From ‘would you rather?’ to 'desert island books': 10 conversation starters for children and teenagers

Danielle Graph

Nothing kills a conversation faster than the death knell of a generic question. Asking a child or teenager “how are you?” can often be met with a standard “fine” as a response. That noise you hear? It’s the door slamming shut on your discussion.

According to a YouGov survey of more than 3,000 British parents commissioned by ITV for their Britain Get Talking mental health campaign, 40% of parents agreed that it was difficult to find time to have a proper conversation with their children, with one third of all parents with children and teens living at home admitting they don’t get one on one time with their children every day.

But at a time when the number of children between five and 15 diagnosed with emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression) has risen by 48%, being willing to reach out and start a conversation is more than a matter of just being polite – it may genuinely have an impact on your child’s mental wellbeing.

So whatever the situation, don’t be stuck for a way in – get talking with these cracking starters …

Just for fun

You don’t have to kick things off on a serious note. In fact, some of our most valuable interactions come from having a laugh – lightening the mood can really help some people to open up and discuss how they’re feeling in greater depth. Why not try one of these openers?

If you were stuck on a desert island …
… and could have only one book, one album, and one meal forevermore, what would you choose and why? It’s the perfect gateway question to discovering a person’s favourite things, and then, of course, debating why they might be terrible or actually rather marvellous.

If you won £10m, how would you spend it?
What’s it going to be then? A fleet of sports cars? A private chef for life? Multiple trips to space on board a Virgin Galactic? All of the above? This one is great for stretching your imagination (in line with an imaginary bank balance).

Related: Kindness, belonging and conversation: how to help kids open up about their feelings

Would you rather? …
This one is an endless source of amusement for every age. Kids particularly love grim options, such as “Would you rather be covered in fur or covered in scales?” Or “Would you rather be pelted with fish guts or horse poo?” These types of questions are a great way of winning over even the shyest of children.

If you could go back in a time machine, where would you go and what would you do?
You might want to change the course of political history, head into the distant past to see how the pyramids were really built, or check out a T-Rex in the flesh. The possibilities are fascinating and endless.

Which super power would you have and why?
Of course the answer is the power of flight. Or is it invisibility? Or teleportation? Or the ability to read minds – which would be terribly helpful to cat owners. Or would it be to have arms that can turn into giant crab pincers?

Help others to open up

Of course, there are times to have fun and times to try to reach out to those around you in a more considered way. It may be that your child has been unusually withdrawn, or that you’re aware that something isn’t right but haven’t been able to find the right words to open up a discussion with them. Here are a few options to try.

How would you describe yourself in five words?
This question can be a great way in for understanding how a person is feeling about themselves, and if they’re in a good place or having a hard time . Positive responses usually mean a positive outlook, while negative answers can help you glean a deeper understanding of what they’re struggling with.

Tell me three things about your day
Unlike the classic “how was your day?” this question shows you have a real interest in the answer, and will prompt a more detailed, considered response that could potentially spark an important conversation.

What was the hardest part of your day, and why?
This might prove tricky to answer, but it can be a really useful question to ask if you feel that your child is in some kind of distress. By helping them pinpoint the most difficult part of their day, you might be able to unlock a broader discussion about how they’re feeling, and why.

What are you thankful for today, and why?
It may seem counterintuitive – especially if you’re in a hard place – but gratitude exercises can play an important role in improving mental wellbeing. Helping your child to pinpoint things they are thankful for every day, even if it’s just one or two small things, can help them lift their mood and gain some perspective.

Is there anything that you need from me? Space, time to talk, time to do something fun? …
Even if you manage to get them to open up, as a parent or carer, it can sometimes be hard to know how to best support a child or teenager who is having a hard time. If you find yourself in that situation, one of the best things you can do is ask them outright. This clear, open conversation starter even gives them some possible options for how to respond.

And one last thing …
These suggestions are all here to help you break the ice, possibly start a debate or score a laugh, but most importantly, connect on a deeper level. So get out there and get talking!

Britain Get Talking
To find out more about ITV’s Britain Get Talking campaign, run in collaboration with mental health charities Mind, YoungMinds and SAMH, visit itv.com/britaingettalking or stv.tv/britaingettalking