Long drives are the ideal time to dive into deeper, more sensitive topics where you won’t be interrupted. If you only have a 5- or 10-minute drive together, keep the conversation light and upbeat. Ask about their day and what plans they may have for the weekend.
“The last thing you want is to start a conversation that you don’t get to finish because you have arrived at your destination,” says Mary Masellis, lead psychologist at the Queen Creek Unified School District in Queen Creek, Arizona. “I think it’s also important to have intermittent discussions—so not every car ride, nor the whole time during one ride. When picking up your kids from school, realize they may need a few minutes of downtime.”
Avoid beginning the conversation by scolding them for failing their math test or lecturing them about how they always leave the kitchen a mess. Using an angry or judgmental tone will quickly shut down any meaningful conversation with your child. Instead, try using the same tone of voice and attitude you would use when talking to a good friend. If you bring up the math grade or messy kitchen, maintain a calm voice and ask for your child’s thoughts on how to solve the problem and then brainstorm together.
“Listen to what your kids are saying and allow them to explain without judgment,” says Masellis. “If you maintain your composure and keep your emotions in check, kids will usually follow suit.”
Ask open-ended questions and make it a two-way conversation. Bombarding your child with too many questions can feel like a tense FBI interrogation. Allow natural breaks in the conversation and don’t push too hard. If your child is giving you monosyllabic answers, share an amusing or interesting story from your day. Laughter and humor are powerful ways to break down barriers.
If your teen usually pulls out his phone and plugs in his earbuds the moment he slides into the passenger seat, ask him to play his music on the car stereo, so you can both enjoy it. Listening to your teen’s music can be an easy way to stimulate conversation.
“Ask them about what the artist is singing about,” suggests Masellis. “I find this to be the best conversation starter in the car. I learn about what social issues they care about through the music they listen to.”
The fastest way to cut off communication is to insist that they put away their phone or turn off their music. If their electronic devices are getting in the way of talking to them, express how much you value the one-on-one time you have together. Kids will be more receptive if you adopt a warm, open attitude and make requests, not demands.
Driving your kids to sports practices, music lessons and birthday parties can seem like a chore, but it’s actually a built-in opportunity to spend quality time together with few distractions. Use this time to discuss the critical topics that affect their health and wellbeing—relationships, sex, drugs and body image issues—using age-appropriate language. If you develop this habit early on, talking about these sensitive topics will seem natural and uneventful as they move into those trying teen years.
Before you know it, they will be in the driver’s seat, heading down the road without you, and those daily car rides together will be a distant sweet memory.
By // Angela Ambrose