As parents we spend so much of our time talking to our kids — and then wonder why they don’t seem to hear us. In heated moments, we find ourselves stuck in power struggles, but can’t figure out what to say to stop the fighting. Sometimes we just don’t know how to answer a tough question. Talking With Kids!
Why can talking with kids be so hard? “The basic challenge is that parents very often speak without understanding how their children receive the message,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain. “We often make an assumption that our kids understand. But then we wonder, ‘Why didn’t they do what I said?'”
While many parent – child conversations can lead to misunderstandings, becoming an effective communicator is not only possible – it can even be fun! In this guide you will find practical ways to communicate effectively with kids of any age, using words they can hear and techniques that make sense. The information is based on successful strategies that parents and experts (many of them parents themselves) have used with kids.
Remember: There is no script to memorize or order you have to follow. Think of these easy-to-employ ideas as tools you can pull out when you need them to help you and your child understand each other. And keep in mind that there are important times when NOT talking at all may be your best option.
Spend Time Listening
Take a break and listen to your child. Specific actions — like making eye contact, kneeling down to your child’s level and even tilting your head-show your child you are listening. They also help YOU stop and really listen. If you can’t talk at that moment, you might say, “Let’s talk in a few minutes; I’m in the middle of something.”
Repeat what you heard. It’s often useful to restate what you heard and put your child’s feelings into words. You might say, “You wanted a turn on the swing right now, didn’t you?” or, “You seem sad about going to day care today.” These reflective statements acknowledge and give words to your child’s feelings. However, do this carefully. If a child is in the middle of a tantrum, saying “You’re really mad and out of control!” may aggravate the situation rather than help it.
Ask specific questions to gather more information. You might say, “Can you tell me exactly what happened?” If it makes sense to talk some more, you might ask, “What upset you the most?” Follow-up questions both acknowledge your child’s feelings and get her talking about them. And they help you gather more information, so you can better understand what actually happened and how your child is thinking about it.
Consider Your Child’s Opinion
See the situation through your child’s eyes. You know how you feel when your boss or partner says, “That’s ridiculous,” or insists you really like something you know you hate? Kids feel the same way when parents say, “You don’t really mean that,” or “I can’t believe you said that!”
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. In response to your child’s statement, you might simply say, “I’m glad to know that,” or “I understand.” At times, this acknowledgement is all your child needs to hear.
Try not to contradict your child’s statement immediately, even if you think he’s wrong. Hear him out before saying no. If your child says, “I don’t want to go to school anymore,” instead of saying “You have to go,” you might ask, “What’s the worst thing about it?”
Listen to your child’s request without judging or correcting it. Good teachers give a child a chance to explain himself first, even if he’s wrong. The same technique works at home.
Pause and Think Out Loud (Before You Say No)
Give yourself a moment to think about what your child is asking. Even if your final answer will still be “No,” you might say, “Let me think about what you’re saying for a minute and get back to you.” Pause to consider your child’s question. This forces you to slow down and helps you not to make a snap judgment, even if the answer is, “No, we are not getting a bunny.” Pausing makes your child feel heard, because you have stopped to consider her opinion; it also diminishes the chances of a power struggle.
Share your thinking out loud. Your children will enjoy being included in your thought processes. If your child asks for a sleep over, you might say, “I know you want a sleep over, but your grandmother may want to see you this weekend when she visits. Let me talk to her.” In this way your child knows how you arrive at your decision.
Accept the Feelings
Allow your child’s negative feelings to come out, even if they are hard to take. Simply being there, without saying much, may soothe and comfort your child. Sometimes you just need to wait it out until the feeling is expressed. Avoid attacking your child’s character. If your child acts out, instead of saying, “Bad girl, how dare you speak to me that way,” you might say, “That kind of language is not OK.” In this way, you are separating the behavior from the child. You don’t want to imply that your child is intrinsically bad, or make her ashamed of her feelings.
Tell your child how her behavior makes you feel. “Don’t hide your feelings,” advises John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. “In fact, your feelings may be the best form of discipline, as long as they are not used to attack your child.” You might express the depth of your emotions with phrases such as, “I am very disappointed in what you did,” or, “It makes me sad that you lied to me.”
Tell your child how you feel about yourself. In this way, your child knows you have feelings and learns how to express her own. You might say, “I had a bad day at work today, I’m in a crummy mood,” or, “I blew it. I’m sorry I made a mistake.” Be aware that if you spend too much time talking about how you feel, your child may feel overwhelmed (or bored) by your level of emotion. On the other hand, if you never articulate your feelings, your child may not feel permission to articulate her own.
Imagine Solutions Together
Grant in fantasy what you can’t give in reality. If your child badly wants something that he can’t have, encourage him to imagine what he wants — and talk about it. You might say, “What would you do if we could stop the car right now?” or, “I bet you wish Mommy was here right now. What would you want to do with her?” (And then, stand in for Mommy and do it, if the request is reasonable and possible.)
Ask a child what he wants to happen or would like to change. If your child complains about something specific, you might ask him to suggest some improvements. For example, if he says, “I hate music class because Mr. Block is so mean,” you might first ask, “What’s the meanest thing Mr. Block did?” Then, follow up and ask, “What do you wish your teacher had done instead?”
Use dialogue to find solutions. By first letting your child vent negative feelings, and then asking him to imagine a different scenario, you are encouraging him not only to discuss the problem, but to become part of the solution.
Use humor — but not at your child’s expense. Not every conflict needs to be resolved through serious discussion. Sometimes humor is the best way out. You might say, “Ouch, that hurts!” instead of “Don’t talk to me that way, young man!” Rather than “Clean your room now!” you might say, “This place is a like a biology lab! I don’t see mold yet, but it’ll start growing soon!”
Try a playful approach, not a critical one. If you’re struggling over what your preschooler should wear, try, “Let’s see what you can put on your doll and then find something like that for you.” You could joke with your school-age child about “how dumb I am” instead of criticizing him for criticizing you. You could even suggest ten minutes of your child’s favorite activity before getting down to homework.
Focus on the positive before bringing up the negative. For example, if your child pulls a practical joke that makes a mess, you might say, “Clever. Ingenious. Now clean it up.” If he brings home a test with mistakes, first comment on what he got right before discussing what he got wrong.
Admit your mistakes. Ask your child for help in figuring out what to do. Kids love to hear parents admit they were wrong. You might say, “Am I making a mess of this? Should we try to figure it out a different way?”
Tell a funny story about yourself as a child. Most kids love to hear stories about their parents growing up. You might tackle a tough topic by describing what happened to you in a similar situation when you were a kid. However, don’t turn all conversations into stories about you. Constantly saying, “I know how you feel, let me tell you what happened to me,” may annoy more than amuse.
Remember – You’re Talking to a Kid
Remember that you are bigger than your child — so get on her level. Imagine what it feels like to look up at someone every time you speak or to try to catch someone’s attention from floor level. To help your child hear you, get down where she is and make eye contact. This sends a signal that you are listening and that you care what she’s thinking.
Offer limited choices. Choices give kids a sense of power and control. Instead of saying, “Time to get dressed,” you might say, “Do you want the red shirt or the blue one?” Offer two choices, not five or six. You might say, “Do you want peas or green beans?” or “Do you want to brush your teeth first or comb your hair?”
Speak as simply as possible. A one-sentence answer may be much more effective than a long explanation. Children are often satisfied with a simple, direct answer that addresses their main concern. A lengthy explanation may confuse or bore your child.
Write notes. Sometimes older kids respond better to a written note than to a verbal nag. You might post this note: “Please write down here what time you will be home!” Or, “Today is room-cleaning day.” Some kids may enjoy writing lists and charts themselves as a way of solving problems with you.
Listen to Yourself Talk
Listen to your tone instead of your words. At times, it’s not what say, but the way you say it that makes an impact. Kids sense what their parents are feeling. Often, they are not listening to your words so much as looking at your face and reacting to the tone of your voice.
Talk to your child as though you’re composing a song. “Parent-child communication is composed of both music and lyrics,” comments Michael Thompson. “When someone listens to music, he may focus on either the melody or on the lyrics. Children are always listening to the melody (or tone) of a parent’s voice. Unfortunately, we, the parents, are often paying more attention to our lyrics.”
Listen to yourself from your child’s perspective. If you feel a conflict brewing, ask yourself, “Would I like to be spoken to this way?” If you don’t like the way you sound, ask yourself, “Am I mad about something without realizing it?”
Ask Real Questions
Avoid leading questions. Questions that include an answer, such as, “Don’t you want to change your clothes before we leave?” or, “Wouldn’t you like to apologize to your sister now?” are really orders, not queries. These questions are likely to provoke a sullen response, or a plain old “NO.”
Instead, ask valid questions. Questions such as “What you do you like (or hate) most about school right now?” will produce real answers. A real question about food might be, “You haven’t been eating much lunch lately, what would you like to have today?” In comparison, a leading question on the same topic would be, “You know you like peanut butter, don’t you want some?”
Avoid general questions. Whether you have a preschooler or a preteen, well-meaning but general questions such as “How was school?” often produce only one-word answers, such as “good,” “bad” or “OK.” General questions often lead to dead-end conversations.
Instead, ask specific questions to inspire productive conversations. Refer to something that happened recently, such as, “Is Spanish class getting any easier?” These questions work because they draw on your child’s unique experience and therefore elicit specific responses.
Talking About Tough Topics
Find out what your child knows already. If your child asks you a difficult question (about sex, death, politics, etc.), you might simply ask, “What have you heard?” This allows your child to tell you what she understands — or misunderstands — and perhaps what concerns are prompting her question.
Keep your answers simple. Give answers that are appropriate for your child’s age. One simple sentence may be enough. Underneath a child’s question, she may be worried about her safety, so offer reassurance. You might describe the different ways she is safe and say, “The policeman is there to protect us,” or, “The flight attendant is showing us how to stay safe on the airplane.”
Ask more questions. For example, if your child asks you about people being injured on the news, you might say, “I feel sad those people got hurt. How do you feel?” Talk again. Be prepared for children to ask the same question many times. This means they are continuing to think about the issue and may need more information. You might save some information for later discussions.
Don’t Discuss Everything
Don’t turn a statement into a question. Instead of saying, “It’s time to leave the playground in five minutes, OK?” simply say, “We’re leaving in five minutes.” Don’t ask for your child’s permission. However, you might want to briefly explain your logic, remembering that an explanation is not the same as a negotiation.
Offer choices only when there really is a choice. Be clear about negotiable and non-negotiable situations. If your child refuses to go to school, you might say, “I know you don’t feel like going to school today. We still have to leave in ten minutes.”
Don’t let discussions go on too long. If there really is no choice about the outcome, too much talking just postpones the inevitable. If need be, walk away from your child or get involved in some other activity.
Source: PBS Parents
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