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End One-Way, Dead-End Conversations Forever! How to Foster Great Communication with Your Children

“How was your day today, sweetheart?”  “Fine.”  What did you do at school?”  “Stuff.”  “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”  “No.”  “Okay.  See you at dinner time.”
This is an actual transcript of a conversation between one poor mom and her elementary school-aged son.  Okay, I admit it: it was a conversation I had with my own son.  It was one of those one-way only/dead-end conversations that petered out before it even began.  It was anything but informative and it left us both feeling cold.
Does this sound familiar?  I hear many parents lament the fact that their kids just don’t talk to them and they feel like they don’t know anything about their children’s lives.  This is a real problem.  Every childhood expert agrees that having a strong emotional/social connection with your children is absolutely key to growing strong, healthy people.
If you aren’t talking with your kids and teens – real, important, connection with a genuine exchange of ideas – you are running the risk of losing out on one of the greatest joys of being a parent.  In order to really know your children, you must have an open line of communication; and the earlier you start the better.  Recent studies show that the toddler who feels heard and connected grows up to be a teen who is willing to open up and communicate more.  This is important work.

Below, you will find some ideas about how to get that connection started and how to keep it nurtured.  I’ve broken them down into age groups, but reading through them all may spark some ideas for you.

Toddler & Preschool:
This age group can be a real challenge when it comes to communicating, but there are definitely ways to get these guys to open up.

  • Choose your timing.  A preschooler who has been with 15 other children for several hours will probably feel over-stimulated and overwhelmed. Don’t start interrogating him in the car on the way home!  Let him decompress and relax back into the energy of his home.  Maybe dinner time or bath time is a better choice.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers are physical beings.  Believe it or not, they actually listen and process better when they’re on the move.  Take a walk, do some yoga (preschoolers LOVE yoga!) or just sit and kick your feet together.  You may be surprised at how quickly she will open up emotionally and mentally when she’s physically engaged, too.
  • Ask leading questions.  “How was your day?” isn’t going to elicit much of a response from a toddler.  Instead, ask his teacher about his favorite activities and people and make sure that you have a basic understanding of how he spends his time at school.  Then you will be armed with the information you need to start a great conversation.  “Did you play with Sarah today?”  “I heard that you were working on a new puzzle today.  Tell me about it.”  “Who sat beside you at circle time today?”  “How did you feel when the butterflies were let loose today?”   These are all leading questions and statements and they are a great way to get your preschooler going.
  • Listen for and validate the feelings behind the words.  Preschoolers have amazing imaginations and they don’t yet understand the line between fact and fiction.  You may want to talk about her day, but she might be more interested in telling you a story.  This is a common tool that children use to process experiences in their own lives.  Listen to her story and try to find the emotions that lay beneath the surface.  Her story may just be the key you need to unlock the mystery of her day.

Elementary Ages:
Around the age of eight, children begin to do the dance of separation from their families.  Two steps forward, one step back and often a few side steps to keep us all on our toes.  Keeping the emotional connection as they physically separate is so important, both in terms of today’s emotional health and tomorrow’s ability to feel and process emotions in appropriate ways.  Here are some ideas:

  • Just like the preschoolers, asking leading questions can help these guys to open up – especially a question that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.  It can be a simple matter to email your child’s teacher and find out what’s going on in the classroom each week.  Keeping in touch with his teacher can also be an important signal to him that even though he may be more independent these days, he still has parents who will hold him accountable for his actions – and celebrate his successes!
  • Make the time, every day, to talk.  Even if it’s just a few minutes, she knows when the connection is there and that helps her to feel safe and empowered.  Don’t let a day go by without having a few minutes of one-on-one time.
  • Never shut down a topic of conversation.  You might need to reschedule a topic that he brings up, like when he asks about Santa Clause in line at the grocery store with other kids right behind him.  But make sure that if you can’t talk about something, you reschedule the conversation and follow through with it.  Having hard or emotional conversations now will make him feel like it’s safe for him to bring up difficult topics later.  I know that I particularly want my children to know that they can talk to their parents about absolutely anything.
  • Listen for the feelings behind the conversation and validate, validate, validate.  Learning how to handle their emotions can be difficult at this age as they step out of the safety of the home environment and meet challenges with peers, school work, sports and other activities.  It can be so hard to watch the struggle from the sidelines; but, listening for and validating her feelings will let her know that home is still a safe place to explore.  “It sounds like you were really mad when Julie took your place in line.”  “How did you feel when the teacher snapped at you in front of the whole class?”  “How does it make you feel to know that your picture was chosen for the hallway display?”  Not judging.  Just asking.

Pre-Teens and Teens:
Hopefully, by the time your kids are pre-teens, you’ve set the groundwork for great communication and they know that you are a safe sounding board for anything they need to talk about.  Even if this state of Utopia really does exist in your home, you may still experience some bumps along the way.  Check out these ideas:

  • Respect his space, emotionally and physically.  If he doesn’t want to talk, there’s no forcing it.  Let him know that you’re there and that he’s loved and appreciated.  At the same time, trust yourself.  If you really feel like he needs a push, push it.  You have to learn when to give and when to push.  Ah, the paradoxes of parenting!
  • Eavesdrop on conversations that she has with her friends in front of you – and even join in sometimes.  Becoming “one of the gang” is a great way for your child and her friends to learn to trust your judgment and discretion.  I had a friend in high school whose mom would sit around the kitchen table with us and talk about boys and school for hours.  She was the one we went to with our problems.  Become the parent that your child wants to talk to.
  • Keep your agreements.  It’s so easy to loose the respect and trust that we’ve gained over the years of parenting our children.  He is much more likely to remember and act on the one betrayal than the hundreds of supportive moments.  Keep his respect by keeping your word.  He will be much more open to your advice when he respects you.
  • Unconditional love and acceptance is key.  Your teen is not going to come to you with her problems if she’s afraid you will judge her.  Let her know that she is loved and accepted for who she is and she will be much more likely to share her struggles with you.
  • If you want him to be open about his process, be open with yours.  Trust him with your story and he’ll be much more likely to share his with you.  The best way to gain trust is to put your trust in others.

Remember to keep talking with your child.  Practice makes perfect and communication is definitely an art that requires practice and patience.  You will reap the rewards many times in the years to come.

by: Shelly Walker



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