Illustration: Nadia Hafid
The Art of Talking With Children
Ten ways to jumpstart conversations with kids that will help them bounce back from challenges
As a speech pathologist, lecturer, and mom of two, I often hear conversations suggesting kids are struggling with resilience. Sometimes the struggle comes out in obvious ways; for example, “I’m never going to be good at this” or “I give up.” These comments can also be more subtle; for instance, kids who say they don’t want to challenge themselves or clam up if they face tough questions.
Resilience, defined as the ability to overcome serious hardships or bounce back from challenges, is a topic on so many parents’ and teachers’ minds, and for good reason. As the pandemic has brought challenges into the lives of so many, we’re prompted to do more to help kids persist and thrive. As research from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard shows, resilience accumulates from a combination of protective factors. While biological factors play a role, the most important factor is a stable, supportive relationship with a committed parent, caregiver, or other adult. When so much of school and home lives have been disrupted, helping kids maintain and enhance these relationships is even more critical.
The good news is that our daily conversations can help. When we support kids to reflect on their challenges and emerge stronger, we shore up our relationships and build their long-term resilience. Promoting executive function skills such as goal setting, prioritizing, and problem-solving is key. The following, discussed in my new book, The Art of Talking with Children, are top 10 questions to jumpstart conversations for resilience:
1. What can you teach me?
Ask a child of any age, toddler onward, to show you how to do something — ideally, something you can’t do yourself. Think about getting out of your comfort zone, entering your child’s world, as they show their strengths. My 10-year-old daughter Sophie taught me how to play Roblox, while my 5-year-old son Paul showed me his made-up game. This process shores up their language skills while supporting their senses of themselves.
2. What can each of us do when we feel [mad, sad, angry, scared?]
Have everyone in the household weigh in and offer feedback. Teach that learning to manage these feelings is a way of empowering ourselves. Offer your own child-appropriate stories of times you managed these feelings more and less effectively and encourage theirs.
3. What was a time when you felt scared or anxious but went forward anyway?
Support kids to recognize we can have “big feelings” but still face our fears. Distinguish between truly dangerous situations and ones that aren’t so dangerous but that challenge or worry them.
4. What is one activity that makes you feel “good stress,” and how can you practice it more?
There’s no need to avoid everything stressful. Distinguish between negative stress and eustress, or stress that causes us to ramp up our efforts and perform our best. (Think of a race.)
5. In what places, situations, or with whom do you feel most safe, and why?
Invite kids to reect on places or relationships they can come to when they are feeling challenged, burned out, or scared. When kids have a place of refuge, they have an easier time testing their limits since they know there’s comfort for them on the other side.
6. At what times do you feel most out of control?
Helping kids to plan through challenging times in advance will cause obstacles to feel less overwhelming.
7. What is your best quality, and how can you show more of it to others?
When Sophie tells me she’s good at listening, or Paul says he’s good at making people laugh, I help them reflect on these positive qualities, allowing them to feel a grounded pride and share more of their unique gifts.
8. When you want to give up, what’s one thing you can tell yourself?
Having a personalized mantra or phrase can support kids in the moment with their self-talk, which supports their persistence long-term.
9. With a big project, how can you go about breaking it down in steps?
This can work with academic projects, but even with tasks that can feel big, like cleaning a room. Talking out the steps in advance, and even making a checklist, can help kids make it through a task and feel proud afterward.
10. What do you need from me?
So often, kids have a sense of what they want and need in a relationship, but we don’t always ask. Taking the time to listen and respond, and encouraging them to do the same, are key to strengthening your bond and letting kids feel heard and seen.
Rebecca Rolland, Ed.D.’14, is an adjunct lecturer at the Ed School and on faculty at Harvard Medical School. The Art of Talking with Children, her combination memoir and guidebook, came out this spring.