A Parent's Guide to Open Communication
For many parents, the experience of raising children can easily turn from an idealized dream of Halloween costumes, lunch boxes, first dates and prom pictures into a battlefield of miscommunication and misunderstanding that leaves both children and parents emotionally scarred. In this type of environment, each attempt by parents to connect with their children is like walking through a minefield. Every step carries the potential of detonating an explosion of conflict and aggression. The result of this type of family dynamic is often a numbing exhaustion that permeates every aspect of family and personal life.
A sense of hopelessness is common when a gulf in communication exists between parents and children. A belief, steeped in resentment, that things will never be any different can keep families from seeing ways that respect and understanding can be restored. With the right tools, applicable knowledge and commitment, parents can shift their relationships with their children from adversarial to respectful. By creating a space where parents and children can hear each other in an open accepting environment the entire family can come together, reconnect and grow.
One of the best ways to start is by looking at the world that kids are living in. As much as one might sometimes question their choices, kids are the experts on their world. They have a common language that they share with friends, a set of intense likes and dislikes, and a way of looking at the world that is unique to themselves. The goal for parents is to approach that world with respect and learn to understand how things can affect a child in both positive and negative ways. But the question is how do parents step into that world when the doors are often slammed in their faces? One of the most common paths of communication breakdown in families begins with one simple question routinely asked by parents: "What did you do today?" and the frustrating answer offered by children: "Nothing".
A way to pry open the door and initiate a more productive dialogue is to find out what the phrase Nothing means to a kid. Ask questions like, "Does Nothing mean there are no words to describe what happened today or does it mean that you don't want to talk about it right now?" With younger children it can be effective to personify Nothing. " Tell me more about Nothing. What color is it? What kind of music does Nothing like to listen to? Does Nothing get bored at school or does it like being there?"
With older children, the exploration might delve into how much time Nothing seems to dominate their lives. " Wow, it seems like Nothing is really powerful. Do you ever feel like Nothing is stronger than you?" Each child is unique and parents will discover much about a child's communication style by remaining curious during the process and listening to each response. By using their own creativity coupled with their knowledge of their children, parents can learn more about this character, Nothing, and the power it has over their children's experience of the world.
If a parent is able to penetrate the wall of Nothing, then it is likely that pathways into other conversations can be opened up. If the dialogue creates an opportunity to learn more about a child's day, then it is important to follow that path. If the child thinks the whole idea is stupid, then following that trail can lead to further discoveries. " If this way of talking is stupid, can you think of a better way"? Persisting through the communication gap can yield great rewards on both sides if parents and children can manage to find a common ground.
It is important to realize that in these conversations, parents need to respect the needs of their children, while at the same time earning that respect in return. When children take the time to talk about the challenges of their day, a tremendous opportunity is being presented. By being curious, interested and attentive, parents can learn a great deal about how their children see the world and themselves from the way they describe their experiences and interactions.
It's important for parents to listen to the words their children use and not to pretend they understand a phrase or word if they don't. If a child says something that makes no sense or uses vernacular that parents are not familiar with, it's important to ask them to clarify. Finding a word or phrase that both parents and children understand builds a bridge of understanding and shows children that their parents have the potential to comprehend their challenges, confusion and experiences. As this dialogue expands, children are making themselves vulnerable. As such, it is important that parents be willing to share honestly about similar feelings and experiences they may have had from their own childhood.
It can be difficult to set aside the time and energy to be present with children, especially with all of the expectations placed on parents to live up to our culture's image of success. It is more than common these days to find both parents working as a means to sustain financial stability. This same pressure to achieve affects kids as well when they perceive that acceptance and success comes from external achievement. The pressure to wear the right clothes, have the newest electronics, perform well in school, and be popular is very real to kids. Having a safe haven within the family to decompress from these pressures is vital way for kids to maintain a strong sense of themselves while strengthening the family as a whole. Parents can encourage their kids to build on the strengths of their uniqueness showing them that they recognize the pressure they face to fit in.
Creating this safe haven is important to assist kids with another very real challenge that is faced by many children today; the underlying threat of danger in their environment. Guns, drugs and gangs are all present in the daily lives of millions of children regardless of where they grow up. Even though many of these concerns do not have direct impact on every child, the awareness of their possibility is ever present. This can produce stress in even the most supported children. As much as parents would like to keep their children protected every moment of the day, this is just not possible. What can help, as an adjunct to providing safety, is for parents to maintain the space where their children can openly express and release the stress of their day. Letting home become a safe haven and encouraging children to share fears, knowing that they will be heard in a non-judgmental manner, will keep lines of communication open and further foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect. Parents might even share some of their own fears from childhood as a means to relate to their children's experiences.
Consciously making the time to have these conversations and make them a habit can lay the foundation for continued communication to occur in the future. At first this may be hard for both parents and children but as the skills of communication develop it will become easier. Parents will find that most kids actually do want to be heard and have a lot to say if they feel that the adults in their life are actually listening.