Here are the elements of good communication to keep in mind as you relate to your middle-years child.
An essential part of the communication exchange with your child is receiving messages from her. They can be verbal messages (questions, requests) or nonverbal ones (actions or nonactions). Listening is a learned skill, and with effort you can become better at it. In the process you will be setting a good example for your children, and they will become better listeners too.
Active listening is the central component of communication. When you become an active listener, you are telling your child that the channels of communication are open. You are recognizing that your child has a need and/or a desire to share her feelings and thoughts, and that you are receptive.
There are several skills and techniques involved in active listening that will decrease the likelihood that you will be judgmental or critical, or will lecture or belittle. These skills allow you to help your child get in touch with what she is really feeling and thinking, analyze it, and put it in perspective so that problems do not seem bigger than they really are. It will also build a bond between you and your youngster, and make her more receptive to what is on your mind.
To become an active listener:
- Set aside time to listen. Block out distractions as much as possible. In order to hear and understand what your child has to say, you have to want to do so, and want to help your child with any concerns she has at the moment. Some parents and children find they can communicate best just before bedtime or when they share an evening snack.
- Put aside your own thoughts and viewpoints, and place yourself in a frame of mind to receive information from your youngster. Give her your complete attention, and try to put yourself in her place so you can better understand what she is experiencing. Make her feel that you value her thoughts and consider them important, and that you are sensitive to her point of view.
- Listen to, summarize, and repeat back to your child the message you are hearing. This is called reflective listening. When appropriate, gently state what you think she may be trying to say. Do not just parrot what you hear, but go beneath the surface to what your youngster may be thinking and feeling. Remember, the spoken words may not be the true or complete message. The underlying messages may include the feelings, fears, and concerns of your youngster. Assign these feelings a name or label ("It sounds to me as if you are scared... sad...angry...happy").
- Maintain eye contact while your child talks. Show your interest by nodding your head and occasionally interjecting "door-openers" or noncommittal responses like "Yes...I see...Oh...How about that." Encourage her to keep talking. Although these may seem like passive responses, they are an important part of communication.
- Accept and show respect for what your child is expressing, even if it does not coincide with your own ideas and expectations. You can do this by paying attention to what your youngster is communicating, while not criticizing, judging, or interrupting.
- Create opportunities for your child to solve the problems she may be facing. Encourage and guide her. Ask her to bounce ideas off you, which might eventually suggest solutions to problems.
When parents are active listeners, other people may describe them as having good intuition and as being "tuned in" to their children. The process of active listening will help your child understand her feelings and be less afraid of the negative ones. It will build bridges and create warmth between you and your child. It will also help her solve her own problems and gain more control over her behavior and emotions. And if your child sees you as an active listener, this will make her more willing to listen to you and to others.
You can monitor how actively you are listening by watching for cues that you are not listening well. If you find yourself feeling bored by the conversation, distracted, looking around or away, or feeling rushed, or if you feel that you are wasting time, you are not listening actively.
Even when you think you and your child are doing a good job of listening and communicating, it is a good idea to test that impression occasionally. You can ask her to repeat as best she can what you have been trying to say—either the words or the feelings. Similarly, you should try to summarize and restate what it is that you heard her say.
As you talk to your child, you should try to make it a positive dialogue, rather than impose judgment or place blame. That usually means choosing "I" messages rather than "you" messages, especially when attempting to change or encourage certain behavior.
"I" messages are statements like "I sure have trouble finding things on my desk when it hasn't been straightened up by the last person who used it." "I need more quiet when I am trying to read." "Since I am so tired, I sure would like some help cleaning up the dinner dishes."
These "I" statements communicate the effect of a child's behavior or actions upon the parent. But they are less threatening to a child than "you" messages, even though they still convey an honest feeling or message. They also communicate just how a child's behavior affects her parents and encourage her to take responsibility for straightening up Dad's desk or helping clean up the kitchen. They communicate trust—showing the parents' willingness to express their own feelings and their belief that their child will respond in a positive, responsible way.
By contrast, "you" messages are statements like "You should never do that." "You make me so angry." "Why don't you pay attention?" These messages are more child-focused and are more likely to create a struggle between you and your youngster, put a child on the defensive, encourage personal counterarguments, and discourage effective communication.
Even worse are the "put-down" messages that judge or criticize a youngster. They might involve name-calling, ridiculing, or embarrassing the child. These messages can have a serious negative impact on the youngster and on her self-esteem. If you communicate the message that your child is bad, stupid, inconsiderate, a disappointment, or a failure, that is how she is likely to perceive herself, not only during her childhood but for many years thereafter.
With "I" statements, however, children do get the message in a more positive light. They often say things like "I didn't realize that the noise I was making was bothering you." Or "I'm glad you told me you were so tired. I'll help you with an extra chore or two." Children often readily assume more responsible roles if they are made aware of the situation and the feelings and needs of others, and are not "put down" in the process.
Of course, even with "I" messages you are not guaranteed success. Children may disregard the message, particularly when you first begin to make use of "I" statements. If this happens, repeat your "I" message, maybe saying it in a different way and with greater intensity. Be willing to say something like "This is how I feel, and I do not appreciate having my feelings ignored."
If you have consistently shown yourself to be receptive to and respectful of your child's feelings and thoughts, she will probably be more responsive to your own "I" statements. Give it some time. Middle-years children usually catch on relatively quickly.
Also, as you communicate with your youngster, be sensitive to your tone of voice. It should be consistent with your message. Do not let your emotions confuse the message you are trying to convey.
Be as consistent as possible with all your children. You should have the same communication approach and style with every child, although the unique aspects of each relationship and each child's temperament may require some modifications. Do not appear to play favorites or be more accepting of one youngster than another.