By Jody Johnston Pawel
Imagine this scene: A neighbor is at your house, visiting over a cup of tea. You start feeling irritated and pressured when you realize you are running late for an appointment. What would you say to your neighbor? Imagine the same situation, except it’s your child at the breakfast table. How would it change your response? Is it possible that you might respond in a more disrespectful way?
Even when irritated or impatient, we often make the effort to listen and communicate with friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers with more respect than we give our own children. Most parents would say they value the relationships with their children yet, because of their emotional involvement, find it difficult to communicate respectfully with them at times.
Quality family relationships are becoming increasingly important in our society. With pressures and issues like drugs and sex, which children are facing today, the need for open communication and positive family relationships is vital. Today’s children also face dangers not known of in the past. Children are being taught not to blindly obey an adult’s requests if it could be a safety risk. As a result, adults are no longer perceived as infallible and children are encouraged to think/decide for themselves and be more assertive than children in previous generations.
Most parents want their children to feel free to talk to them, yet don’t always know how they can foster this type of relationship. It helps if parents can remember that communication involves proper timing and both talking and listening. When children have a problem, their parents’ efforts at “listening” often result, instead, in lecturing and offering advice. Unsolicited advice provides little opportunity for children to share their feelings and can result in children becoming reliant on others’ influence. In turn, these children may develop inadequate decision-making skills as they mature.
Contemporary child-rearing authorities agree that there is a direct connection between how children feel and how they behave. Parents can help children feel encouraged by accepting their feelings. This is not to say parents have to agree with these feelings. Acceptance means a willingness to allow children to be individuals with preferences and opinions of their own.
Most parents can be very accepting about most of the feelings their children have, unless they say something that makes the parent angry, anxious, or uncomfortable. It is common for parents to then revert to old habits and become defensive. Effective listening involves a respectful attitude, concentration, eye contact, and an effort to stop and think about when to be silent and when/how to respond. A simple nod or word of acknowledgment will let a child know you are listening. When listening, avoid probing questions like “why?” These questions shift the focus from feelings to analyzing and children may interpret it as a denial of their feelings. Instead, tune into the feelings, then put the feeling word into a sentence. This will show that you understand and accept how the child feels. Children of all ages learn how to identify their feelings and solve their own problems when parents help give their feelings a name.
Sometimes children will express their negative emotions in inappropriate ways, such as tantrums or yelling. Parents can allow children to feel angry but share specifics about how they can express their anger in acceptable ways. Help them generate ideas for constructive, physical ways to express their anger (i.e., drawing or a punching bag).
When parents have negative feelings or want more cooperation from their child, they also need to respectfully express themselves. Instead of ordering and nagging, focus on the problem without blaming and give children a chance to decide for themselves what actions they need to take. An effective and simple way to get a child’s attention is to say one word (i.e., “Milk!”). Just make sure your tone of voice is non-blameful and don’t use children’s names alone or they will associate their names with being in trouble. Another tool is to simply describe what you see (i.e., “I see dirty dishes on the kitchen table”) or give information they can use for later reference (i.e., “When milk is left out it will spoil”). Writing notes and using humor or fantasy are creative and fun ways to express both positive and negative feelings.
Finally, here are some tips to encourage your efforts at improving your family’s communication skills. Be authentic with your emotions and wording without blaming the other person. Have the courage to be imperfect — there are no perfect parents. New habits take at least twenty-one days of practice to establish and it is common for children to test parents during this time.
Positive, open communication is only one area that parents can address to improve their effectiveness as parents. Through reading and attending parenting classes, parents can learn how to foster loving, respectful family relationships.
Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop. For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series.