A recent study found that sharing memories and having meaningful conversations with your kids when they’re little can actually lead to better well-being as teens and adults. Check it out below, along with tips on how to have more meaningful talks with your kids.
Study Shows That Having Meaningful Conversations with Toddlers Can Improve Their Lives as Teens and Adults
Just around 14 years ago, researchers at the University of Otago set the groundwork for this fascinating study by teaching mothers of toddlers some new conversational techniques to use with their children. The techniques revolved around “elaborative reminiscing.” Basically, that’s fancy psych-speak for “open and responsive conversations with young children about every day past events.”
Think about all of the fun little things you do with your kids. A trip to the beach, a family movie night, even just surprising them with ice cream on a hot day. We do all of these great little things because we love spending time with our kids, but we don’t really talk about them much afterward. I mean, why would we? An ice-cream cone is a fun little treat, but it’s not exactly a monumental occasion, right?
Well, turns out these things actually are monumental occasions…or at least they should be in terms of how we talk about them with our young kids.
Making everyday moments memorable for toddlers leads to healthier teens
According to the research, “15-year-olds told more coherent stories about turning points in their lives” when their moms were part of the group who were taught the new conversational techniques.
It goes way beyond just being able to tell better life stories, though. They were better able to discuss how major challenging events- such as divorce or bullying- shaped their overall life and personalities. The study also found that these teens reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to those in the control group.
Long story short, actively engaging in meaningful conversations and talking to your toddlers about all of the things you do together can help shape them into happier and healthier adults.
Project lead Professor Elaine Reese explains, “The ultimate goal is to encourage parents to have more sensitive and responsive conversations about events in their children’s lives.” She went on to say that she hopes this helps parents and policymakers realize “the importance of early childhood as the ideal time for starting to have positive conversations with children, and to know that these conversations can make a difference as children grow older.
If you’re interested in the rest of the data, check out the full summary of the study on Science Daily. For now, let’s shift gears a bit, focus on Reese’s last statement, and talk about how to have more meaningful conversations with our kids of all ages. After all, a lot of us are well beyond the toddler years.
How to Have More Meaningful Conversations with Your Kids
Have you ever heard of the TALK method? It’s a strategy taught to and used by early childhood educators to help young children develop better language skills. It stands for “Tune in, Ask Questions, Lift Language, and Keep it Going.”
I think it’s also a great way for us parents to develop better skills when it comes to having meaningful conversations with our kids. For our purposes, though, I dropped the “L” for now. Don’t get me wrong, teaching kids new vocab is important, but it’s not really what we’re going for right now. We just want to learn how to talk to our kids better, period, right?
Tune in and truly listen
You can’t have a meaningful talk with your kids if you’re not actually listening to them, so make sure you give them your full attention. Focus on your child, make eye contact, and use “I’m really listening” body language. Don’t try to have deep discussions when you’re distracted by something else, either, like driving or making dinner.
Don’t just ask “yes” or “no” questions. Make them open-ended. For example, if you’re talking to your young child about your day at the beach, don’t say, “Did you have fun today?” Instead, try asking them, “What was your favorite part of the day today at the beach?”
Older kids are a bit more of a challenge. We all know that if you ask a kid if they had a good day at school, we’ll get a one-word answer back. Don’t ask how their day was, either. They’ll just say “fine.” Instead, try asking specific open-ended questions, like “What did you read in English class today?”
Keep the conversation going
A good meaningful conversation with your child is one that builds on itself both immediately and in an ongoing way. For example, after learning that your tot loved building sandcastles, you could say, “Oh, that was fun! I loved how the sand squished between my fingers. What did you love the most about it?”
Then, share your favorite part of the day, too, with something like, “My favorite part of the day was when the seagull swooped down and stole the last bite of Daddy’s sandwich. Remember how hard we all laughed?”
The second part of keeping the conversation going is building on it in an ongoing way. This is basically where reminiscing comes in. For example, the next time you go to the beach you can say something like, “Uh oh, Daddy’s eating a sandwich. I hope that bird doesn’t come back and steal it again!”
As you can see, you can’t really do #2 and 3 if you don’t do #1: listen. If you DO actively pay attention, though, having meaningful talks about everyday moments with your kids really isn’t all that difficult. The big stuff, on the other hand, is a different story.
How to Have Meaningful Talks About the Really Big Stuff
First, let me just say that I’m not a developmental psychologist, and there’s really no “one size fits all” approach. How you talk about scary stuff with your kids depends on everything from their age (both physical and developmental) to your family beliefs. So, I’m not saying that these are the only RIGHT answers. I’m just telling you how WE talk about scary stuff in OUR family.
Don’t minimize their fears
If your kids are scared, don’t just say, “there’s nothing to worry about” or treat them like their fears are silly. Even if they’re scared of something that YOU know is highly unlikely to ever happen, THEY don’t really know that.
Besides, if you really think about it, chances are you have at least some fears that others would find “irrational.” My friend has a major fear of merging in traffic. That’s it. Just merging. That fear is enough to keep her from driving on highways, though. Is it an irrational fear? Probably. But it’s still real. Your child’s fears, be they rational or totally out there- are very real, too. So, treat them with the respect they deserve.
At the same time, don’t add to them
As important as it is to treat your kids’ fears with respect, it’s equally important to not add to any fears that they may have, especially with younger children. Find out exactly how much your kids really know about what’s going on in the world before you start talking to them about it.
Maybe your 7-year-old heard that there is a war going on and they’re sad for the people getting hurt, but they don’t actually know what types of scary weapons are involved. There’s really no reason to fill her in on the details. Basically, just address the fears she has. Don’t voluntarily add new ones to the mix.
Focus on what YOU can do as a family to help
Once we talk about our fears, we change the conversation to what WE can do to help. I think this is important because scary current events give us all a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. We average moms and dads don’t really have the power to end a conflict or cure a disease.
We do, however, have the power to help other individual everyday moms and dads in smaller ways. Even a $10 donation to a charity that helps people in need makes a difference. For example, that $10 may buy someone a much-needed meal, or a train ticket to safety, or a warm pair of gloves.
By focusing on the positive things, we can do, we take a little bit of that feeling of powerlessness out of the equation. It’s our way of telling our kids that while we can’t change or control everything, we CAN change and control some things. We can’t stop scary things from happening, but we can do our part to help those that it happens to, if that makes sense.
Bottom line, meaningful talks with our kids- whether it’s through reminiscing about fun everyday moments or talking through scary stuff- play an important role in shaping not just who they are today, but who they’ll become tomorrow.
Every single conversation that you have with your child adds another block to their foundation. So, take the time to really engage with them. Don’t just talk at them or around them; talk TO them and let them talk TO you.