In our minds, we like to think kids will be forthcoming about all their issues, willing to confide in us the problems they’re dealing with just because we tell them we care. Some kids are comfortable doing this, but in my experience working with the elementary-aged set (as a teacher and camp employee), most are not.
I don’t advocate pulling each child aside and asking for their entire life and home stories, but when it seems that something is bothering them and they don’t want to open up, I do feel we have a duty to help them through it. Here are some ideas that I’ve found encourage kids to open up.
- Silence is golden. This is from my journalism days. Silence makes most people uncomfortable, and their desire to have someone say something will cause them to talk. If you have the luxury of sitting quietly with a child after saying something like, “You can let me know what’s bothering you,” then chances are they’ll open up because the silence makes them.
- Encourage note passing. Lots of times my students are too scared to say something out loud, either because of embarrassment or because they fear retribution. I always offer kids the option of writing me a note letting me know what’s up. Sometimes they won’t discuss the note with me under any circumstances, and other times, we will write to each other back and forth trying to work toward a solution. Either way, the child is unburdened of thinking they have to deal with something alone. The words on the page are less scary than the words coming out of their mouths.
- Choose your words carefully. We want the message in a difficult situation to be, “It is safe for you to talk to me. You won’t get in trouble. I can help you if you talk to me.” Unfortunately, sometimes our impatience masks that message in a harsh tone: “Just tell me already! Can we get this over with and get back to business? Ugh, you know I’m just trying to help you!” We need to tread lightly around kids’ emotions if we want them to be able to trust us.
- What’s minor to us is major to them. I remember one year in camp, one of my campers was upset about something at least once a week. Usually, his issues were ones most adults wouldn’t give more than a second’s thought. But for this kid, the issues felt huge and all-important. We have to acknowledge these feelings while helping kids keep them in perspective, too.