Have you been here before? You know where I mean . . . the place where your child won’t tell you what’s really going on. Obviously there is some kind of problem, but they just won’t share it with you. And you feel helpless—maybe hopeless. Some kids will act out, throw tantrums, and become increasingly defiant while others bottle it up inside and shut down. Both ways of coping come with their own set of trials, and as parents, we can feel angry, frustrated, and sad. We want to help, but without more information from our kids, we can’t.

The truth is, you aren’t as helpless, and hopeless, as you may seem. While some kids may find therapy helpful, many parents can make some small adjustments (that may feel huge) in how they communicate with their child . . . and slowly those same kids will start to communicate back.

So what can we do? I talked with my resident child psychologist, my husband, and asked for some advice. “Dr. Green, what do you suggest parents do?” Not surprisingly, he listed things that I kind of already knew . . . just need more practice doing myself.

Whether it’s a hot tantrum or the cold silent treatment, here are a few things to keep in mind when you are trying to get your kids to open up and talk to you. 

Create a Safe Place

Creating an emotionally safe home is just as important as having a home that is physically safe. When kids (and adults for that matter) feel safe, they will share (when they are ready) because they won’t feel like their innermost feelings are at risk of being ridiculed. Unintentional name-calling and phrases like “grow up” or “stop crying” can all cause more stress and fear . . . and a child who won’t want to talk.

Stay calm. In order to create emotional safety, the trick is to stay calm in the moment. View emotional meltdowns by your child as a teaching moment rather than an obstacle or a discipline issue. There is a reason they are responding that way and may need your guidance. Take a few deep breaths. Stay calm.

Listen. Take the time to listen. Provide an opportunity for your child to share if they want to and/or are willing to. Ask questions so you make sure you are understanding and not just hearing what is said. Restate so you can confirm you understand, but also so they can hear it themselves. And repeat this process as often as necessary until they calm down.

Model communication. It’s amazing what kids pick up! We all know we need to be careful with the vocabulary we use around our kids, right? Well, they don’t just pick up words, but they pick up communication patterns. Children will learn how to share what they are feeling when they see and hear it done. Be their example. When you are feeling something, talk through it—out loud. “Brandon, I’m feeling really frustrated. I feel like you weren’t listening to me when I asked you to put your clothes away. It feels like we talk about this frequently. What can we do about this?” If you don’t want to talk about it because your frustration is too high, say, “I think I need a few minutes to calm down, but I want to talk about this later. Can we do that please?”

Understand Feelings

When anyone shuts down or acts out, unless there is a mental illness involved, there is an emotional reason for it. Even if you have created a safe place, children may struggle to understand what is going on inside.

Label Feelings. Often, children may not even understand what they are feeling themselves. So when you model, label your feelings so they can learn how to identify what they are feeling. Angry. Sad. Frustrated. Confused. Jealous. Lonely.

Accept the Emotion, not the Behavior. Listen, when it comes down to it, a kid doesn’t want to be angry, or hurt, or sad. Who wants that? The problem isn’t the emotion, it’s the behavior. Make sure that is clear, or else that safe place you created won’t feel so safe anymore. Kids will be afraid to share how they feel. Set limits on behaviors, not on feelings. It’s okay to feel a certain way, but not act a certain way. For example, your child can feel upset, but he can’t hit. You set those boundaries. Let me reiterate: limit behaviors, not feelings. Accept what they share with you. These are feelings from the heart. They may be really hurt, and that needs to be honored and handled with great care. As the parent, you can show empathy and support while setting appropriate boundaries on behavior.

A note on behavior: Behaviors you pay attention to will increase. “I’m so impressed that you decided to go to room and be alone for a few minutes before getting too upset. I love you.” “Hey honey, good job on stopping to take a deep breath. I noticed, and it really seemed to help. I love you.” Behaviors you ignore will be extinguished. “I love you sweetheart, but I’m not going to try to talk to you when you’re acting this way,” and leave the room. Don’t engage in yelling or trying to convince anyone you’re right. Disengage. You may be surprised how quickly that negative behavior begins to go away (but be aware that behavior may get worse just before it gets better).

You child doesn’t have to be a mystery. With a few changes, the entire family could start communicating in a healthier way.