WHILE most family communication today is full of hurried chatter and terse commands, parents should make conversations a regular feature of family life. These sessions could be whole family events where everyone contributes to the conversation, or they can be one-on-one sessions where parents give an individual child their undivided attention.
Those parents who start getting their children used to conversing with them while the children are still young will find it much easier to communicate with them when they reach their teenage years, while those parents who have teenage children who can spend hours on the phone with their friends but can barely manage a few mumbled monosyllables when they try to have a conversation with them, shouldn’t despair. Keep trying to have conversations, and in the end you’ll persevere. Below are a few suggestions to help you get started:
1. Start by being a good listener. Give your full attention. Look at your children when they are talking to you; don't do anything else. Your undivided attention is essential.
2. Ask questions. When parents are listening to their children talk, they should never assume they understand what they are trying to tell them right away. Instead, they should ask questions to be sure they understand properly. For instance, if a child bursts through the door and says, "My teacher hates me!" a parent’s first response is usually "No she doesn't!" or "What did you do?" But if parents simply ask: "What happened to make you feel that way?” they will receive a lot more information, and their child will have the chance to get some feelings out.
3. Give a helpful response. If you followed the first two guidelines well, you will be ready to give a helpful response. Responses can be words or actions, depending on the situation. Sometimes a simple "I understand how hard this must be for you" and a hug is the best response. At other times, a few well-chosen words of advice may be needed.
4. Plan family sharing times. Parents who are good listeners usually have a plan for facilitating meaningful conversations with their children.
5. Insist on at least one family meal together each day. This means sitting together at the table with no newspapers, television programs or headphones.
6. Spend time one on one with each of your children. Some families make "date" nights when one parent takes a child out, while the other stays home with the other children. The following week, a different child gets to go out. Some other parents have made bed time a time for quiet, non-judgmental listening.
7. Have a listening place. Some parents have made a rule that when they really need to communicate with their children, they sit in a special place in the house where no distractions can come between them.
Connecting with your children in ways that make meaningful conversations possible is not easy. It will take work on your part, but the reward is more than worth it, because good communication helps children develop confidence, feelings of self-worth and good relationships with others. In addition, it makes life with them more pleasant, and helps them grow into adults who have good feelings about themselves and others.