When my two brothers and I were in elementary school, our family always ate weekday dinners together. During dinner we talked about everything. Everyone in the family had a chance to talk about problems, successes, and minutia of the day. My folks insisted that if we wanted to be listened to, we had to listen to everyone else, including them. Our listening training came unusually early in life, and it has served the three of us quite well. What my folks did was to create an environment conducive to sincere communication. They knew that if they wanted their children to listen to them, they needed to listen to us.
How did my parents know how to create this environment? My mom had a mother who was a superb listener, and when my dad married Mom, he gained a mother-in-law who listened so effectively to him, he was able to add effective listening to his communication skills.
So what is the basis of good communication with children? By the age of 6, your child is already copying how you communicate. If you communicate with other adults or older children respectfully, and listen for understanding and not to advise or prescribe, then your child will copy that behavior. Their first learning of what is okay and not okay in speaking and listening comes from you.
Imagine your child coming home from daycare excited to tell you what they did that day. You, busy sorting mail, prepping supper, texting, or talking on the phone, ask them to wait until you are finished without telling them how long that might be. All they can see from their perspective is that everything you are doing is more important than listening to them. Their self-esteem takes a hit. If this pattern continues, it becomes the communication norm for that child.
Unless the communication norm shifts for some reason, your child brings the lessons learned from your communication behavior into their formative and teenage years. Their experience of ‘What I have to say isn’t important’ has become fact. At this stage, when having important conversations with your child is critical to his/her self-esteem and ethical, critical thinking growth, this long-standing norm is blocking the way.
"The most important way to talk so your child will listen is to listen to your child," says Gail Saltz, M.D., a bestselling author and psychoanalyst. "If they feel listened too, they are more likely to be able to listen and will feel more understood, have more trust, and be more interested in what you have to say."
Here is the great news. You CAN change the communication norm in your family. It will take time and practice, but it is possible, and the results become apparent in short order. No matter what type of family system you have: two-parent, single-parent, blended family, or grandparent caregiver, the norm can shift and a new norm can be created.
The first step parents can take to improve family communication is to rigorously look at their current communication behaviors.
1. Observe your communication behavior around your significant other, your parents and siblings, and your friends. Whether the communication is in person or on the phone, what are you modeling for your children? You may want to enlist a ‘communication helper’ from outside your immediate family and let them know what you are working on. Their observations might bring to light some behaviors you are unaware of.
2. Observe your behavior when you communicate with your kids. Don’t let your emotions about what you are discovering get in the way. You are fact finding so that you know what to work on.
3. Once you have spent a month observing and journaling your communication and listening behavior, discuss what you have discovered with your communication helpers. Concentrate on which situations, times of day, subjects, and emotions trigger you to stop listening.
4. Create a Top 10 list of behaviors you want to change, ranked in order from the behavior you think most interferes with your communication with your child to the least. For each behavior, decide on two strategies you will use when it crops up again. In a family where there are two parents or caregivers, make sure both adults are on board and participating in this step.
5. Most importantly, sit down with your children and have a conversation with them about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make it age appropriate for each child. Ask them for their help, and set ground rules for what that might look like.
1. It is often true that the exact time a child wants to talk is the MOST inconvenient time for you. Try to have the conversation right then and there. You need to understand that your teen’s readiness to talk in a serious, deep, reflective way depends on circumstance, emotion, and mood coming into some inexplicable internal alignment that may not come around again anytime soon. If you make the choice to delay the conversation, let your child know when you will come to them to have the conversation. Then be your word.
2. When you are having a conversation, do so in a place where you will not be interrupted or distracted. If you have multiple children, set up times to converse with each of them. They won’t mind waiting, because they know they will have your undivided attention when it is their turn.
3. Figure out where you are listening FROM. Are you lecturing or listening? Are you solving the issue, or helping your child solve the issue by using unemotional questions to guide their thinking? Have you decided that ‘winning’ is not important, but helping them hone their critical thinking skills is?
4. When entangled in a conflict with your teen, you might be placed in a position where you may be provoked to not listen. If this happens, take a step backward, call a time out, and regain your composure.
5. Most importantly, be consistent with your new behaviors. Your child has had years of communication conditioning, and it will take persistence, consistency, and owning up to your mistakes to gain their trust and co-create a new communication norm with them.
It is never too late to improve your listening skills and improve or repair your relationship with your teen. Your efforts will be appreciated, and more importantly, rewarded by your child sharing more deeply. In fact, one day you might hear yourself say to a friend, “My teen listens to me; but of course, it is because I listen to him!”