As parents, we love our children and want to do the best for them. At times, however, the pressures of living every day create stress and distractions for all of us. We can easily fall into communication habits that are not effective, especially when we need to discipline our children or teenagers, or to talk with them about sensitive issues.
If we can talk with our kids more effectively - if we can find ways to understand them better and get them to really hear what we are trying to say - then we can work together to create more peaceful and satisfying relationships.
So how do we change those communication habits that aren't working for us?
First we need to understand what is not working.
Let's look at five of the most common mistakes parents make in trying to talk with their children. We say "trying," because these mistakes actually create barriers to good communication.
Mistake #1: Poor Environment
By this we mean conditions around you that interfere with communication.
The first is a lack of privacy. If you need to talk with your child or teenager about something important - especially a sensitive issue - it is important to create an environment in which your child feels safe enough to open up. If other people are present, you may get denials, protests and other defensive behaviors that help your child to "save face."
Equally important are distractions that pull your attention away from the conversation. These can be such things as other people or pets, noises such as a television, or your own mental focus on other things while you are having the conversation.
Create The Ideal Environment for a Conversation:
We know there are times when it is appropriate to speak with your child even if all the above conditions are present. If a young child is misbehaving, for instance, it is important to give him immediate feedback that his behavior is not acceptable. At times when you need to have a real conversation, however, you may want to consider these guidelines:
1. Choose a quiet place where you can have privacy.
2. Choose a time that is comfortable for both of you (not just as you are getting home, feeling all the stresses of the day).
3. Be sure to remove external distractions, such as television and telephones.
4. Avoid times when either of you is mentally distracted. That means not the night before your child has a test or when you are working on a project with a close deadline.
5. Perhaps most important is YOUR ability to focus on your child, without thinking about something you need to do or something upsetting that happened during the day.
This conversation MUST engage your full attention. You will communicate more effectively and your child will get the message that he is important to you.
Mistake # 2: Talking Too Much and Not Listening Enough
Now here is an idea that may seem radical to some parents: Many times, what you have to say to your child is not as important as what your child has to say to you.
Why is that?
Your child has important information to share with you - about what happened, what led to it, what she was thinking and feeling, how she is feeling now - just for starters.
You cannot possibly help her if you don't know what is going on with her.
Another important reason not to do most of the talking is that people open up when they feel they are being heard, but they shut down when they feel they are being lectured to.
So, listening benefits everyone. You get more information about your child and she feels acknowledged and appreciated. As a result, not only will you communicate better, but the relationship will feel a lot better to both of you.
Seek First to Understand:
To help your child open up:
1. Ask inviting questions. These are questions that show an interest in her, such as:
- "Tell me what happened."
- "What would you like to do?"
- "What do you think?"
- "How did that work out for you?"
- "How did you feel?"
2. Then be sure to REALLY listen, with the intention of understanding what is going on with your child.
3. Be aware of your child's emotional energy. Is she sad, frustrated, angry, depressed, optimistic, excited, peaceful, agitated?? If you take time to observe, you will sense how she's feeling. It's okay to say something like, "You seem sad today. Did something happen that made you sad?"
Whether she tells you or not, it's good to let her know that you want to help and you're there for her when she feels like talking about it.
4. When you do talk, ALWAYS start by affirming your child.
Tell her that you appreciate her or acknowledge something you admire about her. Help her to feel that she is important to you - just the way she is already.
It is important that your child knows that you love her without conditions. Let her know that she does not need to do certain things or be a certain way to earn your love. She needs the security of knowing that your love is a constant in her life.
5. If you do need to correct your child, do it in a way that supports her learning and growing. Ask questions such as:
- "How did that work for you?"
- "How do you feel about that?"
- "How do you think (the other person involved) felt?"
- "What could you do next time so it would work out better for everyone?"
6. Let your child contribute to the solution. When you invite her to share her ideas, you may be surprised at the wisdom she brings to the situation.
Mistake # 3: Criticizing, Blaming, and Labeling
Let's be very clear about this one. Not only does repeated criticism cause deep emotional and psychological scars, scientific evidence suggests that it actually causes alterations in the child's brain.
That alone is reason enough not to use this approach with our children. But just in case we need another reason, it simply doesn't get us what we want. Most people shut down when they feel they are being attacked, so real communication isn't possible.
If our goal, as parents, is to help our children to become responsible, happy, successful adults, then they need to feel good about themselves.
As parents, we are, for many years, the most important influence on our children. They take what we say very seriously.
Children who are often put-down develop a negative idea of who they are, and that will play out in everything they think and do. In fact, our children often BECOME the labels we put on them.
Look for Ways to Build Your Child Up:
1. When you begin a conversation, especially one that is difficult or sensitive, be sure to say something positive first. That sets the tone for what follows. It tells your child that you value and appreciate him.
2. Do not, under any circumstances, use words that put your child down. If you find yourself falling into that pattern, ask yourself if that is the way you want your child to show up every day.
3. Pay special attention whenever you use the word "you." Be sure to follow it with words that build him up, and remind him of the positive things that you see in him.
4. Allow your child to experience the "natural consequences" of his behavior. Every decision has certain results that occur naturally. By allowing that process to play out, you allow your child to learn what works and what doesn't.
5. Then as a parent, you are not the "heavy," but rather, your child's teacher, life coach, supporter. That allows you to affirm him and encourage him. Then you can help him use the experience to learn more about himself and his world, and how to participate in a way that works for him and the people around him.
Mistake # 4: Disregarding Your Child's Ideas
Children of all ages need to have some say in what happens to them. They also need to feel understood, especially by their parents.
When these two conditions exist, your children are much more likely to let you know what is happening in their lives, to cooperate with you and to participate in your family.
Now let us be clear. We are not advocating letting your children run your household. But we have observed that many parents are battling daily with their children over unimportant issues, such as clothing and hair styles. This causes unnecessary tension in your home and can be exhausting.
Children have good ideas and they have personal preferences. When they are allowed some choices and encouraged to contribute to family discussions about issues that affect them, they learn how to make good decisions, develop a positive self-image and become more responsible. Everybody wins.
Include Your Child at Every Opportunity:
1. Give your child choices whenever possible, in ways that are appropriate to her age and ability.
Even a very young child can choose between two outfits you selected. An older child can choose her clothing for school from the whole closet full. And yes, those wild hairstyles that teenagers like may seem odd to you - even ugly - but it is a harmless way for your child to claim her individuality. That is part of the process of becoming an adult.
2. Ask for your child's ideas whenever possible - not just about superficial things, but also when making family decisions.
You will be surprised at how much wisdom she has - even at an early age. You will also notice that when you listen to her ideas, she will cooperate with you more and .contribute more to your family.
3. Let go of your need to control him.
We don't mean that you should allow your child to behave in inappropriate ways or have no limits. But the next time you are about to have a battle with him, you might ask yourself if this is an issue about his safety or well-being or a moral decision. If it is not, then ask yourself what harm could come from allowing him to try it his way.
When your child is allowed to make some of his own decisions, he is in the process of becoming a responsible adult. Isn't that what you want for him?
4. Include her in problem-solving.
You will be amazed at how creative she can be. We all see things differently, and you may find that your child's perspective was just the answer you were looking for.
5. Have regular family meetings.
If you are not already doing it, we encourage you to meet with your family on a regular basis, and invite everyone's ideas about issues such as chores, family rules and where to go for a family outing. When families sit down together to talk about issues that affect all of them, everyone feels like part of the team.
Mistake # 5: Communicating When Angry or Frustrated
This may be the most important issue of all.
Whenever you talk with your child, your feelings set the tone of that conversation, no matter what words you use.
When you are angry or frustrated with your child, he FEELS that energy and receives the message it carries, even before you speak.
We have all experienced this. Have you ever entered a room and immediately felt uncomfortable. Sometimes people say, "the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife." Well children are very good at picking up those invisible energies that swirl around us, and they respond to our unspoken messages.
If you are angry, it will trigger a response in your child - perhaps anger in return, perhaps defensive denials, perhaps total shut-down. In any case, it will set up serious barriers to communication. Whatever you wanted to say will likely get lost in the process.
Bring Inviting, Welcoming Energy to Every Conversation.
This creates the possibility of a real, meaningful conversation, rather than just a confrontation. Your child is more likely to tell you what is going on with him, and you will be more able to hear from him without your own pre-judgments getting in the way.
As a result, you will be more likely to understand the situation, so you can work together to reach a positive resolution.
How Can You Create Welcoming, Inviting Energy?
Before you interact with your child, it is important to shift your energy from the anger and frustration. This is easier if you are alone and in a quiet place. Driving home from work is a good time to do this.
1. First, get in your heart. Stop focusing on the things that caused your anger, and shift your attention to things about your child that you appreciate.
2. Connect with the love you already have for your child. Remember times when love welled up within you - perhaps the day he was born. Perhaps a time when you were enjoying each other and it felt good to be together. Allow yourself to FEEL the love.
3. Bring that love energy into your conversation. Your child will feel it and will be more likely to respond by letting down defenses and being more open. Then you can have a real, meaningful conversation.
Best of all, being together will FEEL GOOD. Isn't that what you want for your family?
Pat and Larry Downing have many years of experience counseling teenagers and their parents, conducting family mediations and leading workshops and support groups. They are authors of the e-Book, "Feel Good Parenting: How to Use the Power of Your Heart to Create an Extraordinary Relationship with Your Child."
For more information on how to create relationships that are peaceful, harmonious, cooperative and joyful, you may go to go to http://www.feelgoodparenting.com to sign up for a free e-Course and a free e-zine for parents.
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