The key to any successful relationship is communication – the willingness to open up and exchange information about our thoughts, ideas or concerns. But how do we create this sense of openness in our children? How can we support their development in becoming good communicators?
Here are 5 tried and tested ways to improve communication between children, their siblings and parents:
1. Get to know your child’s communication style and support it
Some children prefer to express themselves at different times throughout the day. The goal is to find out what communication style they are comfortable with, and encourage or nurture it by giving them your full attention.
A personal example is the communication style of my 4 y/o Kian. We noticed that he loved having chats at night, after story time and just when we tucked him in and said good night. On the way out of his room, he would try to bring up something that happened at school but we always dismissed it and cut him short by saying “It’s time to sleep sweetie, we’ll talk in the morning”. We did that simply because we thought he was avoiding going to bed and wanted to stay up for longer.
It wasn’t until he was going through a behavioural change at school and his teachers reported that they were having difficulty communicating with him. His responses were always “I don’t know” because he simply wasn’t interested in talking. Since I do the school pickups, I always thought the drive back home was a great time to engage him in conversations but I also realised his responses were short as well. He always said: “Mama I want to be quiet, I don’t want to talk”. Car rides for him was the time to reflect on his day and he simply wasn’t interested in talking to anyone.
So one night I decided to capitalise on his “avoidance to go to sleep” and stayed in his room a little longer to listen to ALL he had to say. He answered every question I asked in detail and I could understand better why he was going through that change at school. It was truly an awakening moment for me as a mother.
We then decided to start bath and bedtime routine earlier, take him to bed earlier, so that we have enough time to chat about his day before he had to go to bed.
We concluded that his environment plays a crucial role in his communication style. He prefers to feel relaxed, comfortable and get the full attention from us as parents, instead of talking to us when we’re trying to multitask with a 100 different things.
2. Words are powerful – use them to express your emotions
Common phrases we use in our home are:
“Use your words”
“Use your words, not your tears”
“Use your words, no hitting”
I personally believe it is crucial, very early on in childhood, to reiterate the importance of using words instead of actions. This is in no way to treat the famous quote “actions speak louder than words” as inferior, but in young children actions could involve hitting, crying, tantrums or any other dramatic way of expressing their feelings.
We should explain to young children and remind them that we can express our dissatisfaction, anger or stress with words, same way we do when we are excited. For example if two siblings are fighting and one gets upset, remind them that hitting is not the solution. A simple hand gesture with the words “Stop it, I don’t like it” is more powerful.
Another example is when my children want to get something from us and choose to communicate it with tears, instead of their words. I frequently tell them “I can’t hear you, I’ll be able to understand why you’re upset when you talk normally so stop crying”. For me, that is an invitation to not only communicate better with words, but also to express their emotions and how they feel about that particular situation.
3. Create talking traditions and games
Talk about yourself if you want your kids to talk about themselves. Start by telling them about your day and sharing your stories. In our fast paced digital era, it is important for your children to understand that human interaction is crucial.
Some households with older children organise “talking nights” where family members gather and simply talk to each other. They tell stories about their week and share their biggest achievements, or disappointments. This is a special evening of fun and games created especially for family members. Chances are everyone is so busy with their schedule that if we do not allocate a special time for conversations, this might never happen. So think about creating your own rituals and traditions- and see how fun they are. As with any family activity, this experience will also create a stronger bond between the family members that will have a positive impact on your children’s future.
4. Encourage literacy in storytelling
Help them by asking questions like: “Who was there with you?”, “Why did you go there?”, “What happened at the end?”. Show your undivided attention and interest in their story.
Help your children along the way as they tell a story, in order to hear it from beginning to end. Lead by example when you communicate with your children and show them the right way of telling a story.
5. Listen to the details
Details matter to children and they should matter to us. Often times children get excited about the detail of a story and that might seem trivial to us as parents, causing us to dismiss it. Make sure you do notice those details and ask questions about them, because that could explain a particular emotion. Be reactive to their excitement too and show them that you support their enthusiasm.
Do not forget to teach your children that with words comes responsibility.
Free speech is a great and liberating concept but try to teach children early on that with words comes responsibility. It is great to encourage your children to express what they think or feel but words can be hurtful and can have consequences, especially with the way they communicate to their friends at school. Let them know that although words can help us to express ourselves, simultaneously they can also create hurt to someone else if they’re not used sensitively.
It is your responsibility as a parent to explain why bullying is wrong, talking about a person’s appearance/disability or voicing your opinions (no matter how true) is not always a good thing to do. Using words in a negative way, in order to hurt another human is not good. Teach your children how to be kind and show them that using your words is an art in itself that requires emotional intelligence.
In the next blog about communication, I’ll be sharing a few books that can help you encourage communication in your children, so stay tuned.