Improving Communication With Kids
"Mom, please listen! You are always interrupting. I just want you to listen to what I have to say."
These words stung. They stung because they were true. My 10-year-old daughter was telling me I needed to listen. Ironically, before having children I was a psychologist and spent my days actively listening. Yet now my oldest child was telling me I was not practicing the most basic of communication skills. Yikes!
We all have busy lives. Sometimes it is hard to know where the time goes in our day. We make breakfast, prepare snacks and lunches, take the kids to school, go to work, run errands, clean the house, do the laundry, walk the dog, exercise, go to the grocery store, pick up the kids from school, help with homework, fix dinner, feed the dog – these are just a few of our daily chores. If you have children who are not yet school age, you may be even busier. Days often feel like a whirlwind, but when your daughter (or son) gives you a clear-cut message that you are not hearing her, it is time to stop, look and listen!
No matter what age they are, kids need to know what they say is important. They need to know they can come to us and we are there for them to listen, understand and reflect. We want our children to feel they can share with us whether it is something exciting, difficult, embarrassing, sad, frustrating – we want them to be able to talk with us about anything.
Dr. William L. Coleman, professor of pediatrics at the Center for Development and Learning at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Family Focused Behavioral Pediatrics (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001) fears that kids today are "rushed to grow up too fast." He says that there is media and peer pressure to be cool and distant from parents.
Dr. Coleman also refers to the "electronic fragmentation of the family" as a phenomenon that is occurring in our households and negatively impacting family communication. "Houses are wired to keep us awake and separate from each other," he says. Children have open access to computers, televisions, cell phones, text messages, iPods. Dr. Coleman advocates that parents not only limit this electronic distancing but also structure family time during the days. "No one talks," he says. Some families eat dinner while watching TV and many others don't even eat together. Time pressures within the days may make getting together as a family even more difficult. Basic communication is just not happening and won't occur unless parents and children spend more time together.
Spending time together, positively communicating and listening to your child becomes even more and more important in the preteen years as children are moving into adolescence, a time when issues (such as body image, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, sexuality) become more complex. Your child is more likely to confide in you during this major developmental time in her life if she has found communication to be open and non-judgmental during her preteen years.
If it is possible, stop what you are doing and give your full attention to your child when she is trying to communicate with you. If you are in the middle of something and cannot address the issue at that time, let your child know what she says is important and you will be able to give her your full attention as soon as you finish. You may even want to give her a time, "I'll be finished up here in 20 minutes; let's talk then."
One simple way to convey your interest is through eye contact. Look directly at your child and be sure to keep your attention entirely on her. We are often easily distracted by things going on around us – other children running through the house, the phone ringing, the television set. Sometimes we are so busy that it may seem more effective to talk as you are doing another task. Try to focus your whole attention on your child instead.
Listen as your child talks. Don't judge, criticize, argue, lecture or interrupt. Try to reflect and understand her feelings. Be aware of your own facial expressions. Remain neutral and open as she speaks. Respect her opinions. Encourage her sharing. You may not agree with what she is saying, but you can accept and acknowledge her feelings and help her to label her emotions.
Spend one-on-one time with your preteen. Go on walks together, work in the garden, go to the grocery store or run other errands together. Talk ... and, more important, listen to your child. One-on-one time gives your child the opportunity to share, confide, trust and develop her self-confidence.
These listening skills are basic and simple and they are skills we all possess. Sometimes they are hard to remember. When your child is asking for your attention and all the world around you seems to be in a busy blur, take a deep breath, then stop, look and listen. Your child will truly appreciate it and your relationship will grow stronger as a result.