The way parents communicate with their children can enhance the quality of the relationship and the sense of security, or it can lead to destructive relationship patterns and lack of resilience. Communication can support independence and self-esteem or harm confidence.
Your Child’s Perspective
What kind of conversational style does your child have? Is she particularly chatty in the morning and prefers quiet time in the evenings? Does he need questions to prompt conversation or does he seem overwhelmed when many questions are asked? Respect the individual needs in order to communicate effectively. Children tend to open up more when in parallel position as opposed to face to face. Children are more likely to communicate when they are walking, during car rides or bedtime.
We can promote creativity, curiosity, and problem solving skills with the questions we ask. How we ask questions can encourage deeper conversations that foster connection. Close-ended questions typically lead to short answers. “What did you have for lunch?” “A sandwich.” “Did you have fun today?” “Yes.” Open-ended questions such as “tell me about…” or “what else can you do with…” offer children the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings. Instead of asking “how was your day?,” which would typically elicit an answer of either “good” or “bad,” consider asking “tell me the best thing and the worst thing that happened today.”
Listen to what your child says, and even if you do not agree with it, acknowledge it. Seek an understanding of the feelings and needs behind the words. Demonstrate that you hear him by using phrases like “what I am hearing you say is…” or “it sounds like you are saying that…” and follow up by asking, “Did I get that right?” Paraphrase instead of parroting what was said. This helps a child feel heard and understood, and offers an opportunity for him to re-evaluate his words and feelings. It provides you reassurance that you understand what your child is saying. You can ask clarifying questions such as “when you say…what do you mean?” Do not interrupt the speaker to ask questions. At different points throughout the conversation, you can summarize. Your child is more likely to open up if he does not feel judged.
Reflective listening helps your child work out thoughts and feelings with your support. Oftentimes, we tend to interject our thoughts and opinions into a conversation. We listen for a chance to jump in and voice our opinions or offer a rebuttal. When we do this, we invalidate the speaker’s feelings. We jump to conclusions, and we interrupt the flow of thoughts. With reflective listening, your role is simply to understand what is being said, so that our personal assumptions and judgments do not distort what we are hearing. It also allows you time to consider what the next step might be in handling the situation.
Your body language often communicates more than your words do. Be mindful of your tone of voice, facial expression, and body posture. Oftentimes, children are paying more attention to these forms of nonverbal communication. To show that you are listening, nod occasionally. Be mindful that your posture is inviting. Be aware of your facial expression when communicating.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator.