The “unreachable” children: They just need someone to reach them where they are. Here’s how to do it.

I used to stay after school for about 30 minutes to wrap up, finish grading, and get things ready for the next morning. There were always students that would stop by my room after that last bell to talk. If you are a teacher, you know there are a few certain faces that when you see them, they have arrived because they just need to talk and feel that someone is listening.

For me, these few students weren’t the extroverted or brown-nosing type. In fact, I would say they were more introverted and nervous about being heard. But something about our relationship made them feel that they could come to me and feel important and cared for. They wanted to stop by and spend more time at school with their high school history teacher rather than head home for the day. 

These were the “unreachable children”. Not only had someone been able to reach them, but they now knew what that felt like and they wanted more. 

The parent-child relationship is certainly different from the teacher-student relationship, but the tools and tactics used to connect to that “unreachable” child are in many ways the same. 

The unreachable child isn’t always that way because they don’t want to talk; many times it’s simply because no one has figured out the ways to really connect with them in a way that makes them feel engaged. 

If you want to create an environment where you can get the quiet child to open up, there are some very simple steps you can take to increase that possibility and build a relationship that encourages it.

  • Make time: Let the child know that you have free time to talk or just listen. In the car, make a no-device rule, turn off the radio, and just start a conversation. At home, sit down next to them when they are grabbing a snack or call them out to the front porch with you. Show them that you have time for them

  • Give them eye contact: This seems so obvious, but I doubt most of us do it as much as we think we may. Do you look up from the screen? Do you take an extra step and put it somewhere away from you? Do you look up from the laundry, from the television show, at dinner? If you have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with your child, don’t waste it by giving your eye contact to something else. Make direct eye contact which communicates trust.

  • Lead with a compliment: This will immediately make the child feel happy and appreciated and they will be more willing to stay tuned into what you are saying. Be aware of what they have been excited about lately. Notice the thing at which they’ve been working hard. “I saw you working hard studying for that quiz, tell me how you felt when you saw the quiz in class.” “I’ve noticed you helping clean up after dinner. I really appreciate that. Do you have any ideas for how I can help you?” 

  • Let them know you are interested: If they are nervous about a test, tell them a story about a time you were nervous about something and the lesson you learned. If they love a certain activity, sit down and participate in it with them. Rebound for them on the driveway, draw a picture with them, let them show you how to play their instrument. Then, just talk and listen.

  • Ask open-ended questions: As a parent, one-word answers can be very frustrating, especially from the “unreachable” child. Give them freedom to share with you and to feel like the communicating comes easily. Instead of “How was your day” that inevitably leads to “fine”, try “tell me about how you helped a classmate today.” Or “What today made you think, ‘wow, that’s crazy!’” Carefully craft your questions so that they will lead to more.

We live in a world where we are constantly competing with distractions most often found in the form of a screen or over-scheduling or just busyness. If we are not closely monitoring and setting limits on these distractions, that child that seems a little more “unreachable” will find more reasons to remain closed up. 

And when we are conscious of the time that we do have together, it is crucial that we use it wisely for making connections that matter, dig deeper, and grow our relationships. 

Everyone wants a reason to open up and have someone listen to them who genuinely cares. If you can implement some or all of the simple tips above, communication will flow more naturally and you will create an environment of trust even with the child who doesn’t prefer to open up. The key is commitment and consistency.

Whether in the classroom or the family room, when you make the effort to communicate that you truly care, and give all the proper verbal and non-verbal cues to support that, it WILL make a lasting difference. Because today’s words matter tomorrow.

Jennifer Zumbiel