Developing healthy communication habits with your child goes far beyond just “getting answers” when you ask questions. Your goal is ultimately to build a relationship with them, not just to interrogate them!
That’s why for many parents, it’s frustrating and worrying when their children don’t seem to open up about their feelings much. Your kids might be able to talk at length about their favourite game or TV show, you might see them constantly messaging their friends to chat… Yet when you ask them about their day, you get the standard “Uhh it was okay. Normal.”
Today, we’re going to share 3 tips to build strong communication habits with your child. We’re using the word habit to emphasise the fact that these are practices carried out repeatedly, over time, to cultivate permanence. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s never too late to start!
If your child doesn’t talk about their fears or hopes...
If your child tends to give a one-syllable response when you ask about their day…
If the extent of their sharing is “Ughhhh I just don’t like it”...
You are not alone! And your child isn’t either. The above behaviours are typical of children who are unable or in the process of learning to express their feelings.
Your child is not just being stubborn, angsty, defiant, or rude! Their feelings are there below the surface, but they’re not sure how to express them properly.
Let’s take “my child is unable, not unwilling” as our starting point in order to dismantle any ideas of opposition and resistance. This is not Parent vs. Child, in an epic battle to squeeze the truth out of your child!
Rather, it’s Parent Helping Child: a journey to listen to your child and help them express their emotions.
Kids do what you do, not what you say!
In the same way that your children first learned how to speak by listening to you talk and copying the sounds heard, they also learn how to express their feelings and thoughts by observing how you do it.
Ask yourself: Do you share about the high points and low points of your day? Do you use specific adjectives to describe your emotions while speaking to your kids? When you feel stressed, tired, or overwhelmed, what do you say about it to (or in front of) your kids?
Your child will feel more comfortable and ‘normal’ sharing about their struggles and hopes if they have heard you do it first.
Here’s an idea of how to get started:
A “parental agenda” is defined by Dr John Gottman as “a goal based on a particular problem the parent has identified as interfering with the child's best interests”. For example, your agenda might be to get your child to pack their bag every night, or write down their homework, or stop using their phone.
While it’s okay for you to have expectations or rules for your child’s behaviour, when you are too focused on correcting their behaviour, your agenda interferes with your ability to truly listen to your child. And when you’re not listening genuinely or open-mindedly, it’s much harder for your child to open up.
The “objective” you have for a conversation with your child will inevitably set the tone for it. It creates the environment within which your child can or cannot open up comfortably. Your tone of voice, the questions you ask, and how you respond to your child are affected by your agenda, and they affect your child’s ability to share.
If it helps, remind yourself that there is a time and a place for every conversation. There is a time to make a plan with your child about their homework, but don’t let that interfere with the time to have a connected and loving chat about their feelings.
You can be clear about your concerns, while still dedicating time to listening to your child’s interests. For example:
Just like learning to speak a new language, learning to put our otherwise invisible feelings into words can take time. Your child is on that journey.
Learning how to set aside your parental agenda and how to create a safe space for your child to express themselves are also skills that take practice. You are on that journey, and we are with you every step of the way!