Communication is a vital skill that empowers children to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs effectively. As parents, we play a crucial role in nurturing this skill and creating a safe environment for our children to open up and share their thoughts. Nurturing this skill also promotes secure attachment, the foundation for healthy relationships in life. Evergreen Psychotherapy Center explains that communication is the key to secure attachment because sharing and understanding emotional information enables us to feel deeply connected. Drawing insights from the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, I present five effective strategies to increase meaningful communication.
1. Be Fully Present: One of the most powerful aspects of communication is not conveyed through words, but rather through body language. When your child speaks, give them your undivided attention. Turn your body to face your child, maintain eye contact, and lean in toward your child. If you attempt to listen while reading a book, looking at a device, watching TV, or scrolling through your phone, your child will feel that you are not really interested in what they are saying. Instead, show your interest with your whole body.
2. Paraphrase & Reflect Back: A powerful way to demonstrate that you are listening is to summarize what your child said and repeat back key words. Try to reflect (repeat back) with the same inflection and tone that your child is speaking with. Imagine you are a mirror reflecting their words back to them. Listening involves seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind the words being said. With this skill, you can seek confirmation that you understand what your child is saying. If you get something wrong, be patient with yourself. If your child corrects you, that is a win because you gain more insight into what your child is trying to communicate.
3. Validate Feelings: Creating a safe environment is the key to getting your child to speak openly about their thoughts, feelings, and what is happening in their lives with their peers. The fear of judgment keeps children from talking. A simple comment such as “It’s not that bad” or “that’s not something to be sad about” can make a child feel judged and question the emotions they feel. Instead, notice the child’s body language, tone of voice, and the context of a situation to verbalize to your child the emotion they appear to be feeling. It is important to use an emotion word. For example, I would imagine that hurt your feelings. Or I can see how that made you angry and you felt it was unfair. Validation does not mean you agree with how your child feels, but that you understand how they feel. As a parent, it is helpful to become aware of the emotions you have a hard time acknowledging or accepting. It may be hard for you to accept that one child is jealous of another child getting gifts on their birthday. Our logical adult brains may try to explain how birthdays work and that the child will get gifts when it is their birthday. However, a better approach is to recognize that “you wish you could have gifts too and have your friends over. It does not seem fair.” Over time the child will learn to accept this feeling of jealousy and work through it knowing their parents understood how they actually felt. It’s important that parents don’t feel the need to “fix it” by getting a gift or making promises to the child.
4. Avoid Questions & Advice: As parents, we want to protect our children from everything, including challenges. Sometimes, trying to help, give advice, or asking too many questions can come across as oversimplifying the child’s situation or placing blame on the child. Also, children need opportunities to solve age-appropriate problems. Otherwise, when they are 19, they will not have any idea or confidence in their ability to solve problems as a young adult. Secondly, parents often use questions to maintain dialogue. You will find there is more productive dialogue when you repeat back and validate feelings. Your child will volunteer more information when they feel you are listening and understanding instead of telling them how they should feel or could feel. Remember, your child’s feelings are not a critique of your ability to provide and protect, and it is not always necessary for you to jump in and try to fix the situation.
5. Engage in Shared Activities: Spending individual time with your child daily can encourage your child to talk to you more. Spending at least 15 minutes of time with your child doing an activity that they enjoy and avoiding video games will do wonders. This shows your child you are genuinely interested in enjoying your relationship rather than the business of managing a family. When your child can see you in a playful relaxed mode, they will feel that you want to hear what is in their heart. Try to schedule this time. For example, in the morning before school, after dinner, or right before bed. When you have multiple children, it is important to honor your individual relationship with each child and schedule time with each child a few times a week rather than daily.
Effective communication is a lifelong skill that begins in childhood. By implementing these strategies inspired by “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk,” you can create an environment where you know how your child thinks, what they feel, and what is happening with their peers. Your child will feel valued and understood. In the long-term, they will learn to manage difficult emotions that we all feel. Most importantly, you will have a deeper connection and a stronger parent-child relationship. For more information, read “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” by John Gottman.