‘You have to be a little bit of a detective.’ Charlotte pediatrician on how to get kids to open up to their parents

Dinnertime conversations may be beneficial for children

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A question for parents: how often do you sit down for family dinners? Once a week? Or maybe only on weekends?

Parenting experts say it’s a good way to connect with your children and keep the lines of communication open. The American Academy of Pediatrics says not only are family dinners crucial to having that open communication, they’ve also been shown to increase a child’s social skills and improve their eating habits. But you have to make the most of your time together.

So, no devices during mealtimes.

“So if you only do manage to sit down for six minutes, make those six minutes count,” said Dr. Rachel Fournet, a pediatrician with Novant Health. “Put away cell phones, turn off the TV, no iPads at the table. But that also means that the parents have to model that behavior and they can’t have their own there or else it’s hypocritical. So everybody can agree to put their phones away for six minutes, sit down, eat the meal that’s in front of them. Even if it’s take out, even if it’s a microwaveable dinner, at least you’re sitting and connecting.”

She also says you have to be strategic with how you’re asking them about their day.

“If you ask a question that can be answered with a yes, no - you’re going to get a yes, no,” she explained. “You have to be a little bit of a detective. It doesn’t mean hound them. You know pester them to death, it just means ask questions you know can’t be answered with a ‘yes or no.’”

And that connecting Dr. Fournet says, is key.

“I think it’s easy to talk about semantics and go through your schedule and say, ‘OK, tomorrow Timmy has soccer and Ella has ballet’ and all you’re talking about is the organization of the family, but not about each family member.”

Another top tool: ask about your child’s friends – instead of them -- for the best insight.

“That’s one trick I’ve learned as a pediatrician is if you ask a kid ‘what are you up to, what are you doing these days’ - they don’t want to say anything,” she said. “They zip the lip but if you say, ‘what are your friends up to do these days? What are they getting into? Are some of your friends started to date? Do any of your girlfriends have crushes?’ They just start blabbing away and that’s when you kind of really get into what’s going on in their social setting.”

Connecting with your child at dinner

Always strive to lead by example, also called modeling. Especially, when sharing when things don’t go well for you.

“Modeling is one of the best thing we can do as parents to show kids, it’s OK to have these emotions,” said Dr. Fournet. “We are in a family. It’s safe to feel feelings and so talking about I had a really tough day at work today. ‘I was slammed with back to back patients and it was just really frazzled and I came home and just really looking back on my day, wished that I would have been able to be calmer and you know taking control of my patients. And so by doing that, you’re child learns that like, ‘Oh, parents have bad days, too?’ ‘Oh, parents feel overwhelmed and this is how Mom dealt with it’. Then they internalize that and are able to apply it to themselves later."

And, she says they don’t stop being sponges as they get older. So be sure to ask them about what’s going on in the world around them, she said, “Do you have any questions about what’s going on in the world or in the news or with adults?"

“They hear our NPR podcasts going in the morning, they hear the news on the TV and even if they’re just breezing in and out - they hear it,” she insisted. “And, if they hear there was a mass shooting, they don’t know where it was, how it happened. But that doesn’t mean they always ask questions, either. They tend to internalize and sponge the information and have nowhere for it to go or anywhere to process it.”

Finally, place a premium on gratitude to keep the comparison trap from social media at bay.

“You go on there to connect to people but what you’re really doing is comparing yourself to people,” she said. “I think it’s important that you take that step back and say you know look at the things that you do have. Look at the great things you do have, look at the things you have been able to do."

Dr. Fournet says ultimately, you want to lay the groundwork for good, open, honest communication by regularly engaging your children in a setting that’s familiar and away from the screens.

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