Does this sound familiar?
“My daughter is going through a phase where I’m having trouble getting her to talk about her day. She used to tell me all about her friends at school, what projects she did during the day, what made her happy…but now, nothing! Anytime I ask she just says her day was “fine” or that things are “good”. Any tips for getting more information out of her?”
Kids of all ages (and sometimes even our adult spouses) are prone to resorting to this monosyllabic response. And while sometimes it may feel like a deliberate disinterest in talking to us, it usually isn’t.
Their day probably was “fine.”
Children are constantly engaged and have a much poorer sense of time compared to adults (as evidenced by your 4 year old’s tendency to reference everything having happened as “yesterday” and everything that will happen as “tomorrow”). Asking them about a significant period of time (yes, including a full day), then, does not trigger the brain like it might an adult’s. Looking back over a full day is hard, and because nothing pops out at me right off the bat, it’s pretty safe to say that my day was “fine” or “good.”
Teens experience similar faulty wiring (actually, research shows us that teen’s brains are in a state of development more similar to that of a toddler than an adult) as well as the enhanced emotional reactivity we so often associate with being a teen (“This was the worst day ever! I can’t even talk about it!”). Because they talk like us and are starting to look like us, it’s often easy for parents to overlook that teens are not yet, in fact, adults. They do not have the “bigger picture” perspective that we do, nor they can they easily access previous lessons-learned like an adult might when faced with a challenge. Add to that the unpredictable and unlimited hormone fluxes, and a teen’s brain really does think this is the worst day ever.
And accessing that sort of emotional intensity is draining and hard to do, particularly when you’re not even sure why you feel that way (as many teens do). So instead of having to face the crazed and confusing emotional wave, it’s easier just to say the day was “fine.”
So what is a parent to do?
Asking more guided questions can be helpful in getting your child to open up. Questions like, “What was the best part of your day? Worst? What is the most interesting thing you learned today? What is one nice thing you did for someone else today?” help children activate some of the more relevant, emotionally salient memories from the day. More directed questions help her brain navigate the less-than-perfect memory pathways and access more specific memories more easily.
And for teens, these guided questions also help. By soliciting more directed responses, you helps teens practice guiding through the emotional muck and to access and reflecting on specific memories and emotions in a more controlled, deliberate and easier to tolerate way. Over the long term, this can can ultimately to help support their emotional regulation, coping skills and ability to problem solve.