talking with kids

August 11, 2012


Someone told me the other day that parents and kids are saying goodnight to each other via FaceBook. Really?

“If you can’t talk to your kids about what they are reading and listening to, how will you talk to them about drugs and sex?” Author unknown

One technique I have found helpful in creating conversation with my kids is to read the books they are reading – they love it. I also limit how much TV they are viewing to virtually nil. TV puts my children into suspended animation and robs us of time and space. We do watch a fair few movies together. Movies that have a lot of imagination or are quirky or based on fact or mythology, things we can talk about and reflect upon together.

I am fortunate to be home for my children most days of the week after school. I like to sit with them over afternoon tea as soon as we get home, it’s a nice pause and a time to reconnect before they get busy again with play or homework. A work colleague said that she worked full-time when her kids were in primary school but changed to part-time when they were teens. She said that it is so important to be available for teens to talk when they need to and also to know where they are as much as possible.

People think that parenting gets easier as children get older. That one should be featured on MythBusters and blown up! It gets easier physically but so much harder emotionally and socially. When your kids are little they live in your world, but as they get older their world gets so much bigger and they bump into so many rules, other personalities, and social situations, that you need to be available to help them iron out the wrinkles of their day.

I think this is where parents come into conflict with their older children, because parents sometimes don’t understand that greater physical independence does not always match the child’s level of social and emotional maturity. Australian psychologist, Phil Nunn, likens parenting to having a rope around one’s waist, and knowing when to reel it in and when to let it out. I think that the rope is the strength of the relationship between the parent and the child. If there’s no relationship there’s no rope, so who’s doing the reeling in and letting out?

When do you make the time and space to talk with your child?

Bedtime? Dinner time? In the car? Is this time and space free of the distractions of TV, radio, electronics?

What do you talk about?

The highs and lows of their day? What they did or learnt? How they felt about stuff?

“When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” – Greg Mortenson

When kids are free to talk, they do, a lot, but don’t ever think you can get away with pretending to listen. In 2010, I taught a social and emotional programme at a local public school called Second Step, to students in preschool right through to Year 6. I was talking to the preschoolers one day about listening. One little bright spark said, “my Mum says she’s listening to me, she’s doing the washing up and I want to tell her something, and she’s going “uh ha, uh ha” – she’s faking it”. I asked the other kids if they felt the same way, and they all agreed with a chorus of “faking it”. Those kids taught me a lot about how clever kids are. Kids know when you are not with them, not listening to them.

There is one very effective way of being with and listening to your child… reflective listening. When I talk to parents about it they tell me it’s weird. I tell them to try it and they do and they come back and tell me it’s brilliant. It is. It works especially well with teens. This is how it goes…

Child: Jack didn’t play with me at lunchtime today.

Parent: Oh, Jack didn’t play with you at lunchtime. (Same tone, same affect)

Child: Nup

Parent: Hmmm

Child: He played with Robert instead.

Parent: So, he played with Robert instead.

Child: Yeah

Parent: Yeah

And so it goes. Notice the absence of the parent giving advice. Notice the absence of the parent asking more questions. Notice the presence of silence and space, and this is the magic of it. Our kids are so used to us giving advice and asking lots of questions that they quite often don’t talk about their stuff because they don’t want the fuss or the lecture. No more of this When you give kids lots of silence, space, and “being with”, they open up. Why? Because it is now emotionally safe to do so. Parents of teens tell me that this technique has helped change the relationship between them. Sometimes it takes a while for the child to get used to it, and the communications end quickly. Keep using it, they’ll get used to it.

Kids are clever. Have I said that before? They usually have some idea of how they might go about solving their problems. After a while of reflective listening, you might want to ask “so, what do you think you are going to do about it?” and do some more reflective listening. If you think your child needs some more ideas you can do a brainstorming session with the following questions (from the Second Step programme)…

What are some more solutions?

For each solution ask: is it safe?; how might other people feel about it?; is it fair?; will it work?

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers

Lisa Nichols from Motivating The Teen Spirit in the USA has a technique she calls “safe space” and there are four rules that the parent must agree to when the child asks for a “safe space”. These are:

– You won’t judge me;
– No repercussions on what I share;
– Express unconditional love; and
– Do you agree with these rules?

Another excellent way to create communication channels in the family is to have a family meeting once per week. Sounds very Brady Bunch doesn’t it? They truly are a great way of hearing what everyone thinks and feels and involving kids in decision making. At my place, we use the family meeting to communicate all the comings and goings of the week ahead so the kids get some idea of what their week will look like. Start when your eldest child is five years old, make the meeting no longer than 20 minutes, and do something fun after the meeting. Here is a link to a guide by Dr Laura Markham

One parent who participated in one of my parenting groups, started a morning to-do list with her 3 year-old son, in an attempt to provide him with more structure and also to schedule in together time. He wakes up early and is a whirl-wind. Now, he has input into the to-do list. It helped to slow him down and keep him focused. Parents are clever too when they are focused on the process of life with kids!

“Oh the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are — chaff and grain together — certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” – Dinah Maria Mulock Craik

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

View all posts by hakea


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