Fostering Healthy Communication With Your Children
Anybody who knows me knows that I love to talk to my students. We have talked about everything from their favorite cereals and random facts about them to corporal punishment. These random conversations have really helped me to get to know my students. What’s most interesting is how most of the smaller topics we discuss often lead to larger discussions.
It was the day before a break and I anticipated a good portion of my students not coming to school, because that’s what they do the day before a break. I didn’t want to throw the whole day away, but instead decided to engage my students in conversation. As I often do, I started the class with a writing prompt. Well this particular day there were three. The prompts were:
I wish my teachers knew…
I wish my friends knew…
I wish my parents knew…
I used these prompts, particularly the last one, because I was asked to speak at a conference with mother’s and wanted to give them a picture of how their children may feel sometimes.
Below you will find some of their responses….
”That I don't act like myself around them. That I have anxiety. That I'm not some genius too be."
“How much was going on in my life outside of school so my mom would try and help me balance my life a little."
“That there's only one of me and I can't be everywhere at the same time."
“Their daughter has many secrets and she is too afraid to tell them because they aren't the most reliable and easiest to talk to."
“The amount of weight I have on my back, they don’t understand."
“How much I'm trying and I love them."
“Give personal space. Don't ask why we never say what bothers us or our problems because when we do they turn into a lecture and it just makes it worse."
“That I do my best to make them proud, I'd just wish you guys would listen to me more."
“That their little girl feels so pressured and exhausted."
As I read through some of my students' responses, my heart began to feel heavy. Looking at the kids in front of me, you would never know that they felt like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their emotions and thoughts are all bottled up and wrapped in bright eyes and a smile. But why is this the case? Why do children feel like they can’t talk to their parents or feel like their parents don’t hear or see them? As I continue to interact and engage in conversations with my students, I thought it could be helpful to share some of my thoughts on how to foster healthy communication with your children.
TRY TO SEE THE SITUATION THROUGH YOUR CHILD’S EYES
Before reacting to a situation or behavior, step into your child’s shoes for a moment, and try to understand the situation or problem from their point of view. I always hear kids say that their parents don’t understand them because they are “old” or “times are different.” But the reality is, while things are different now then when the parents were children, a lot of the feelings that the children have, the parents have felt before. We oftentimes forget that we too were young and dumb at some point, and have made bad decisions. We forget that even as adults we make mistakes and bad decisions. So sometimes it’s healthy to remember that and put yourselves in their shoes and ask yourself, when I was their age, what would you or your friends have done in that same situation?
SHARE PARTS OF YOU WITH THEM
Once you’re able to put yourself in their shoes, share some of your experiences with them. Share instances where you were put in situations where you decided to make the right decision and where your mind was at the time. Share any struggles you had with making the right decision vs a not so good decision. But don’t always share the good. Also share instances where you made the wrong, or a bad decision, and what you learned from it. Sharing your good and bad humanizes you to your children. It helps them to see that while your experiences may have been different from theirs, you do understand the feelings they have. It also helps them to see that they don’t have to be perfect and that everyone makes bad decisions at times. The important part is that they learn from it regardless of whether they did the right or wrong thing at the time.
UNDERSTAND THE POWER OF THE TONGUE
How you talk to your child will show up in how they communicate with people in their everyday lives. Parenting is hard and finding balance in work and home-life can be the most difficult thing. I remember having a conversation with one of my students regarding how I noticed her responding when she gets frustrated. As we talked more and more she began to share that she was just frustrated that day because she had gotten into an argument with her mother right before coming to school. She began to share that her mother had just come home from working overnight and was rushing her to get ready so that she could be dropped off at school. She shared that she felt like her mother was always yelling at her. She understood that her mom was working really hard to make sure her and her siblings were provided for, and maybe she was tired and overwhelmed, but didn’t feel the yelling and attitude was necessary. I shared that to say, while she didn’t like how her mother would talk or react to her, she began to exhibit those same behaviors. She was repeating exactly what she heard and/or experienced.
I remember also calling a parent about their child’s language in the classroom. I shared what I was experiencing followed by the parent putting me on hold and yelling to the child, “___________ get your stupid ass in here. Why the f*** your teacher calling me telling me you’re cursing in class?” And then it all made sense. There is power in the tongue. How you communicate with your child will show up in how your child learns to communicate.
PROVIDE A SAFE SPACE WHERE THEY ARE ABLE TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES, RESPECTFULLY, WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE
Oftentimes, children want to talk to their parents about things they experience and are dealing with in their lives but are afraid of how their parents will react or respond. Letting them know, and showing them, that you are a safe space for them makes them comfortable opening up. This doesn’t mean you can’t address poor decisions but addressing those decisions should lead to them understanding the wrong and intending to be intentional about not making the decision again. Accountability should come in the form of conversation and be restorative, not always punitive in these cases.
FIND BALANCE IN YOUR COMMUNICATION
Children tend to put up a wall when the majority of the reasons for communication are negative. Find time to have conversation with your children when they aren’t in trouble or being reprimanded. I think back to when my daughter was younger and I would ask her about her day. She would be so focused on being able to use her iPad after school that she didn’t want to be bothered with talking to me. It hurt my little feelings. So I decided I was going to create a space where we were going to talk everyday about her day and anything else, before she could use the iPad. Now a few years later, she comes home ready to tell me about the good and bad about her day and holds me accountable if I’m not mentally present when she is sharing.
RESPECT THEIR PERSPECTIVE, EVEN IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH IT
The reality is, there will always be an age gap between you and your children. So, oftentimes perspectives and expectations won’t align. As parents, we need to still allow space where we can hear our children and their perspective. If children, and even adults, feel as if someone is dismissive of their thoughts and feelings, they will stop sharing them. Children suppressing their feelings and emotions can lead to anxiety, depression and toxic behaviors.
WALK INTO HARD CONVERSATIONS WITH A DESIRED OUTCOME
Ideally when addressing poor behavior or decisions you want the result of the conversation to be changed behavior. If your intention is for the behavior to change, you have to walk in being intentional about the language that you use so that the message is received. Ask yourself, what do I need to say and how do I say it so that it doesn’t come off as an attack. You must remember that the attack is on the behavior and not the person(child.)
BREAK THE NECESSARY GENERATIONAL PATTERNS
As parents we really are doing the best we can with what we know and the tools we have. Just like we say with children, behaviors are learned and as a result we often repeat what we have seen our parents do. But the reality is, just because your parents did it, and you turned out “alright” doesn’t mean it was healthy or right. We have to make the decision to do and be better and break unhealthy generational patterns. We want our children to be whole and mentally healthy and alright just isn’t and shouldn’t be enough.
AVOID SHAMING; RATHER FOCUS ON THE EFFECTS OF THE BEHAVIOR
In education there is a term we refer to as Restorative Justice and it encompasses the idea that instead of focusing on the act itself and giving out punitive punishments, we should focus on the harm caused by the behavior. Nobody reacts well to being shamed. Emotions are relatable and when we focus on how a child's actions affect others, it is easier for them to internalize the effects and move away from such behaviors.
For example: Your child’s teacher reaches out to you because your child was disruptive in class and kept calling out curse words. (I know we will all say, “My child would never..” but humor me for the purposes of getting my point across.) One route you can go is the punitive route: taking toys, early bedtime, popping your child…. Etc. The other route includes having real life conversation on the effects their outbursts had on the class:
The teacher was not able to get through the lesson therefore students missed out on learning.
Offending their peers and/or teacher with the use of inappropriate language.
Disrespecting the class as a whole and the environment of respect that was created.
Know that there is also a difference between shaming a child and expressing disappointment in their behavior. Because we set expectations for our children, it is ok to express your disappointment in behaviors that don’t align with those expectations. The goal is to focus more on the harm the behavior caused rather than the behavior itself.
Parenting isn’t an easy job, and I wholeheartedly believe we do the best we can to raise healthy children who will be a productive part of society. I believe in order to do that we must create healthy relationships with our children, where they feel comfortable being open in communication with us. Hopefully these tools will assist you in your journey towards healthy communication with your children.
Feel free to leave any comments or thoughts in the comments section below.