Don't get me wrong, he often sees me, smiles a huge smile as if to say "I've seen you mum" but then runs off to play with his friends. He loves spending time straight after school playing on the school playground. He not only loves it, he needs it. Needs to run around after a long day at school to disburse some of the energy that has built up inside him, and to enjoy the freedom of no longer being in school for that day.
I wait, holding onto his school bag, knowing I am meeting his needs over mine just now, and thinking to myself "it’s okay, we can talk and reconnect in the car".
Once he’s done running that energy off we get in the car, and he barely breathes a word to me, only to answer my questions about school with "I don’t want to talk about it mum, I need silence". I used to wonder why; wonder why he wasn’t telling me about his day, why he wasn’t excited to see me, worried that he was unhappy. But now I understand.
I have realised that he feels safe in my presence to tell me he needs space and time to calm down after a long day at school. He needs to be quiet after having to talk to people all day, to immediately respond when spoken to, or answer questions that require switched on thinking. He didn’t need to debrief his day as soon as he saw someone he loved, like I did, he needed to process it for himself.
Once I was able to allow that calm and space that he needs, he was able to open up, usually at bedtime (!) to tell me about what happened at school; who’s done what, what he enjoyed – everything I was desperate to know as soon as we had been reunited. I got to know, I just had to wait a little longer to be told.
The only slight issue with this is that sometimes bedtime isn't the best time for this. So I started to consider how I could balance both his needs for time and space and my needs for reconnection and for stress free bedtimes. Emily and I (Danielle) used our knowledge and the things we had observed in our children to develop out CalmFamily top tips for beating the reconnection paradox.
Here are our top tips for optimising your chances of getting your child to open up after an absence:
1. Give them space
Children find it difficult to process their emotions if they are full of built up energy. Whenever possible, give your child the space to choose their activity immediately after school to allow them to disperse whatever they need to in the way they intuitively feel is right. For many children this will be running around the playground, but remember they are individual so it won't be true for everyone.
2. Give them time
All children are different and some might want to talk at once but most need time. Time will give a child the ability to process their experiences and potentially connect them with how they are feeling. When they are ready, they will be able to share those experiences with you more coherently and readily. They will also find it easier to seek your help if they are struggling to process or manage any part of that. Bombarding them with questions as soon as they walk out of school is likely to encounter a response with little information or connection, if any.
3. Bedtime is not usually the time
Although we want to give them time, leaving lengthy conversations till bedtime can be detrimental for both you and your child, especially if you have a particularly anxious child (unless you lay with them whilst going to sleep). Bringing up all those anxieties just before bedtime and then expecting to leave them to settle to sleep alone is probably unrealistic. Instead you could use the other tips to support your child to open up a bit earlier.
4. Listen and respond with compassion
This is one for all the time but it's just here as a reminder that if you listen to them when they talk about what they want to talk about (even if it's very boring or you have heard the same thing over and over) then they are more likely to tell you the stuff that you think is important. To them, all the stuff is important. Also remembering that before they have felt able to offload their day, their behaviour may reflect their unprocessed negative emotions. Responding with compassion and empathy, even in the face of very difficult behaviour, will likely make them feel more able to process those feelings more quickly. Remember that you are their safe space.
5. Try something other than "How was your day?"
"How was your day?" or "What did you do at school today" are questions that are simply too broad for a little mind. INSTEAD, you could say ‘hey it’s Wednesday don’t you have maths today/did you do yoga? Often this will open up that conversation about their day but if it doesn’t, worry not as you will still be communicating to your child that you are interested in them and their schedule. Also, parents often forget during these questions that the social part of school is as, if not more important to your child than any of the activities they did. Be sure to also ask what games they played at break, if their friends did something funny today etc.
6. Talk about your day
Psychology tells us that children learn behaviour, particularly social behaviour through modelling (copying other people). If we want our children to open up about their day, we need to do that ourselves. An excellent opportunity for this is during an evening meal. Whilst we all sit down to eat we take turns (though everyone gets to choose if they join in) at saying something about our day. For example, "I worked hard today helping a colleague" or "I walked the dog today and cleaned the house". Another useful tool we (as the adults) use is that we try to also name our emotions when talking about our activities to encourage our children to recognise and talk about a range of emotions themselves. For example, "I felt happy today because I was able to get out into the forest with the dog" or "I felt sad today because my friend at work was sick and so I didn't get to have lunch with her".
Thank you for reading x
Written by Danielle Heap - Director of Community