The one trick I use to get my quiet kid to open up

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My son and I are similar creatures. We're easy going, don't really say a lot unless you know us well (at which time, apologies for not letting you get a word in), and have a tendency to internalise our problems. Up until now, this preference to go off and lick his wounds, with reassurance we're about if he needs us when he has a problem is one I understand and have always been fine with.

However, over the last year or so, as he's gotten older, and his interpersonal relationships and schooling have gotten more complex, this approach is no longer cutting it.

That said, it seems pushing him to spill only pushes him further into his little turtle shell. As nothing I've being doing to help him has really addressed the issue, I decided to ask a child therapist for advice on how to handle it.

"Kids vary considerably in their willingness to share information with peers or adults," says psychologist Davina Donovan.

"As well as their nature, this is influenced by a lot of factors such as what has been modelled at home, what benefits or perceived punishments they've received in the past after opening up, and whether they feel the person they're opening up to is trustworthy or not."

The trick? Show respect for their right to know what they do and don't need

Davina says we should always respect our child's need for space.

"Kids are always told what to do when: from the second they wake, during the day at school, and then when they get home – and of course they are, because they require a lot of support and guidance."

But when it comes to handling their emotions, we shouldn't bulldoze them into doing this our way.


Essentially, the number one trick to getting my non-sharer to open up? Stop insisting that he share.

This is hard, when he's in tears, when he's clearly upset, when I worry he doesn't have the skills to deal with what is troubling him. But I step back from the drama of the moment, and focus on giving him what he needs, and not what makes me feel better.

This is not to be confused with leaving him to sink or swim.

Plenty of "work" goes on behind the scenes – I've switched out begging, cajoling and bribing the information out of him for playing the long game.

This too is psychologist recommended – Davina says parents should continue to offer support and role modelling in day to day life, and of course intervene if things get too out of hand, but allowing children some time and space to problem solve, if they know how to, is essential for their emotional development.

So what does it look like for us?

Essentially, when he is in the moment of being upset, when something has just happened, when it is the most obvious (and hard to witness and sit back), this is the time he needs to retreat and lick his wounds, to cry it out, and process what has happened.

When the drama has passed (and yes, I do offer a hug or an ear in the moment, but if I am told no, I don't continue pestering with "are you sure?"), then I'll bring it up gently – but not always directly.

"I often tell parents to make observations and follow this up with solutions, from firsthand experience. For example, 'you're looking a bit sad. You know, I get sad sometimes to. It doesn't feel very nice. When I'm sad I talk with your dad and it helps me'. Then leave it there – it's important a child gets to initiate help seeking," Davina says.

And this is what is working for us now - often, he will come to me later by himself. He's even been known to share a problem that is no longer bothering him, saying "but here's why I decided to move on."

This has been a slow process, but a few months in to stepping back and putting myself in his shoes, he's become more open, not less.

Still feeling unsure you can handle the "trick"? Davina has this advice: "I encourage parents to ask themselves 'if I interfered here, am I doing this FOR my child and will it HELP my child, or am I doing it because I need to feel better?'"

NOTE: This advice is of a general nature, and refers to the ordinary upsets children (and adults!) experience. If you are concerned about your child's wellbeing talk to your GP for a mental health plan referral, or contact a child psychologist directly.