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Listen first, speak second: Communicating with your children

Communicating well with your children is a process that starts early and continues into adulthood. Discover eight great communication pointers for parents and children.

Your children want to communicate with you. Communicating is how, as human beings, we make connections. It’s how we learn, how we grow, how we become a part of the world. As their parent, you are the one person they will want to share this journey with. “We all need someone who understands,” says infant specialist Magda Gerber.

… children’s ability to communicate is being put under pressure, and that now is the time to start developing communication habits and skills that will last a lifetime.

But over time we can sometimes lose this connection, and it often happens at a moment when it’s most important to be able to hear what your children have to say. In an increasingly digital world, experts warn that children’s ability to communicate is being put under pressure, and that now is the time to start developing communication habits and skills that will last a lifetime. Parenting and childrearing expert Ron Taffel talks about what he calls “the second family” — peer group, pop culture and the internet — and says that now, more than ever, we must be able to support our children in this challenging world. “Knowing specifics about preschool through to high-school dramas, fears or worries makes a profound difference in being an authoritative parent who can guide kids through an increasingly tough academic and social world,” he told Time magazine recently.

Child psychologist Shelja Sen agrees, saying that “In today’s time, when people can’t stop talking to each other in the real or digital world, our ability to communicate and listen is getting lost.” In a judgemental culture, says Sen, we are too quick to worry about behaviour or wrongdoing, jumping quickly to criticise and admonish, without looking deeper into the “why”. As we rush to guide our children in the world, to fix their problems and make their choices for them, we spend less time understanding their feelings and more time telling them how they should behave. But in doing this, we learn nothing about our children; we merely impart our own perceived wisdom. We do not communicate, but rather deliver a series of one-sided lectures, day after day after day.

“If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them, it has always been the big stuff.” ~ Catherine M Wallace

Being able to communicate with your children means not only them listening to you — but also you listening to them. There are lots of ways you can ensure your children feel connected enough to share the details of their lives with you, from picking your moments to empathising and leading by example. Crucially, it’s all about being open and interested, being generous with your time and allowing children the space to speak. “We should listen, not with our ears, but with our hearts,” says Sen. “Strong relationships are built on strong communication.”

These are some of the best ways you can ensure the lines of communication start with openness and continue to flow freely.

Start well

Even before children can speak, they are communicating. As adults we have become so reliant on language that we forget how to read the important cues and signals that toddlers and small children are giving us all the time — but we can start communicating with them from the very early days. When your children are babies, it is really important to talk to them as you go about your day, telling them what you’re doing, where you’re going, what is happening now. “Can I pick you up now?” or “We’re getting in the car now.” It is a simple step that can introduce a shared sense of communication early on. When you do this, you might think you’re doing and saying simple things, but to a child this is their whole world, and so you are talking about things that matter very much to them. More importantly, you’re also showing your child that you care about what they need and feel, and that you know they can be a part of the conversation. “What you are saying is: ‘We believe you are capable of communicating with us, and we will do our best to understand you’,” says child expert Janet Lansbury. “Only we can open this door and wholeheartedly welcome our baby’s communication.”

Let them speak

As your baby grows into a toddler and starts to find language, continue to respect the importance of communication. As they start to chatter, reflect the structure of day-to-day conversation with them, show them the give and take of communication by responding to their babble in a considered and authentic way. “Are you talking about the rain? Yes, it is very loud.” “I know, that was a big dog that just walked past. I saw it too.” Talk to them about meaningful things — and slow down. If they want to talk about a blue ball for 10 minutes, talk about it. Don’t be quick to correct them either; instead join the conversation with them and model the right phrase or sentence for them.

Find a way they can learn from what you’re saying, and then find parallels in their own lives.

It’s also really important to allow the space for sharing the bigger emotions, however uncomfortable it can sometimes be. Don’t be quick to shush a crying or shouting child; sometimes this is the only way they know how to express their feelings, and it is better that they feel safe sharing this with you, than remaining quiet. Try to articulate their feelings for them, in a way that doesn’t belittle their emotion, but gives them a word for it and makes them feel understood. “You must be very angry he took your toy. You feel cross. You wanted to play with it. I understand. I can see how frustrated you are.” Not only does this show a child that you care deeply about how they feel, and that you understand them, but you are also showing them that it’s OK to share their feelings with you. This will be so valuable as they grow up.

Practice makes perfect

As your children get bigger, it’s a great idea to get into the habit of “practising” conversations with your children. Ask them what they’d like to do at the weekend, what they thought about a recent project they worked on at school or a recent film they watched. Ask questions, what did they think worked well, what could have been improved, what didn’t they like, and respond fully to their answers, considering their insights and offering some of your own. By discussing a safe, unemotive subject, you’re getting them used to the habit of sharing their opinions, thoughts and worries with you, in a way that seems unthreatening and positive. In turn, they’re seeing that you’re fully engaged in talking to them and that communicating with you is a natural easy part of their day.

Pick your moments

Often the best chats happen when we least expect them to. Sitting down to have a heart-to-heart might start with good intentions, but the expectation on both parent and child is huge. Instead, keep in mind things you might want to discuss and look for natural, simple moments to bring them up. In the car, walking home from the shops, on the way to swimming classes, during the bedtime routine and so on. After school is often a time when many children need to process the events of the day, and it can be a good time to learn what is troubling or occupying them, while other children might find the weekends are when they are in a sharing mood. It often helps if you are both focused on something to take the pressure off the topic being discussed — pick an activity to do together: baking, gardening, walking the dog, hanging up the laundry, something simple and ordinary that creates a comfortable, shared experience. And be ever ready: your child might need to talk when you are not expecting it; try to find the space to have the conversation then if you can, or acknowledge that it is important and set a clear time to carry on the conversation if you cannot do so then. Also, remember that everyone has different ways they like to communicate, and this includes your children. They might like to talk a whole subject out, asking questions, talking around the topic, troubleshooting ideas. Or they might like time to digest a new thought, and then come back to you later; these conversations may have to take place over several days.

Be interested, be detailed

Children do need undivided attention, but they don’t need it all the time. If you can commit 10 or 15 minutes of time to really be present in a conversation, actively listening, the communication between you both will be much better. Make a real commitment that this won’t be a time for telling off or recriminations, but a time for letting your child speak and really connecting with what they say. Get involved in their stories, even if they don’t seem interesting to you — be shocked or surprised if they are, laugh at what is meant to be funny, empathise with what is touching or kind. And ask questions that let the story unfold. “What did they say? Did it work? What happened then?” These help your child feel heard and show you are genuinely interested in what they are telling you. Ron Teffel uses a great example: “Pay attention to the superficial. ‘You lost quarters under the vending machine. What year were they?’ often leads to the real scoop. ‘I was at the vending machine because I didn’t think anyone would talk to me at lunch.’” Children will reveal the truth of their lives in the most trivial of moments; it might take time to get there, but it will be time well spent.

Don’t tell, ask

It’s very easy as your children grow up to want to jump in with solutions or criticisms. If they share a problem about a friend at school, you might think it sounds trivial or silly, or that they’ve misread the situation. There is a time for going through these things, but first you must be sure to respect the importance of this moment for them. Shelpa Sen says: “We are constantly telling our children: speak like this, work like this, do this — as if we know everything and they know nothing. It’s always a one-sided lecture.” Instead of lecturing your nervous daughter about her part in the school play, ask her: “Why do you think you’re anxious about it? Can I help? Did you want to play a different part?” If you can ask questions first and tackle the problem from a position of being together, your children will truly feel that a problem shared is a problem halved. “When we question children with love, peace and respect, they feel like we are trying to understand them and that we trust them. This builds their self-esteem towards thinking and doing something new,” adds Sen.

Talk about you

If you want your kids to talk about themselves, you have to lead by example and talk about yourself. Starting off the conversation talking about your day is a great way to create a safe platform for children to communicate. Don’t ask them how school was, tell them about a problem you overcame at work, or how you were frustrated with a colleague, or a project you finally completed at home. Find a way they can learn from what you’re saying, and then find parallels in their own lives. Equally, it’s important to remind both your children and yourself that all the mistakes they’ve made, you’ve probably made first. Empathise with the challenges they face, show that you understand because you’ve been there too, and that you have come through the other side of it. Share these experiences with them by sharing what learning you took from these incidents or mistakes.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson

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