If you are fortunate enough to sit down for a family dinner, you probably hope for a fun-filled conversation with sharing and laughter. For many, that's not the case. Parents often pepper their kids with questions only to receive one word answers, and everyone leaves the kitchen defeated. How can you change the dynamic and create a space where everyone feels free to talk? Jason Price, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Co-Director, Affiliates in Counseling, Northbrook, offers some ideas on getting your kids to open up... and not just at the dinner table.
Affiliates in Counseling
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Amy O. (00:05):
Getting our kids to talk about their days or what's bothering them or anything really can be hard. On today's episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, we will learn some strategies to make dinnertime conversations with our kids feel less stressful for them and for us. Welcome I'm Amy.
Dr. Lisa (00:25):
And I'm Lisa and we are the hosts of Parenting the Mental Health Generation. It's difficult to parent a kid struggling with their mental health, and it can be really lonely. Here, we lay it all out together and discuss the topics that concern us on our parenting journeys.
Amy O. (00:43):
Today, we're speaking with Jason Price, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and co-owner of Affiliates in Counseling, a thriving therapy practice with several locations.
Dr. Lisa (00:54):
Jason is here to help us with a few of the dos and don'ts of having successful stress-free conversations with our kids. He will help us better understand how to take the pressure off. How to give our kids a sense of agency in what they share and how to stay connected in a way that feels comfortable for everyone.
Amy O. (01:13):
So put in your earbuds, take this 30 minutes for you. Join our conversation with Jason Price.
Dr. Lisa (01:23):
Jason Price (01:24):
Hi, thank you for having me.
Amy O. (01:25):
We're very glad to have you here today.
Jason Price (01:27):
It's an important topic, so I'm excited to offer as much as I can.
Amy O. (01:32):
You know, let's just dive right in with a little bit of context, Jason, it seems really hard to get our kids to talk to us, especially at the end of the day. Can you start us out by helping us understand why it's important to maintain that connection with our kids and why, when we're all so tired and spent that we still need to continue to work on that?
Jason Price (01:56):
Sure. Yeah. I think that our kids need to know that we're interested in them. That we care. Even if they reject our attempts multiple, multiple times. That they know that when they do want to talk, we're there for them and really do want to provide that stability, you know, so they can reach out.
Dr. Lisa (02:15):
And, I think it's funny sometimes to think about how sometimes when they reject us, they actually need us the most. It's almost like they're testing us in a way of, even if I keep saying, I don't want to talk about it or shrugging my shoulders and grunting at you, I need to know you're gonna keep coming back to me and being there.
Jason Price (02:36):
Yes. And that we see it. So even if they're not able to talk about it at the moment saying something to your child that says, Hey, I can see something's on your mind. Something's distressing. You seem different than typical. And I understand if you don't want to talk about it now, but I am here. And, I think it's okay in those moments to try a couple times to get at whatever's going on. But once there is enough push back, then to back off.
Dr. Lisa (03:01):
I feel like this is a, a problem or an issue that many families connect with. Just this idea of sitting around the dinner table, asking your kids and teens about their day and really just getting an, it was fine, a shoulder shrug, a one word answer. Can you share a little bit about why you think it's so hard for kids to talk about their days sometimes?
Jason Price (03:27):
I think that most kids, you know, having lived their day and it's such an intense day, not only the academic rigor of stuff they have got to go through and any after school activities, but the drama of friendships and catching up on social media. All the things they have to go through is so overwhelming that to have to then relive it at the dinner table when they're still processing it all. I really think is like brutal for them. It's really their brain kind of exploding. And I think they need us to be patient with them to understand that it is too much. And, think on top of it, they look at it as we're prying as parents. You know, those conversations often become this interrogation as opposed to being a two-way conversation. It's tell me about your day, what happened in math class? Tell me about your practice and I think that kids then feel like the spotlight's all on them and it's really uncomfortable.
Amy O. (04:25):
Does having that patience and giving them that space. Also, it seems like to me, allow them to decide what they want to share with you exactly? Instead of feeling put on the spot about the particular topics that you might, you know, bombard them with? They then have more agency over what they want to share with you.
Jason Price (04:48):
Absolutely. And, I think you have to ask yourself as a parent, when I'm asking my kids questions at a dinner table, who is this really for? Is it for me to feel better as a parent, knowing that I've gotten the information and I can now make decisions around scheduling and finding tutors or whatever I need to do. Or is this really about hearing what my kids' experiences is throughout the day? And again, sometimes you need that information as a parent, but I think kids can read into that and it doesn't feel as genuine or as accepting or warm.
Amy O. (05:19):
We had a conversation in one of my parents connect groups recently about this very thing. There were a couple of parents who were really concerned that when they asked their kids after the first, you know, on the first or second day of school, well, who did you sit with at lunch? Like what happened at lunch and both of these, the kids and of these parents, um, responded by saying, well, I ate by myself. I went and found a place in the hall. I went to the, you know, choir room, whatever, and the conversation we had around that was that maybe that was okay for them, them, maybe that felt okay, but man, those parents did not.
Jason Price (06:01):
And in all those situations where you're having that kind of, you know, question, the kid has some understanding of what their parents' hopes are or expectations are. And kids hate feeling like they're letting down their parents in some way. It's the way we live, you know, vicariously through our kids. That if we were social is the expectation that kids have to be really social too and they're at the cool lunch table. And if they're going to the library to eat or something like that, that they're somehow letting us down. And so that's where I think setting up the basics where you're just interested in what your kid is doing and really making sure that there's not any kind of judgment. So if a kid says, well I ate alone. Well, why did you eat alone? Weren't there other kids to sit with didn't any teachers notice? You start going into that panic mode and it teaches the kid something's not okay about that. As opposed to ok cool you just need some time alone or what were you thinking?
Dr. Lisa (06:57):
I've been thinking about that a lot. The way that the questions that we ask really do convey values and messaging that we aren't necessarily intending to send at all. You know, with a lot of the families that I work with, I will have the parents say, my kid is just striving for straight A's and killing themselves over it. And I don't really know where they get that from, because we're not pressuring them. We keep telling them that a B is okay, or even, a C if they've tried their best. And yet inadvertently sometimes just by asking at the dinner table, how did the math test go today? You've sent the message that you do in fact, really care about those grades and about how they're doing. And I'm guilty of that all the time of asking questions that are inherently imposing my own values and really needing to try to pause and reframe and be more open-ended about what I'm asking so that I'm letting my children tell me what they value instead.
Jason Price (08:07):
So I think you could model that as a parent, by just talking about your day. Here's kind of what happened to me today, talk with your spouse, your partner, and say, here's what, what happened in my day, what happened in your world? And so that kids can start picking up, then they get to share whatever they want to share, and then you can take your cues from them. Of course you're gonna ask them things and there's no perfect way of doing this. And you could ask the most perfect questions, the most open ended, thoughtful, discussion oriented questions, and your kid will say fine, nothing. They will give you that. That's part of being an adolescent. That's okay. The key is not to react to it and get frustrated. It's then being patient and giving them their space.
Amy O. (08:52):
Do you have some pointers Jason, about, particularly with our teens, I'm thinking, what are some ways to, just in addition to modeling that you just suggested to opening up conversation at the table that may lead them to share more than they might with those pointed directed questions?
Jason Price (09:15):
Well, I would first start really away from those pointed direct questions, talking about stuff that happened in the world, or, did you see that this happened or hear about, this going on or, this weekend we were thinking about going and doing this activity and getting at something that is really a collaborative discussion about something that the family's interested in, or, something like that, as opposed to, this, I'm gonna direct directly ask you something about, you, you your day, what you're doing, because I think that feels intimidating for kids. So, getting away from that I think is helpful. I do like family rituals and having stuff that you start even really early with kids. I know a lot of families do like highs and lows. Tell me about the best things of your week or the best thing of your day, worst thing of your day, things like that.
Jason Price (10:05):
And that you can then continue on when they're teens and they might find it silly, but I find that if you started that when kids were younger, they tend to still do it when they're older, it just becomes the norm. And then even talking about memories. Do you remember when we went on this vacation and what did you like about it and kind of doing some kind of games around that kind of stuff I think is nice as opposed to, I need to find out all the facts about what's going on right now. It can bleed into that eventually once you sense that there's some comfort and there is some discussion happening. And I do think it's on the parent to kind of read the room a little bit. And if you sense your kid is anxious or frustrated or trying to eat really quickly to get done with dinner or whatever it is that that's not the time then to try and engage in some of those conversations.
Dr. Lisa (10:52):
That last part, it feels so critical because I think oftentimes the parent gut response is to really evoke, you know, try to get that information when you see that your child is not okay. Oh man, something terrible must have happened today. Or, you know, they must have had a peer conflict. Like, let me try to help them. Let me try to figure this out instead of giving them their space, which again is about us and our own anxieties and our own discomfort with our kids feeling uncomfortable and not necessarily the thing that they need in that moment.
Amy O. (11:29):
Well, you know, what occurred to me too, you guys is when the family sits down to the dinner table, in essence, we are all equally important, right? But when you start to grill your child about their day in an attempt to sort of get information from them, it sort of skews the importance scale. What I did in my day, what my spouse partner did, what their, their younger older sibling did is equally as important. So let's have a more collaborative conversation. Is that kind of what you were getting at Jason?
Jason Price (12:02):
Absolutely. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think what's hard for parents is that we have such limited windows to talk to our kids. You know, if they are at school till 3:30, and then they do some after school activities and you're not home from work until 5- 5:30 sitting down to the dinner table at six, having that half hour, 40 minutes, for dinner. And then the kids are off to their room to do homework and we're exhausted. It feels like this is your one shot sometimes. And having to let go of some of that and say, you know what? It might be that I have to find a time before they go to sleep, or I have to find time later in the week. Obviously, if it's essential, you do it, you know, as best you can, but sometimes you have to put it off. But I think as parents, we feel like I've got this limited window. I have to do this. Now I gotta find out what's going on. I need to make sure that they're okay. And it puts this extra pressure that I just don't think is more important.
Amy O. (12:54):
When my daughter was really struggling with her mental health in high school. I remember that my husband and I in family therapy were instructed and practiced a lot this idea of just validating her feelings and rather than reacting in any way, simply saying, you know, I hear you. I'm sure that must be hard. Can you give us maybe some examples of ways that parents could do that to open conversation?
Jason Price (13:24):
Yes, actually, it's funny that you say that I went through the same thing with my 15 year old. She had a problem socially she was dealing with and I immediately went into problem solving mode. Right?
Amy O. (13:36):
I know that feeling
Jason Price (13:38):
Because I was trying to be helpful. Yeah. I wanted to help.
Amy O. (13:41):
Well, and all you want to do is get your kid out of the pain. Right?
Jason Price (13:44):
Well, and I do this for a living. I had the answers. <laugh>I could tell her exactly what to do. And she got so frustrated with me. I think she hung up the phone at first. And then later when I was home, trying to talk about it, closed the door and I went back to her and I said, you know, I screwed up. you didn't need me to problem solve for you. You're smart enough. You'll figure this stuff out. And you just, you needed me to listen and hear that you were struggling. I said, that's hard for me as a parent. And she's very like therapy savvy and, and awesome that way. And, and so she got it and we, we had a really nice conversation about it, but I, I think it is being able to empathize first, really being able to let your kid know, Hey, I see your struggle, I'm in it with you. Before you try and do any problem solving. And then eventually, if the kid feels heard, they're going to let you in a little bit more.
Dr. Lisa (14:35):
And I wonder if you can even use that strategy to get ahead of things. Like, as we were just talking about when that child does come home and seems particularly distressed or irritable, and we feel like they had a bad day and we don't really want to push, maybe we can just say something to the effect of you seem a little off today. If you want to talk about it, you know that I'm here and leave it at that so that they have that space to come back
Jason Price (15:03):
As long as you're okay with them not coming to talk to you.
Amy O. (15:07):
Jason Price (15:08):
What we do sometimes is we put it out there as like an expectation mm-hmm, <affirmative> that our want is we're gonna notice this, but then you're going to come talk to me about it later and let me know what's going on. And sometimes kids, they just need more time to process. They want to talk about it with their friends, especially during the teenage, you know, later teenage years, they don't want to have to do that with us. It's their way of developing autonomy, solving their own problems and figuring out who else they can go to.
Amy O. (15:33):
So we have to sit in the uncomfortable feelings of not being the problem solver and knowing that our kid is in the stew and that's not easy to do always.
Jason Price (15:46):
No, it's not. And I tell parents, pretty much one of my go-tos in therapy is that you have to look for changes in behavior over time to really know if there's a problem. And are you seeing a decline in grades? Are you seeing the lack of interest in social activities and hobbies and sports? Changes in diet and sleep and exercise? Things like that, say, okay, wait a second, there's enough changes going on that really give me pause and concern as opposed to reacting every day to a kid's mood, because it all change a lot.
Dr. Lisa (16:19):
Yes. And I think the other thing too, that, that I like to think about is this idea of time and how, even though time, I, I think, does feel more limited with our kids, especially when they're teens. And our listeners probably know at this point that I am not yet at the teenage age, I've got two little ones, but I will share that even with my almost five year old,
Amy O. (16:41):
Just you wait, <laugh>
Dr. Lisa (16:45):
this is I'm gonna need you then more than ever Amy. This, even with an almost five year old, he does not do a great job of telling me about his day. And maybe I'm pressuring too much. Maybe I'm asking too many questions, but I don't get a lot of information. And then a couple of days ago, we were gonna go on a bike ride and we opened up the garage door and it was raining outside and he, who's not always overly flexible, was like, why don't we go for a walk in the rain instead? And I was like, what a cool idea. And we got our rain boots and our umbrellas, and we went for a walk and I heard more about the first week of school on that walk than I had in the four days prior with all of my question asking it was his time and he was ready and I would imagine, and I'll let you guys, uh, chime in here that the same would go for teens, maybe even more so as they're seeking that sense of agency and control in their own lives.
Jason Price (17:43):
No question. And with teenage boys, it's really effective. We talk about it in terms of side by side conversations. You know, when you're driving and they're sitting next to you and you have music on, you'll get more than you will face to face. It just creates a defensiveness. And that interrogated kind of feeling. In our offices, we added video game systems and flat screen TVs and we'll do a lot of stuff where we're looking at the things they watch on YouTube or TikTok and play some games as a way to encourage them to open up because it doesn't feel like it's that direct, you know, ask me questions all the time.
Amy O. (18:17):
Lisa, I recommend and you too, Jason, although it sounds like your kids are a bit older, but I recommend that you drive carpool whenever you can. You learn more in carpool between their flexibility in talking with you for just the reasons Jason pointed out and also talking amongst themselves. It's not to eavesdrop necessarily, but just to be in a different place with your kid where it's easier to actually converse. Carpool is not so fun, but that is a good benefit. <laugh>
Jason Price (18:47):
We do learn a lot. You do. And, and just being kind of that fly on the wall when they're at activities and team sports, or when kids have play dates over at the house, just keeping an eye on how they interact and hearing some of the conversations is really interesting.
Dr. Lisa (19:00):
So, Jason, I think what I'm hearing you say is sometimes they might not talk about their day at dinner and that's actually okay. That keeping the communication flowing and the conversation going, even if it's around other things around our own days around politics and current events, just so that they know that you're there and you can talk and you're kind of easing up on some of that pressure so that they can come to you when they're ready,.
Amy O. (19:25):
Disconnecting and being together and feeling safe and comfortable is more important than whatever content might come or information might come from that conversation.
Jason Price (19:38):
And to think about family dinner in maybe a different way. That family dinner is like that safe space that brings everybody together. However many times a week, you're able to do it. And for some that's not very often because of schedules, but then when you do come together, it's like, we're here. This is our space. And here's kind of what we do and we just get to be together. And so as parents, the goal is to do what you can to not have that time become adversarial. And so if you know that your kids resist talking about their day and sharing all that experience, then don't push that. It takes away from your ability to enjoy time together.
Amy O. (20:12):
That makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Lisa (20:14):
Uh, it does. Jason, thank you. You are awesome as always thank you for your time and your wisdom and your commitment to our community's mental health. I know you are particularly good at getting those that have more trouble talking, to talk. And so we appreciate you sharing some of those insights here. And Amy and I have loved this conversation.
Jason Price (20:35):
My pleasure. I really appreciate you guys doing this.
Amy O. (20:37):
It was very nice to meet you sir. It was great.
Dr. Lisa (20:40):
Thank you guys for listening to another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation.
Amy O. (20:46):
Stay current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook @catchiscommunity or by visiting our website catchiscommunity.org.
Dr. Lisa (20:55):
We are glad that you joined us to continue the conversation. It's important to talk about our mental health and reach out for help if needed.