10 Guidelines for Communicating with Your Kids
Many parents complain of talking to their kids “until they are blue in the face,” and often to no avail. You may feel that way yourself, and sometimes it applies to us all. There are definite ways to increase and optimize your child’s receptivity to what you say in almost any situation. Not only that, by using certain rules of communication, you can preserve and enhance your child’s self image while also being heard. Here’s my top 10 communication guidelines.
#1 Avoid Personal Jabs
Never, ever say something to your child that is derogatory. This means no comments that are assaultive to the sense of self. “You’re so lazy. You can’t do anything right. You’re a major screw-up. You’re just plain dumb. You were a mistake.” These are obvious ones, but watch out for the more subtle ones. “It takes you a long time to understand things.” “I love the way Justin makes friends.” (Justin is your son’s classmate, and your son is having trouble making friends.) “That girl is nice and thin. She looks great.” (Your daughter is chubby.) “Life was better before kids.”
You get the idea. Once you open the door to these kinds of statements, you lose your child’s respect, and you do damage to his self-image, which can last a lifetime. Words have power, and using them without thinking first about the long-term consequences has the potential for destruction.
You can always rephrase something in a way that is not personally damaging. “I’m noticing that you aren’t really applying yourself the way that I know you can. You seem to be having a problem with completing that task. Are you having trouble staying on top of things right now? Anything I can help with?” “I am feeling anxious right now about what’s going on with you. You aren’t doing well at school. What do you think the problem is?” “Are you having trouble making friends? Maybe I can help with that.” All of those statements are specific and point to behaviors. They do not insult, assault, denigrate, or hurt. They communicate concern, not criticism. Rule of thumb is to always focus on behaviors and stay away from personal commentaries. This will maintain your child’s receptivity to what you say over the long haul.
#2 Be Clear and Direct
Say what you really mean, and make sure you are understood. Speak on the level of the child, and ask them to repeat back what they think you have said to make sure that all is understood. Be patient with this process. Allow questions and differences of opinions, but don’t deviate if you feel strongly about what you are saying. Do not allow arguing. Negotiation can be used if the situation calls for it, and if your child is older or a teen. You always have the final decision and you can control the process of negotiation. Make sure your words are used to truly communicate, not evoke some sort of emotional reaction. Use I statements.
#3 Leave Off the Scorn
Avoid the use of scorn. This means do not make fun of, compete with, one-up, or dismiss. I see a lot parents competing with their kids. Sometimes they just seem to have forgotten they are the parent and get themselves on the level of the child. In some other cases, they seem to actually be envious or jealous of their children and need to assert their power. The second one is much more ominous than the first. Dismissiveness is also very damaging over time because it sends the message that the child is simply not important. Remember that you are your child’s ally, and act accordingly. If you want him to be receptive to you, show that you are on his side.
#4 Pay Attention
Pay attention when you are communicating. Look your child in the eyes when talking and avoid competing activities such as watching TV, looking at your cell phone, or sitting at your computer or in front of a tablet. You know that feeling when you are speaking with someone and they just continue to type on a keyboard while you are talking? That’s what you want to avoid. Stop what you’re doing and face your child, or ask them to give you a minute until you can do that.
#5 Listen More Than You Talk
Listen at least as much as you talk, and preferably more. Listening with interest and empathy are a must for successful communication. Talking at, talking over, lecturing or talking nonstop do not convey interest, and give your child no room to work through emotions or to say what’s really on their mind. Say less, listen more, and reflect back what you hear so your child will know you are with them. Read the article “Just Listen” to get the hang of this.
#6 Be Yourself
Be authentic. In other words, speak plainly and like yourself. Some parents have a different voice and whole different way of speaking to their children. I think the assumption is that this is a good thing. It’s not. Children feel the most connected to you when they know who you are, and what you say and do is congruent with who you are. When someone is real, it increases the sense of connection. That doesn’t mean you should go off on an angry rant, it just means be your real self while talking even if you are choosing your words carefully.
#7 Avoid Profanity
Some parents will disagree with this, and it is entirely up to you how you choose to express yourself to your children. The reason I think it’s best not to use profanity is that you are modeling how to communicate when you speak, no matter how young or old your children are. How you express yourself conveys to them many things including respect (or lack of), the capacity to use descriptive words to identify feelings, the capacity to think, and so forth. Profanity is often a short cut to really making good use of language and choosing words that most accurately express feelings. Some people will argue that profanity sometimes is the best choice to express a feeling. Maybe so, but more often than not, it is the lazy way out. What you model for your children is what you are sending them out into the world with to communicate to others. Profanity is not always an acceptable mode of communication.
#8 Allow Your Children to Express Their Opinions and Ideas
Some parents find it difficult to allow their children to express their opinions. They feel that it is giving in, or a challenge to their authority. It’s not. Parents always have the ultimate authority and if you really know this, you can allow your children to express ideas and opinions that are contrary to yours. Hear them out. If they make a good case, you can always revise your decisions. If they don’t, nothing is lost. You still make the decision you feel is best, but your children have had the experience of feeling important enough to be heard. Children who get to discuss things and voice opinions are more likely to learn how to think things through, as well as handle intense emotions.
#9 Express Anger Properly
Every parent gets angry with their kids. No way out of that one. Being angry at your kids is not a problem in and of itself. The problem arises when you handle it improperly. There are several ways you can go. If you are so angry that you feel you will blow up if you utter a word, then take a break. Say just that: “I am so angry I need to take a break before I talk about this.” Then leave the area and cool off before you come back. If you are not at the blow up point, then you can simply voice the feeling. “I am quite angry at you at the moment and this is why.” Then proceed to outline the situation, always focusing on the behavior and not the person. Use I statements. This is a really important point, because when any of us become angry at someone, the first impulse is to say, “You made me mad!“ It’s better to say, “When you did (name the action), I became angry,” and then proceed to say how the behavior affected you. It’s a subtle difference but a big one. Own your feelings, but make it clear what the problem is. Anytime you come at someone accusing and angry, they are most likely going to become angry themselves and start to defend. They hear the attack, not the content. You’ve had the experience yourself, I’m sure. You want the focus to be on the situation and what went wrong rather than on the anger. This is really important in terms of increasing your child’s receptivity to what you have to say.
#10 Make Time for Conversation that is Just Chit-Chat
Conversation translates to connection. Parents can do an excellent job of providing for and caring for their children, but if they don’t allow their kids to just chat with them, kids can still feel disconnected. Showing real interest is one of the most important aspects of making children feel loved and cared for. Conversation is one of the best methods of accomplishing this. Make time for conversation that is not about discipline, but is simply a platform for your child to tell you what’s going on in his or her world. Start this trend early on and continue it throughout adolescence and beyond. When you look back, you’ll realize that these are some of the most special and cherished moments in your experience as a parent.