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All kids struggle with communication. It’s true. But it’s not their fault.
If you think about it, their only means of communicating as infants is to cry, and then they slowly learn words. But that’s not all! They still have to learn how culture affects communication, how people interact differently depending on the situation they are in, as well as reading other people’s social cues in order to participate in the dance of communication.
Honestly, I’ve met plenty of adults who still haven’t mastered all these communication skills. I wouldn’t say that I’m good at all of them.
***Why is Communication so Tricky??***
Miscommunications constantly happen between adults. If there is an immediate consequence, we realize the miscommunication right away. If not, the misunderstanding can go undetected with each person assuming they understood the other correctly.
And this is adults we’re talking about! They have years of experience communicating with others. You’d think we’d have it down a little better.
But we don’t. Because communication is very, very complex. How can we expect kids to be pros at it?
Now let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective.
- He’s barely learning the English language.
- This applies no matter how old the child is. English is complicated. Even if the child knows words, there is a whole mountain of phrases, idioms, and other not-so-obvious things about speaking English. I assume other languages have similar confusing things, but since I only speak English, I won’t speak to that.
- He’s still learning about body language and how it impacts the overall message that a speaker is conveying. (Click the image below)
- He’s still learning about tone of voice. This is most often confusing when adults use sarcasm and the child takes it literally.
- He’s learning how to distinuish sarcasm. This is a tricky one because we use sarcasm a lot. Like, a lot. We often don’t even notice we are using it. (Click the image below)
- He’s learning that his culture has unique requirements for being socially appropriate.
- Boundaries- how close to stand to other people
- Who you may or may not talk to (depending on the culture, this might depend on gender, status, etc.)
- How to change your communication style depending on who you are speaking with
- He’s learning the makeup of a conversation.
- Taking turns speaking
- Staying on Topic
- Showing your interest in what another person is saying
- How to clarify if you don’t understand what a person is saying
Recently, a friend told me this story about her 5 year old daughter.
My friend was sitting on the couch brushing out her child’s hair. They were getting ready to leave the house for the day.
My friend had just had a baby and also has 3 other kiddos running around. Her husband is so kind and wanted to make sure she was all taken care of, so he asked her if there was anything she needed him to do before he got in the shower. Just to make sure she wasn’t left to the wolves for the next 15 minutes or so. (I know, awwwwww!!!)
Anyways, this led to some playful sexy banter…. The husband says “Or maybe you can get in the shower with me?” in a cute, teasing voice. The parents both laugh and wink at each other.
Everyone thought that the little girl wouldn’t know what they were talking about, so no harm done.
Well, that is half right.
A few minutes go by as the girl thinks the situation over.
Then out of nowhere, she asks mom (who has already forgotten about it all), “Mommy, did daddy forget how to shower?!”
Hahahahaha! Yep, that’s the only logical explanation of why daddy would want mommy to get in the shower with him. He must have forgotten how to do it himself.
Kids are cute!!
Basically, I’m saying these poor kids often misunderstand OUR message to them, so how are they supposed to learn from our communication styles and methods in order to communicate THEIR message to us??
It’s no wonder that kids get upset and tantrum when they can’t express themselves!
Here’s my tips on how to help your child with this problem so that they can grow up to be one of the few adults that can actually convey their ideas respectfully and intelligently.
***Why can’t Kids Express Themselves without Getting Upset?***
First of all, these poor kids’ brains aren’t developed yet. Well, I mean they are develop-ING but that’s a lot different from develop-ED. Actually, our brains aren’t fully developed until around age 25- with girls usually maturing a little earlier than boys.
On top of that, emotional regulation is one of the toughest thing for little ones to master. Again, this is complex enough that plenty of adults haven’t mastered emotional regulation either.
So, give them a break just for that.
Second, communication is complicated. But we’ve already discussed that. Remember- there’s language, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and lots more.
This is all a learned art- one that some people just never learn. Most people learn enough to get by. And just a few get really good at it. I hope I can be one of those few eventually.
And lastly- it’s hard to learn to communicate when you’re learning from imperfect models. Remember how not all adults communicate well? Well, now consider trying to learn from those exact adults?
When we think of it this way, it’s no wonder children often get upset when they try to express themselves to adults. My poor daughter is picking up on my own communication problems.
Ouch…. I’ve got to step up my game….
As always, imperfect parenting isn’t the end of the world. This is just a call to do your best.
This all makes sense, but it’s hard to remember when my 1-year old is hitting and screaming because she can’t tell me what she wants.
Of course, I feel bad for her. I understand that she doesn’t know any better. But sooner or later, as a parent, I have to deal with this.
***How do I do that??? How do I teach my children to communicate effectively and appropriately?!***
1. We’ve learned that the first step is understanding. Empathize with your child.
Check! Now what?
2. Listen First
There are lots of ways to listen.
I know, it seems straight forward- someone says words, the words float through the air in the form of sound vibrations, those vibrations are picked up by my ears and interpreted in my brain.
As it turns out, listening is kinda complex.
- There’s listening where you are trying to solve the person’s problem for them,
- there’s listening where you are trying to get information from the person,
- there’s listening just because it’s the polite thing to do,
- there’s listening where you are more focused on forming your response than hearing what the person is saying….
(Click the image below for a great resource on how to listen!)
The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships
When a parent is talking to a child, their goal should be to honestly hear the child’s message- not solve the problem. Here’s how:
- Give the kid all of your attention. Like, all of it. No TV. No Cell phone. Nothing distracting you from them.
- Hear what they are saying and DON’T JUDGE… yet. Why not yet? Because it is your job as a parent to judge sometimes.
For example, let’s say the child’s problem is that her boyfriend wants her to have sex and she isn’t sure if she wants to (first of all, good for you for having the type of relationship where your child would tell you that). You feel that she is too young and that this situation is potentially dangerous. If that is the case, then by all means, be a parent and set some boundaries.
But….. save that judgement for AFTER you completely understand your child and their needs first. Don’t just understand but SHOW the child that you understand.
Maybe, with some carefully worded influence from you, your child will come to the same conclusion all on her own. Because you waited to place judgement, you didn’t rob her of the chance to learn from the situation and come to her own conclusion.
Score for the parent… and for the kid!
3) Clarify the message to make sure you understand- even if you think you already do understand.
Again, miscommunications sneak in without us knowing, so it’s better to check. Here’s how:
- You can do this by repeating things back in your own words. Then ask if that’s right.
- You can do this by asking questions to get more information.
- You can do this by asking the child if you are interpreting their feelings about the situation correctly.
4) Ask the child what they need from you.
They might not know at first- you’ll have to teach them how to think through the options, decide what their needs are, and communicate to you what they need.
I know, kinda sticky. You have to teach about communication in order to communicate, but they have to communicate so that you can do that… Bleh. My head hurts. Here are some great questions to ask to get you through this process:
- Do you want me to help you solve the problem?
- Do you want me to listen without talking?
- Do you want me to brainstorm ideas that you could try?
- Do you want me to tell you my opinion or give advice?
- Do you want me to empathize?
- Do you want me to learn about you?
- Do you want me to spend time with you?
5) Once you know what they want, fulfill that need- even if you want to do something else.
The most common issue I see with this one is when someone just wants you to help them feel better but you want to fix the problem that caused them to feel sad or angry. Hold it in- maybe they already know the solutions, they just need support. This is more common with older children, like teenagers, than younger children, who often need help problem solving.
Fulfilling the child’s unique need before you get around to the “parenting” part shows the child love, support, and encouragement. They feel heard and safe to talk to you in the future.
6) If the situation calls for some parental intervention, DO IT!
NOW is the right time. You understand your child, you’ve double checked to make sure you understand, you’ve expressed your understanding and love and support.
This is the follow up from step #2.
This is the part where you just might have to make a judgement call as a parent and then follow through with it. Don’t be afraid of this step. You are a parent, and boundaries are necessary.
7) Teaching Communication For the Future
For a lot of people, communication is tough because of one major barrier that we haven’t talked about yet: The other person has to be willing to communicate with you.
In order for this to happen, they need to have a positive relationship with you. If your children don’t respect you or if they don’t think you’re on their side, they won’t talk to you.
NOTICE- I did not say “if your children don’t LIKE you”. Respect is different than like. You want respect. You don’t have to be their best friend- you just have to be a parent.
If you want long-term open communication, put the time and effort into having a positive relationship. Yes, TIME is a big part of that. That means time with the TV off, time without devices, time doing things that the child is interested in, and time one-on-one together.
(Read about our Mother-Daughter Spa Day! This is a great idea for one-on-one time with your child or a group activity to get to know your child and their friends. Or try cooking with your child for consistent, daily one-on-one time.)
Time is hard to come by. But it’s worth it.
Then, remember to be a good example of positive communication. That means keeping your cool, clarifying others’ messages, withholding judgment, you know, all the stuff we’ve already talked about.
Do your best. Then apologize when you mess up. That’s how to be a good example.
Sometimes, I stand in my own way of building a strong relationship with my kids… on accident, obviously. Here’s the story of one epiphany about my communications with my daughter.
I was going about my day like any other day. I am a stay at home mom, so that included things like cleaning up the house, doing dishes, starting a load of laundry, running errands, making meals, you know. All the normal stuff.
My little one (about 14 months) wanted me to hold her for what seemed like the entire day.
I would put her down, and she would cry.
I finally found a toy that seemed to interest her. As soon as I walked away, she abandoned the toy to follow me.
The more I tried to get things done, the more she seemed to want me.
I’m sad to say that I didn’t connect the dots that day. Or the next day. Or the next. It took me a week or so to realize a pattern.
I noticed that there was communication going on here that I hadn’t specifically intended, but it was happening anyways. I was telling her that I was too busy to give her attention and she was telling me that she needed me even though I had other things to do.
This stumped me for a while, because I knew that I still needed to divide my time between my daughter and my other responsibilities.
The solution that finally worked for us- Play with my child first, and do chores after. Then, I am communicating that I value our time together. If I put her first, then she doesn’t feel so starved of my attention when I need to do chores so she isn’t so clingy. We both enjoy our day better and I get a lot more accomplished.
Now I want to be clear here because this is a topic that can trigger a lot of that mom guilt– Yes, there other things that require my time. That’s life. Some of my time must go to the house. Some of my time needs to go to my husband, and some of my time needs to go to myself.
With our time being divided so many ways, no wonder children crave it! No wonder time is such a big part of having a relationship with someone. And I want a relationship with my children.
When our actions communicate to our children that they are valued, they will feel secure enough to have open communication with us in the future.
8) Even with a Strong Foundation, Communication Doesn’t Just Happen Magically- So Ask Questions!
So I’ve been working every day on putting my child first in my life. I feel pretty good about our relationship. But, I still don’t feel like she confides in me….
What can I do?
Think about when you confide in other people.
- Is it usually planned out, or did it just happen?
- What situations make it more likely that you will talk to someone about something private?
- How did that person make you feel comfortable enough to share?
Now try to replicate those conditions with your child.
The common factors that I parents report include:
- My child confided in me when we had one on one time alone.
- My child confided in me but I had to bring up the topic first.
- My child confided in me but I had to dig deeper. First, they told me that they were fine. But I asked more questions. Then they dodged the questions. But I kept at it. And finally they told me.
- My child confided in me but I had to change the type of questions I ask. I had to ask questions that require more than one word for the answer. Rather than “how was your day?” (“Good.”) I learned to ask “What did you do today?” (Well, at recess, I played with my friend Kyle but he didn’t want to play what I wanted to play…..)
- My child confided in me but I had to speak respectfully and stay calm about the situation.
- My child confided in me after I told them that I love them and won’t judge what they say
The reality is that I don’t get much one on one time with my kids. Life is just busy.
When I do get it, I have to train myself to ask questions.
I am more effective if I am aware of what is going on in each child’s life. If I am thinking about specific things about each child, I can more easily think of what to ask about. Plus, it makes the child feel loved that I know this stuff about them.
There’s nothing worse than missing a golden opportunity for no good reason except that I wasn’t paying attention or I wasn’t prepared for it.
***Parenting Is Hard***
But as always, there is always a silver lining to every parenting mistake.
I don’t know what yours is, but here’s a few that I’ve experienced:
- I didn’t know what was going on in my child’s life, so I asked. I wasn’t prepared beforehand to “dig deeper”, but I gained a lot of knowledge about my child and I connected with her personally by showing interest in her interests.
- I didn’t have questions ready, so I fumbled for what to say to my child. But she saw that I am human and that I’m trying my best.
- I didn’t feel comfortable asking more questions because I wasn’t sure how my child would respond. So, instead I just reassured her that I loved her no matter what.
- My child didn’t appreciate me trying to get to know her. She thought I was being nosy and getting into her business. But she will always know that I care enough to be a parent rather than being a friend. That will mean something to her someday.
- I had a one-on-one opportunity but I missed it because I was distracted by chores. I just didn’t think about the chance to connect with my child. But the child got to see me working hard.
It is really tough to break habits of behavior like this.
My usual learning curve goes something like this: I fail 10 times (not because I didn’t do it well, just because I FORGOT and resorted to old habits!!) and then on the 11th time I finally remember to try to change my behavior. Then I might not do it well 10 times (assuming I keep remembering to try to change my behavior) and finally after like 50 tries (after I forgot and messed up a bunch more times) I finally make progress.
No wonder change is slow.
But I’m going to keep trying at it. I hope you keep trying too!
Remember to take this one step at a time! Choose one thing you’d like to change and focus on that until you’ve mastered it. Then take the next step.