"Relate" is the root word of relationship. In order to relate, we must be good communicators. Yet, poor communication between parents and their children is still one of the biggest complaints I hear about in my family counselling practice.
Isn't it ironic that we learn to start talking by 18 – 24 months, but we are never formally taught effective communication? Unless your own parents were highly skilled and modelled good communication (a rarity, I might add), you probably never learned one of life's most critical skills.
Isn't it ironic that we learn to start talking by 18 – 24 months, but we are never formally taught effective communication?
Well, it's never too late to learn! Here are six tips for those of us who missed the early training. Try tackling these to help improve your communication abilities with the kiddos.
Listen more, talk less
Parents are especially guilty of over-talking because we underestimate what our kids know and how much they can contribute to a conversation. We get very excited about teaching them and giving them instructions, but we don't ask what they know, think, or have an opinion about.
The next time you are planning a weekend away, ask your kids for some ideas of where they would like to go or what they would like to see and do. When your child has a bad day at school and you want them to open up and tell you about it, just listen and offer a free space for them to speak. If we interrupt with interrogating questions, or try to solve their problems for them, we inadvertently clam them up.
The important part of listening to our children is to help them express their feelings and to make them feel understood.
The important part of listening to our children is to help them express their feelings and to make them feel understood. If they are upset they did poorly on a test, your focus should be on expressing empathy towards their feelings of disappointment, not reprimanding them for not studying enough. Empathy and validation of their feelings is good listening. How they want to handle their next test can be discussed later.
Mean what you say
Besides talking less, think about the content of your speech. Kids tune us out and ignore us when we spend too much time pestering them. In fact, you'd be surprised to learn that our kids usually do make their beds, and the lunch box does eventually come out of the backpack, if we bite our tongue.
If you nag them to make their bed but then go make it for them, you are proving to them that your words are empty and meaningless. If you threaten to cancel the family trip if the kids don't stop fighting in the car, but you just keep driving, you might as well throw your words out the window. Think cautiously before you speak and know you can follow through on anything you say.
Be friendly and respectful
Isn't that a simple rule for speaking to a fellow human being? Yet, we often talk down to our children.
Fellow parenting author Barbara Coloroso suggests that you ask yourself, "Would I talk to my friend this way?" So much communication would improve if we just made this one change! Instead, we fall into the habits that relationship experts Julie and John Gottman call "The 4 horsemen of the relationship apocalypse" which are: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stone walling.
Sarcasm isn't a form of humour, it's a form of criticism and contempt and has no place in child rearing.
These communication styles rip deep at the relationship. They diminish the worthiness of our children and ultimately hurts their self-esteem. For those of you who don't know, sarcasm isn't a form of humour, it's a form of criticism and contempt and has no place in child rearing.
Watch your tone and body language
We all know that we communicate a lot with our body language (the exact percentage is up for debate). So, you might say to your child that you are not mad at them, but if your voice is gruff, your jaw taught, and your hands are on your hips, they are likely reading all the other clues that clearly state you are mad.
Children learn more from behaviour than words, so pay attention to what you are saying with your posture, tone, inflection, etc. Rolling your eyeballs is a non-verbal sign of contempt, and hands on your hips are tantamount to putting your dukes up.
Always have your kids' back
Assume your children are good people and in the right. You might suffer some confirmation bias that your eldest is always the one who picks on their little sister, but you don't know for sure. Instead of close-minded assumption and categorical statements like "You always" or "You never," try to remain open-minded.
Speak only to this specific situation and make your point about those facts only. This is especially important when communicating with children who still have dualistic thinking. They either believe you are for them, or against them.
If your child is in some altercation, take the stance that your assumption is that they are good and you have their back, always. They need to know there is no situation so difficult that they can't come to you and that you can't work it out together.
Start by saying "Thank you for telling me — that took a lot of courage" and continue with, "I know you're a good kid, so if you ended up in the principal's office today, something must have been amiss for you. Help me understand."
If your child is in some altercation, take the stance that your assumption is that they are good and you have their back, always.
Children make mistakes. A lot of them. In fact, it's how they learn! If we show them our positive expectations for their behaviour and keep a focus on what they've learned and what they will do differently next time, we avoid being punitive and attacking their character.
Talk in private
"Yes, I am talking to you like a child because you are acting like a child!" screamed the mother at the mall to her teenage daughter. GULP. Nothing is more embarrassing than being corrected or given a talking-to in public.
It doesn't matter if you're surrounded by strangers or your friends, kids need to be asked to step aside for some privacy for such discussions. In fact, you don't always have to talk to your children immediately about all issues. If your daughter was late bringing the car back from the mall, you can simply let her know that you'd like to discuss the matter later when her friends are gone. Or, you can say nothing at all, but request a time to talk when you know you will have her full attention.
Interrupting studying for a test the next day, or barging into their rooms when there is only four minutes left of "Grey's Anatomy" is probably not the best time for having an engaged dialogue with your teen. Make an appointment to talk. Sometimes going out for coffee or lunch adds a little gravitas to conversation and keeps everyone on topic longer.
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