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If you are a similar to me, you might be interested how to support kids in being able to speak up with confidence and clarity. I believe that it's important for kids to feel like they have a voice in their family and in their community. It's our role to help kids find constructive and healthy ways to communicate about agreements (and disagreements). The ability to constructively communicate, and to communicate with confidence and clarity, is an essential life skill. Furthermore, I believe that communication standards and expectations in the workplace are much higher than they used to be - it's not something that as parents or teachers we can put off anymore as a "soft skill" if it's our job to do our best to prepare our children for adulthood. Beyond the importance of life skills, feeling heard and feeling like one has a voice, just makes us feel loved and part of a family that cares.
There are so many positive outcomes from encouraging healthy parent and child communication. However, I know (being a parent myself) you think of the positive situations but also the scary ones... Maybe in the future you want to know if your child is being bullied, and you want them to feel comfortable sharing what happened with you. You would hate to discover, years later, that your child hid the bullying from you or that the bullying went on for a long time. Along the same lines, you want your child to feel okay sharing if they feel uncomfortable with something (or someone), and if they were abused by someone.
In my work I help people change their own relationships, but also their relationship legacies. Encouraging healthy parent and child communication is a way to change the legacy of abusive or poor communication in one's family. You might be someone who wants to change the patterns you have seen in your own family, but you don't know where to start or would like some additional ideas. Definitely keep reading!
Ultimately, building up your child’s speaking skills and their ability to feel safe and comfortable sharing their lives, ideas, and personal feelings with you, is just simply a very healthy thing do as a parent. The possibilities are endless in which your child can use these skills now and for the rest of their lives.
A little about me and my family so you know where I am coming from. First, my family. I am married to a handsome and awesomely funny guy named Nathan (his superpower is the ability to make anyone laugh, I’m talking deep belly laugh over and over again!). We have one daughter and her name is Alex. Alex will be 4 years old in a couple months and she is super into unicorns and Blaze & the Monster Machines. About me, I am the type of person that constantly has ideas flowing through my mind about psychology, relationships, business, and life. My superpower is being able to creatively apply abstract psychology and business concepts to life. This idea of how do I encourage my own daughter to feel confident while speaking up, while at the same time utilizing healthy and constructive dialogue, has been deeply intriguing me lately. I want to share my ideas with you in case they might be useful.
17 Tips to Encourage Healthy Parent and Child Communication
1. Start young.
It’s never too early to start this. I think that the earlier you begin, the more natural this will be for the both of you.
2. Start now.
Now is the best time to begin this.
3. Start small.
Do the recommendations here, in a focused way, once a day for 1-5 minutes.
4. Notice when your child has interjected with something particularly insightful.
Amp up your awareness of when your child says or does something particularly insightful, meaningful, self-aware, or helpful. Your child may be trying to reach out with their brilliance, but if you weren't paying attention, you may have missed it! Show them you care and that you will take note.
Examples: When she notices something important in the house that was broken that maybe you were not even aware of, when she tells you a pet or a sibling needs help, when she tells you something you said or did that was hurtful, when she offers to help without being asked, when she admits to a mistake she made (all on her own) and how she is going to fix it, or when she chose to not follow bad decisions made by her friends and instead chose a better course of action for herself.
5. Notice the ordinary things.
Ordinary and regular daily things are important too. It’s vital to provide a supportive environment for your child to feel emotionally safe enough to communicate with you about all topics (the big, the small, and the ordinary).
6. Notice your child's ideas.
Be aware when your child has ideas. Ideas on just about anything! Your radar should perk up and say to you: "this might be a good time to make sure I can demonstrate good listening skills right now."
Please try to restrain your grouchy, tired, and bitter parenting voice that’s in there (you know what I’m talking about!) when your child has ideas on all sorts of things (like, "how can I turn myself into a unicorn?"). Your job is to show genuine interest in her ability to be creative, and to not shoot the ideas down right out of the gate. Now, I understand that your child could definitely have some questionable ideas, or ideas that probably won’t work based on what you know about the world. Please first demonstrate genuine interest and curiosity to her insights and then much later in the conversation you can add your insights and ideas too.
7. Notice feelings.
Notice all different kinds of feelings. Your goal is to convey: I see you. And I hear you. And I'm here for you.
Help your child describe her emotions, how her body feels, and what she feels like doing or saying when she experiences certain emotions.
8. Validate the things you notice.
Practice excellent validation skills as much as you can when you communicate with your child.
Validation is a whole topic on it’s own, but it’s showing genuine interest, care, and awareness of the other person’s thoughts and feelings. It’s great listening skills on steroids – it’s deeply understanding the message being conveyed from the other person’s perspective (even if you do not agree or you have different experiences) by saying an affirming statement, or statements, to the other party. On the receiving end of validation, it feels like “wow, this person gets me and really understands what I am going through right now.”
For example, your child is crying and says “My best friend told me my shirt was ugly.” You could say, “Your friend told you today that your shirt was ugly, and that made you really upset. That has to be hard to hear coming from someone you really care about.”
Adding validation as a regular part of your communication is harder than it sounds, and it takes a lot of practice. Also, I think that as adults it’s easy to disregard children’s ideas as trivial or not as important to the big/important things we do and think about as adults. But, here’s the thing. As adults, WE don't like to be invalidated, and WE sure appreciate when someone understands what we are going through. Kids are the same. Additionally, kids are learning if their voice is important, if they will be heard, and if you care.
Validate things, big and small, so when it comes time for your child to share something with you or the world, they feel confident in doing so.
Say how much you appreciate what she brought up and why. Convey a genuine/real why. If your child feels appreciated and knows exactly why she is appreciated, she will be many times more likely to do it again. And, who doesn’t like to feel appreciated?
Example: “I really appreciate your idea for taking turns with your brother so you both can get equal amounts of time here. I appreciate your idea because it shows me how much you care for your brother and how you want things to be equal and fair between the two of you.”
Demonstrating appreciation actually works really well with adults too. I like to implement consistent and daily appreciation when working with couples, and what I find interesting is that they are always amazed at how effective this is. It’s just too easy to get busy and distracted, and take others for granted... Or to think others just SHOULD have to do things for us (yikes, a little too much ego here!). We have to make a conscious effort to show appreciation if we want healthy relationships. Furthermore, think of how much it helps when your boss shows genuine appreciation for the hard work you have done. Compare this to a boss who didn't notice anything you did and only had harsh, critical, and unfair judgments to say. A big difference, huh?
10. Come back to it.
If you are in a rush and have a busy modern life as a parent, an important figure in that child's life, or a teacher, you may not get the chance to chat for even 2 minutes on whatever the child brought up. Validate the child, and then explain you are short on time, but you will come back later to it because it’s important to you. Keep your word.
11. Model sharing your own insights and ideas (age appropriate) to your child, and teach them good listening skills in response.
This doesn’t have to take long (especially with small children with short attention spans). However, with older children you will have opportunities for longer and more in-depth conversations. Share an idea and then as they are listening provide one constructive, non-blaming, or educational feedback statement as appropriate and applicable to the moment.
12. Model healthy and emotionally safe communication with your partner and set the bar high.
Your kids are always watching. You set the tone and the bar for your family. Your kids will determine if it’s safe or not to discuss the minor to the major topics based on years of watching you. Additionally, keep in mind that parents are the leaders of the family. What do leaders do? They dive in first and they model good behavior. I want to emphasize you don't need to be perfect here. That would actually be harmful and unproductive to pretend to be perfect! The goal is actually to have a growth mindset, a natural curiosity for how to continuously improve communication, and a willingness to apologize whenever one makes a mistake.
13. Develop your ability to act thoughtfully and rationally on information versus emotionally escalating and saying emotionally reactive statements.
This is important. Kids won’t share important topics if they think you’ll blow up at them (or not contribute to the discussion).
If you can’t be rational and thoughtful in the moment, that’s okay! Remember, just come back to it later. It’s much better to come back later with a clear head so you can avoid saying harmful or unhelpful comments that can really hurt your child. It's better to avoid saying harmful things that your child will never forget. Your child will be much more understanding if you come back later to the conversation versus experiencing a barrage of hurtful comments and emotionally reactive statements. Being emotionally reactive in the moment can also include just checking out of the conversation and not being engaged.
14. See the long-term picture; healthy parent and child communication is a life-long relationship habit.
This is not a one-time thing; it’s a forever thing. It's a way of life. You may need to do practice in order to grow your relationship muscles in this area. Be patient. You may not see the fruit of your work right away.
15. Remember that as parents, how you interact with your child forms the basis of how they expect others to treat them.
If children find that when they speak up they are heard, validated, and loved, they will expect that others will treat them the same. They will be more likely to be confident, have higher self-esteem, and feel less fear around speaking up about a variety of topics.
If children find their ideas are discounted, made fun of, or shamed, they will be much less likely to speak up, and will be more likely to expect people to hurt them or to not care. Why should they care about their voice, if no one else does?
16. Ask all sorts of questions about your child’s life with real enthusiasm.
Think outside the box with this and go beyond the typical “how was your day?” Something Nathan and I like to ask Alex is, "what was the silliest thing that happened today?" We definitely get some funny answers as you can imagine coming from a 3-year old!
Even if your child doesn’t seem too interested in answering your questions, they key is that she gets the feeling you deeply care about her and what’s going on in her life. It's still a win, even if your child doesn't offer up much in response. Maybe in that moment she doesn't feel like saying much, but I promise you, kids always notice if you genuinely care! You might find that later that night your child enthusiastically shares something really big with you. And that's why you don't ever stop asking caring questions - think about the big picture here.
17. Have fun.
Enjoy getting to know the unique, wonderful, amazing human being that is your child! That’s really what it’s all about. Relish in the wonderful and meaningful relationship you have! Life is about relationships.
How will you know if your efforts are working?
On the empathy cycle topic, I want my daughter to know I value and respect her. It is equally an expectation in our household that she shows respect to everyone - this includes people who are different from her or who she disagrees with. I know that if Alex feels respected and valued, she will be more likely to be able to show that to others. Developing healthy parent and child communication is a powerful way to nurture a high level of respect in one's family (even if we don't always agree).
For me personally, I want lines of communication to be open in my family so that hopefully we can have a healthy and close relationship that is fulfilling for all of us throughout the years. In life, we change, our kids change, and life around us changes constantly. And this can be hard. So hard. In the midst of constant change, it’s helpful and adaptive for us to find ways to encourage, model, and support good communication. This is so that not just our kids have a voice, but everyone in the family has a voice that is caring, constructive, respectful and confident.
There are lots of ideas in here for you to think about. You might bookmark this page to come back to it and review it again later as needed. I hope this blog was helpful for you and that you discovered something you can apply right away.
Thank you for taking the time to be with me today. Just by reading, thinking, and learning about these topics you are doing something really positive. It's already a step in the right direction. My wish is that something here will spark some incredible relationship changes for you now, and also for your kid's kids.
If you liked this blog post, was there an idea in here that you might try? What do you like to do in your family to encourage healthy parent and child communication? This is definitely nowhere near a cumulative list. I would love to hear your ideas - please comment below!
Like or Tweet my post if this was useful for you. I really appreciate it!
Keep a look out for my latest blogs on Thursdays. Talk to you again next week!
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Holly L. Harrison, MA, LMFT