary for the initial meeting a patient, and how to obtain information without leading them. One of the skills emphasized time and again was using a technique called “open-ended questioning.” If I got nothing out of that course but this, then I still feel that I benefited. This technique is a constant in my therapy sessions and I use it all the time at home with my kids.
The premise is this — don’t provide the answer in question. Keep it as open as possible, so that the person being asked can provide a wide range of answers. By phrasing questions in this fashion, it allows your kids to develop an ability to answer based on how they feel or what they’re thinking, not just respond to what you asked.
“Oh Aliza” I can hear you say. “I do this all the time, and all my kid ever says is “I don’t know” or “fine.” The trick here is when to use it.
I often feel exhausted by the sheer amount of enthusiasm I need to muster as a parent to get through the most mundane events, like errands or even small treats, like a trip to the local pizzeria. I find myself often saying things like, “Woohoo, shopping with my girls is AWESOME” as they whine their way down the dairy aisle or “Who is excited for pizza!!!” while attempting to avert WWIII as we wait for our pie. Statements like this are my attempt to impose a positive spin on a difficult situation and diffuse tensions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but my words are a way of framing the situation. So when similar phrasing is used for questions like, “Aren’t you excited about starting school tomorrow?,” the attempts to make things seem positive can actually stop your child from saying what’s really on their mind.
Practice makes perfect. The weeks before school begins are a great time to start. Instead of asking your child, “Aren’t you excited about going back to school?!” try, “How do you feel about starting school this week?” Instead of asking, “Was your first day amazing?” try, “Tell me about your first day — what was it like?” and if you see your child struggling with such a broad question, break it down somewhat but still keep it fairly open, with “What was the weirdest thing that happened to you today?” or something that gets them to think and connect with their day, such as ,”What kinds of backpacks did the other kids bring?”
If your child is younger, and may not have access to a particularly large range of emotions, and they usually pick “happy/sad/scared,” type the words “emotions chart” into Google Images and print out one that you like. The visuals will help your child connect what they’re feeling to a descriptive word.
Lastly, model for your kids. Use a range of emotions to describe how you’re feeling and why. No harm in letting them see you have settings aside from “before coffee” and “school pick-up psychosis.”