Child Psychiatrist Shares The Best Ways For Parents To Get Their Kids To Open Up

May 22, 2019, 7:08 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:00 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Making a child feel safe should be at the heart of every interaction and conversation.

Dr. Matt Swenson is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Utah County. He has partnered with United Way of Utah County on a new program called “EveryDay Strong” aimed at giving parents and educators tools to help children who are struggling.

He sat down with KSL’s Dan Spindle to share advice on the best ways for parents to start difficult conversations and get our kids to open up.

“How do you advise parents who are saying… boy, I’m frustrated. I’m not sure how to talk to my children about these problems they’re having,” asked Spindle. “Where do you start as a parent to speak to your children?”

“You can’t have an agenda other than safety,” said Swenson. “That’s your only agenda.”

“There’s this pyramid from most Psychology 101 classes called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” said Swenson. “Physical needs, safety needs, connection needs and confidence needs.”

“Even the most complex cases that I see my office, I think of what can I do to help promote starting at the bottom, addressing the physical concerns this kid might have? Are they sleeping well? Are they healthy?” continued Swenson.

Next comes safety.

“How do I make my child feel safe? How do I give them an experience with emotional safety meaning that they feel safe to talk, they feel safe to explore, safe to be themselves, safe to fail,” he said.

“Sensitive subjects – death, sex, drugs. I think that part of safety is you start the connection, right? You say, I’m okay to talk about this,” said Swenson.

The hardest part for many parents, Swenson said, is to just listen and avoid the temptation to fix a problem or lecture.

“The best way to have a conversation with most teenagers is they joke with duct tape over your mouth,” said Swenson. “You know, imagine literally that you’re putting duct tape over your mouth and you’re just going mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.”

“You’ll learn a lot about what they feel and think if you just listen carefully to how they even describe their environment and their friends,” he continued.

“Is there anything parents should definitely avoid saying or conveying to their children?” asked Spindle.

Dr. Matt Swenson talks with KSL TV's Dan Spindle

Dr. Matt Swenson talks with KSL TV’s Dan Spindle

“There are things that I hear a lot, like, ‘I push him because I know how capable he is,’” said Swenson. “Your child doesn’t know that… all they know is they have this impossible expectation that their parents view them in some way that they may or may not ever be able to live up to.”

“What if somebody you really knew and loved came to you and said, ‘Dan, I push you because you’re just not hitting your potential.’ It feels terrible,” said Swenson. “What I would prefer for parents to do is to look at their children in a unconditional way,” said Swenson.

That leads to building a deeper connection, the next level on the pyramid.

“After you’ve read a story, when you’re eating dinner, take an extra moment to just really look in their eyes and smile, and say, ‘I just love hearing about your life,’” said Swenson.

Connection isn’t about the amount of time you spend together.

“There’s a difference between being together and taking a minute to connect; an extra hug, extra time,” said Swenson. “When connection is there, you will be so surprised at how your kids are more obedient, are listening a little better are doing more.”

If your children are dealing with something difficult, Swenson shared language that can help parents start the conversation.

‘Oh my gosh, that sounds really hard. Will you tell me more about it?’

‘How long has it been going on?’

‘Is there anything that I can do to help?’

Giving your children the opportunity to vent, and to come up with their own solutions will also build their confidence.

“I think saying things like, ‘I see how hard you’re trying,’” said Swenson. “And you don’t have to say anything else, and that might feel awkward. Or, ‘I like watching you live your life and go through this.’”

“People want to be seen. I think they want the authentic them, the vulnerable them to be seen, for other people to notice and to see their struggle, and to see their life and their successes and I think parents can do that to say, ‘I’m watching, and I see how hard you’re trying.’ Or, ‘You got this!’” said Swenson.

“If every person who had any interaction with a child throughout the day woke up every morning and said, ‘What am I doing today to deliberately and thoughtfully create a sense of safety, connection and confidence in the children in my life?’ I think we’d make a big dent in the problem,” said Swenson.

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Child Psychiatrist Shares The Best Ways For Parents To Get Their Kids To Open Up