Just Don't Ask, 'How Was Your Day?'

05/08/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

When I speak to groups of parents, this is #1 on my list of Five Things Not to Say to Your Stressed-out Kid. Invariably, a sea of sheepishly smiling faces looks back at me. This makes perfect sense; what mother hasn't greeted children or teens with this simple question as they returned home from school? And what's so bad about asking kids how their day was, anyway? As a mother as well as a psychologist, I have to admit I was taken aback when students in my school workshops first clued me in. Since then, I've confirmed that this sentiment is universal. Whenever I ask what students what they'd most like their mothers and fathers to learn from my parent talks scheduled for later that evening, no matter where I am around the country what I hear is: "Tell them to stop asking, 'How was your day?'"

Here are some reasons why you might want to honor that request:

1. Kids have to be "on" (and on their best behavior) for seven to eight hours straight. It's no wonder they often arrive home exhausted. Asking how their day was is tantamount to the teacher calling on them -- yet again. Many feel too tired or unmotivated to talk or explain anything -- at least not right away. In general, if you're looking to have a good conversation with kids, catch them at a good time. Not when they're tired and cranky.

2. The older they get, the more complicated it becomes to answer that question. By the tween years, if not before, the school day is usually shaped just as much by social demands and goings-on as by academics. And tests matter more. Until kids get a chance to sit quietly for a moment and reflect, they may not even know how to respond. That's why they loathe a whole barrage of questions or an "interrogation" as soon as they walk in.

3. If they happen to have had a "bad" day, students are usually not eager to get into why as soon as they come through the door -- or ever. Although some may want to spill immediately, others need space first. They want to process what's going on in their own heads before they feel ready to deal with their parents' reactions.

4. Particularly stressed kids often become defensive if they imagine there's a subtext to your question. When you ask, "How was your day?" for example, what they may hear is, "How did you do on that math test?" If you son sighs or your daughter gives you that look, you might wonder what's causing them to bristle.

5. Similarly, it's often not what you say, but how you say it, that triggers reactions in your kids. So if they sense any underlying anxiety in your voice as you ask, "How was your day?" it'll send their own stress straight through the roof.

6. Lastly, if what you're looking for is a meaningful exchange with your kids, "How was your day?" is not at all your best opener. It's a question that invites monosyllabic replies such as "Fine," and in fact cuts off further conversation like a tourniquet.

So what do I recommend instead? Thanks to the students who generously shared their wishes, here are some ideas:

1. Smile warmly and say hi or just wave hello. Especially as they get older, kids appreciate the quietude. It might even encourage them to initiate the conversation.

2. Say, "Why don't you go relax?" This empathic comment tells them you realize they've been working hard all day to pay attention and do their work in school. You care more about how they're feeling now than what happened while they were there.

3. If there is something you're eager to discuss, you can add "Let me know when you're ready to talk."

4. Offer a snack. Not only does food say you love them, but also energizes them after school and might make them a bit more open to having a discussion.

5. Be available, but not hovering or pressuring. In other words, do your own thing until they seek you out to talk. Then they'd like your undivided attention.

When you stop asking, "How was your day?" as soon as your kids walk through the door, you're more interested in being attuned to their feelings than satisfying your pressing need to know something. From what students tell me, this will be much appreciated. You might even be modeling how they can use self-restraint in similar situations. But regardless, respecting their wishes will undoubtedly deposit goodwill in the reserves of your parent-child relationship -- and that's always a good thing.