It’s not easy for anyone--neither parents nor children--to talk about feelings. In general, families tend to have a certain communication style, and there are some families that emphasize emotions more than others. If for a few minutes we become investigators within our own home, we'll discover our distinct style and then be able to make changes to it. For example, there are families that stick strictly to the facts when sharing stories during meals. Parents and children rush to mention the milestones they lived through, while passing the olive oil or the salt: with whom you met, the number of goals you made during the game, the huge line at the gas station, the math professor’s absence, that you left the briefcase in the house, that there were only boys in the park, that the mail you were waiting for did not arrive, that no one ever came to cut the grass, that you are starving because you only ate an apple for lunch.
At the other end of the spectrum are the families that share daily successes with greater intention:“I felt so bad today when a man cut in front of me in line and stood in front of me. He didn’t even look at me when I politely told him that I was upset. No one seemed to notice anything.” Or, “I had to share my snack with a little girl who left hers at home. It bothered me, because I had those spongy muffins from the bakery, but her stomach was grumbling! She gave me a beautiful sticker and everything was cool.”
Regardless of what the family’s approach is--and considering that no family is fixed at one extreme or the other--we can, with a little bit of work, open the gap to make room for a communication style that favors the development of that stubborn skill called empathy.
With a simple notepad and pen, or with the help of a smartphone, ask your child to become a Pulitzer Prize-seeking reporter for a moment and interview you or your spouse. Help your child make a list of questions, balancing natural curiosities with more profound inquiries in order to open up an emotion-filled dialogue. Encourage a type of language that you don't normally use. Later, but not too much later so as to not lose the train of thought, try to start a conversation about the topic.
If your child needs prompts, here are some ideas for questions that will foster powerful conversations:
At what age did you learn to swim? What was the name of your favorite pet? How did you feel when your dad punished you? What was your greatest sports success? How did you react when you lost a game? What things were you embarrassed about when you were a kid? How did you feel when you lost your first tooth? Were you afraid to fly in an airplane for the first time? Was there ever a time you felt jealous of your sibling? What was your favorite vacation? Do you have any great memories about a professor? Did you ever get lost as a kid? What was the fear like that you felt? Did you ever have recurring nightmares? Make made you laugh? How did you talk to you mom when you were angry with her? How did you feel the day I was born?