Kids don't just come up to a parent and say things like "I know you want me to get A's in school and I have a chance to cheat on the test; what should I do?" or "I'm bulimic." Parents have to earn that kind of trust. How? You're being tested! If they can trust you with the little stuff, they'll come to you with the big stuff.
Listen to your little ones when they want to tell you all the boring details of their day. The ins and outs of the preschool playground may not rivet you, but communication habits start early. Do you listen when she prattles on interminably about her second grade friends, even when you have more important things to think about? Then she's more likely to tell you about her interactions with boys when she's fourteen.
It's hard to pay attention when you're rushing to pick up food for dinner and get home, but if you aren't really listening, two things happen. You miss an opportunity to learn about and teach your child, and she learns that you don't really listen so there's not much point in talking.
Train yourself to listen and not over-react. Kids are afraid they'll create an even bigger problem by talking with their parents. Prove they can trust you to support them without losing your cool when they're being bullied on the playground and you'll get to hear about the boys in their crowd shoplifting when they're a few years older. How? In tough moments, breathe. Listen. Get yourself calm before you even open your mouth. When you do, start from the assumption that your child will have definite ideas about how to solve this problem, and with your support, can sort out some solutions.
Start small. When your kids are little, start talking about the hard things, from special circumstances like being a single parent or Grandpa's alcoholism, to the conversations that unnerve most parents, like sex. If you breathe and act natural, and keep your references short and matter of fact, sooner or later you'll feel natural, and your kids will be comfortable building on those discussions to ask questions and talk about their own feelings. Research shows that kids in families that tackle tough issues early are more likely to consult their parents as teens.
Dr. Laura Markham