Katie, 10, storms in the front door, slams her backpack down, and screams with frustration that she hates her teacher. Her father snaps back at her to calm down and not be so overdramatic. Matthew, 12, is increasingly passive, unwilling to invite friends over, preferring to play video games alone in the basement for hours at a time. His mother has asked him repeatedly what is the matter, but he always replies “nothing.” Justin and Julia, 8 year old twins, seem to bicker endlessly and rare moments of calm are usually broken by one or the other provoking the other. Their parents are always refereeing their fights, but neither child seems interested in resolving the issues. Maria, 13, is always leaving her wet towel on the family bathroom floor. Mom’s nagging her to not leave it there has no effect whatsoever.
Even the most loving parents can feel at times like they are talking to a brick wall instead of talking to their kids. Frustrated parents often try repeating themselves, explaining themselves at greater and greater length, and using louder and louder voices…but in response they see that their kids tune them out, ignore them, or yell back.
Now here is a revolutionary idea: being a better listener is the first step to getting your children to hear you. When children feel really heard, they are more willing and able to hear what the parent has to say.
I will be the first to agree that communicating with kids is not easy. For one thing, children often don’t know why they do what they do, or they can’t explain it in a way that makes it easy for parents to understand
Ironically, parents often do a bad job at communicating with their kids because they are trying too hard—and because what they are doing isn’t working. When parents try to get through to a kid by doing most of the talking (even when it is all in the child’s best interest), the kid is going to tune them out.
Communication between parents and children is the best bridge for exchanging love, concern, and assistance between both. Good family communication helps everyone feel more connected, more understood, more respected, and more encouraged. If you feel like your communication with your child too often leaves you feeling frustration, anger, or despair…imagine how your child must feel. If you think this happening too often, it is probably a good time to sharpen up your parenting communication skills.
Here are some of the common communication mistakes parents make, and suggestions on how to improve communication with your child:
- Discounting or ignoring feelings. Instead: respond to the feelings behind the words, name the feelings, and ask what might be sparking the feelings. “Wow, you sound really mad! Do you want to tell me more about it?”
- Asking or demanding information. Instead: invite the child to share information. “You seem kind of lonely or sad to me…I wonder if that is what is going on? Would you like to talk about it?”
- Taking over the child’s problems. Instead: keep the responsibility for problem solving with the child. Parents can offer guidance or suggestions without “taking over.” “You two are having a hard time sharing that sofa, can you come up with a plan that lets you both enjoy the family room at the same time? If you need any ideas, come see me.”
- Repeating the same message over and over again. Instead: say it once, and then act, “when I see your wet towel on the floor I will put it in the laundry room, you can go down there to get it when you need it next time.” This conveys that you are a trustworthy person who says what she means, and means what he says.
A woman in a parenting class I was teaching once told me that she and her siblings used to say to their parents, “Punish me if you have to, but not another lecture!” If you think talking with your kids has become more painful than useful, these tips will help you get back on the right track. Good parent-child communication, which is frequent, positive, and empathic, is essential for good relationships and has been shown to protect children from high-risk behaviors in adolescence as well. Not too mention, you’ll also have conversations where you both are actually listening to each other, instead of watching your children’s eyes glaze over while they wait for Mom or Dad to finish already.