How to Help Your Child Talk To You
by Paula Statman, M.S.S.W.
Parent-child communication today is a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that we are very well aware of the challenges our children and teens face. The bad news is that we don’t necessarily know how to talk about these challenges. We often avoid or fall short of having useful discussions with our children about sensitive subjects and risk behavior such as drugs, alcohol, and sex.
If you grew up with parents who approached tough topics from the “top down” with rules and consequences, rather than allowing for dialogue and exploration, there is a good chance that you tuned your parents out, kept secrets or lied. It is important that you don’t set up a similar dynamic with your own children; the potential cost of poor parent-child communication is too high.
When parent-child communication is unproductive or harmful, a child’s emotional and physical health is at risk. Unresolved problems erupting at school, home, and in the community escalate to risk behavior, such as drug and alcohol use, in the teen years and beyond.
The good news is that improved parent–child communication may:
- reduce individual risk factors, such as poor academic achievement or self-esteem
- improve how we monitor and supervise our children
- create useful discussion about factors that lead to involvement in health-risk behaviors
Becoming an informed, effective communicator with your kids takes some awareness and effort, but is well worth it. Start by thinking and acting as what I call “an inviting presence.” This means that your words and actions send the message, “You are not alone. I am here for you. I can help. I’m listening.” Nothing is more reassuring and inviting for a child than having your unwavering presence in his or her life.
Another key to good parent-child communication is to create open and safe space for your kids to share their troubles with you. This means that when they take the risk of expressing vulnerable feelings or telling you about confusing experiences, you don’t grill them with questions or lecture or judge. It also means listening actively, not passively or half-heartedly. In my experience, every parent who can do these things is also observant and encouraging.
You can create an atmosphere of safe and open communication by:
- listening more than talking
- welcoming and listening to your children’s concerns and feelings
- talking openly and freely rather than lecturing or threatening
- developing and/or using feelings vocabulary that help you child understand his/her experience
- accepting that children make mistakes as they learn and try new skills
- expressing your values and opinions in a way that invites discussion, rather than shuts it down
Once you set the tone for good communication with your kids, be ready to hear what they have to say. This means dealing with subjects that make you uncomfortable or perhaps stir up painful childhood memories. There’s no getting around the fact that some conversations will push your buttons or make you feel unsure of your parenting abilities. When that happens it is important to discuss the matter with a supportive adult in your life or get some coaching or counseling on how to handle a particularly difficult situation.
All of your efforts will be more successful if in addition to becoming an effective communicator with your child, you make the effort to become an informed one. You need accurate and up-to-date information on a number of issues that affect your child’s emotional and physical well being, so that you can be a helpful resource.
Learn about issues that affect your child and teen by reading, watching DVD’s, attending parenting workshops, getting counseling or joining a support group.
A partial list of topics follows:
- Impact of family conflict on children
- Depression in children and teens; suicide
- Obesity and healthy weight management
- Effects of media on emotional health and social development
- Sources and management of stress in children and teens
- Risky behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, sexual behavior, and gangs
- Child personal safety including protection against sexual predators
- Bullies; how to ensure your child won’t become a bully or a victim
Communicating in an informed, effective way with your children has exponential rewards. It is one of the best investments you will ever make.