by Marvin Lovell, E.D.M., M.A.
As a parent, I often find myself wondering, Do my kids and I speak the same language? I am not talking specifically about the English language but more about how we communicate. I am sometimes left confused as to what my children are expressing through their words and their behavior. It is only with patience and a will to listen that I have some success in breaking the barriers to good communication.
Similar to my personal life, I often see parents and families in my practice who struggle to communicate. This communication barrier is evident when conducting family therapy sessions and I often find myself playing the role of not just the therapist but often as interpreter and moderator. Establishing effective communication usually takes an exercise in which parents and children are taught to listen. Seems simple - but it’s the best tool we have for communicating. Listening not only involves hearing what the other person is saying but fully understanding their perspective.
There are four rules that I establish and teach when working with a family to improve communication:
- Listen. Seems easy enough, right? It is a little more complicated than we think. Listening involves actively listening to what is being said. The listener is not talking and must suspend any thoughts about how to respond to what is being said. Active listening shows that you are listening to understand and that you genuinely care about what is being expressed.
- Restate. When it is your turn to talk, it is still not time for you to share your thoughts. As the listener, you should convey to the speaker that you heard and understand what they are saying. It is at this time that the person listening should restate (paraphrase, summarize, or repeat) what was said. Make use of your own words to describe what the speaker said to you.
- Speak one at a time. Now comes your moment. Share your opinion of the issue while expecting the same active listening from the other person. It is important that this rule - speak one at a time - gets followed, so that everyone has the opportunity to express themselves and feel listened-to and understood. Many times, communication breaks down because a parent or child does not show the patience needed to wait to speak.
- Seek understanding. Understanding another’s perspective and understanding what another person may be feeling is essential for anyone, especially children. A child’s perspective on life and on the world changes as they grow. What was important to them at age 6 is entirely different at age 16. Parents should “view the world” through the lens of the child so they can convey to the child that they are heard and understood. Not only does this help the child feel understood, it also provides the appropriate example to the child on how to communicate and really listen to others. It gives them practice at understanding.
Now that you know the rules, let’s put the steps into action:
Set apart time for you and your child/teen to communicate. There are so many challenges that a child or teen faces throughout the school year and life in general. Communication will help ease some of the anxiety and assist in managing the challenges that a child may face. Topics that your child could present could be related to being in a new school, making friends, maintaining old friendships, new social expectations (dating, social circles, etc.), and the list could go on. Depending on the age of the child, how a parent initiates and maintains communication varies. Consider that age may also play a role in how well a child expresses him or herself as teens tend to be a little more guarded. It is important that you learn how your child communicates and what developmental stage in childhood and adolescence they are currently experiencing.
Make consistent efforts to talk. Consistent communication and inquiry into your child’s life will go a long way in preventing many issues that can arise. Yes, it may get on your child’s “nerves” but that’s a parent’s job, right? I have often found that consistent and appropriate communicate has helped children with issues including bullying (victim or aggressor), friendships, social acceptance, dating, gender identity, sexuality, etc. It is not important for the parent to have all the answers but to at least be a support to their children’s concerns. This helps in strengthening the parent-child bond as both parent and child can solve life problems together. If you notice a significant change in your child/teens mood or behavior and communication has become increasingly difficult, consider consulting a professional to discuss your concerns.
Marvin Lovell, E.D.M., M.A., L.P.C. is a licensed professional counselor based in Philadelphia who works with families and individuals.