Getting your child to talk (a little) more


If you’re a parent I’m sure you’ve had the “grunt experience”  – a free entertainment package provided mostly – but not exclusively – by the teen, to the delight of all adults involved with said teen.

The “grunt experience” involves short chats where you are treated to words like fine, alright, sort of, whatever, OMG, sigh, groan and of course -“The Grunt”.  #rollseyes

Come On Reaction GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
And you probably feel the same…

I read a blog post written by a fellow psychologist over the weekend. It spoke to parents about asking the right questions of their kids to get conversations started.


It was a great piece – engaging, thought provoking and well observed. There isn’t a parent alive who isn’t driven close to the edge by The Grunt. But, then I could see that this post wasn’t necessarily going to be helpful (knowing of course that this offering isn’t necessarily going to be helpful either!) The reason is that all the examples of potential conversation starters were closed questions.

With closed questions we unwittingly invite The Grunt in and offer it refreshments, comfy chair and an Xbox. Share on X

Closed and Open questions: I’ll just do a quick definition:

Closed questions can only have “yes” or “no” answers.

Open questions yield information. That’s where the gold is – a well-chosen open question.

So, you want to know how school went: You might normally try “Was school good? Did today go well? Was today OK? Did you have fun?

You want to know how that birthday party went: “Are Tom’s parents nice? Were there many others there? Did she like her present? Was the food nice?

These questions might seem like they would prompt someone to give you information. But if they’re not feeling chatty, or don’t really want to (or are afraid to) tell you, or just aren’t in the mood for company then it’s easy to answer “yes” (to please you or get you to stop talking), no (same reasons), shrug or y’know, grunt.

If, however, you slightly change the wording, you’ll likely get a little more:

  • What happened at school today?
  • How was that for you?
  • What what the best/worst/ most boring thing that happened?
  • What was good about it?
  • What did you do that was fun?

As for that party? Perhaps try these:

  • What are Tom’s parents like?
  • What did you like about them?
  • What didn’t you like about them?
  • How did you feel in their house?
  • What were the other people like?
  • How do you think she felt about her present?
  • Why do you think that?
  • What did you eat?

Importantly, changing your questioning style will mean that you’re less likely to miss information about things that are of concern. Things you might not get to hear about with a closed question.

“Did you play games?” ” Erm…Ya… “

If you turn that into  “What games did you play?” “Oh that one where you rob stuff and shoot prostitutes  – it was super fun! Then we played lock me in the garden shed for hours til I cry. ” Well, I exaggerate, but you see where I’m going here…

How we ask children (or anyone we love) about their day, matters

  • Did you do what you were told? Can become “How were you treated there?” because what if they did do what they were told but you wouldn’t be happy about what they were told to do?
  • You feeling OK? “How are you feeling after it?”
  • You OK to go back there again? “What would it be like to go back there?”
  • Did you like Katie’s mom? “What was Katie’s room like?”
  • Were Johnnie’s parents nice to you? “What did his parents talk to you about?
  • Did you guys play together? “What did you guys do together?

What might have been a simple “yes ” might transform into a detailed description of how disgusting and smelly treasures were found in a bin and made into jewellery – for you!! Or it might lead you to learn that someone wanted to play mammy and daddy but it was to be a secret and they couldn’t tell the other mom anyway ‘cos she was out somewhere again so…

Your child or teen (or indeed partner /friend / colleague) will have bad days, and mightn’t want to “upset you” (because that’s how kids – and some adults – think!) by telling you that they were bullied, threatened, abused or just sad. And so they will take what they believe to be the easy way out for everyone with yes or no answers to closed questions.

Teenage girl

When we open up a conversation with open questioning it creates a space to allow more authentic communication. And crucially, it could help access information that might alert you to unsafe people or places.

Your child or teen won’t tell you everything, I know, and that in itself can feel difficult. But I also know you are more likely to get you the answers you’re looking for if you ditch the closed questions!

ps: It’s a very hard habit to break so don’t worry if you keep reverting to closed! It’s all about practice.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.