5 Ways to Improve Communication Skills for Parents

Does trying to have a conversation with your ‘tween feel like nails on a chalkboard?  Do you feel like you are talking to a wall rather than your teen? Do you try to have a heartfelt conversation, but feel like they just don’t hear you?  

If you struggle when trying to communicate with your children, here are 5 tips for improving parent-child communication skills.

Start with shared feelings, not a question

  • Initiate the conversation by sharing your thoughts and feelings rather than with a question.  Questions can make children defensive, making it harder for them to listen openly. Who hasn’t started a conversation with the question, “How was your day?”, only to get “fine” as the sum total of response? Starting with a comment about how you are feeling helps them see you as someone with feelings just like theirs and lays a foundation for reciprocal sharing.

Check yourself 

  • Remove distractions and make eye contact when your child is speaking. Make sure they know they have your full attention.
  • Don’t interrupt when they are talking – demonstrate good conversational skills by waiting until they have finished sharing their thoughts and opinions before you start sharing yours.
  • Be sure you are actively listening. Confirm understanding by restating what your child said, “What I heard you say is …, is that correct?”.  Let them repeat or rephrase what they said if your summary wasn’t correct.  
  • Don’t lecture or use a tone of voice that sounds angry or defensive.  

Get to know how your child communicates  

  • We all have different styles of communication.  Some children will happily expound on every detail of their day, while others have little to say and reluctantly engage in conversation.  If talking isn’t your child’s cup of tea, just spending time with them can help them know you are available if ever they want to talk.

Improve their listening skills

  •  Be a role model for good listening and demonstrate reciprocal conversation regularly. Practice active listening and demonstrate how to give undivided attention to the conversation.
  • Start young by reading together.  Invite questions and comments as you read, so your child has opportunities to practice listening and being listened to.  

Talk every day

  • Find time to talk every day.  With a little time each day spent together and talking, your children will be practicing their communication skills.
  • Spend time one-on-one every week to build connection.  Learn about your children’s interests and show your support by expressing interest in what they love.
  • When your child talks about something that is bothering them, stop whatever you are doing and listen to them.  Let them share their feelings, and practice active listening by rephrasing what you heard them say.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Got “No!”? Two Doesn’t Have to be Terrible

Have you ever been in a situation where you were completely bewildered by what was happening – and then someone explained why?  And then the behavior made a little more sense?

Last Fall I had just such an experience.  My middle school son showed up ready to head out the door to school in shorts.  He’d been wearing shorts since September. But lately, the overnight temperatures had been consistently low.  On this particular morning, it was 42 degrees outside.

I told him it was cold and he needed long pants.  He insisted he would be fine. I insisted he needed to change.  As he dug in his heels, I responded with consequences if he didn’t go put on long pants.  Finally, relenting, I offered to let it go if he’d explain why he thought shorts were fine on this cold morning.

He sat sullenly on the couch, neither moving nor explaining.  After a few more motherly hysterics (yet maddeningly powerless), he finally said quietly, “I can’t wear long pants to gym.”  “You can change into shorts in the locker room,” I replied. Even more quietly he responded, “I don’t want to have to change.”

My eyes were opened.  Here sat a newly minted adolescent – reluctant to undress in front of his peers.  It was suddenly crystal clear why he would rather be cold at the bus stop than change into long pants.  My heart swelled for him and the new territory he was navigating as he moved from child to young adult. (A topic for another blog post. Hint: 12 is 2 all over again.)

“Thank you for explaining,” I answered.  “Now that I understand where you are coming from, I won’t insist you change.”  I finished up with an apology. “I’m sorry – hope your day at school is better than the last 10 minutes have been.”  I hugged him and he trooped out the door. In shorts.

The bewilderment I experienced that morning will be familiar to parents of toddlers in the age of ‘No!”.  Where does this sudden refusal to cooperate come from?

A baby’s brain is one-quarter of the size of an adult brain.  But in the first year of life, it will double in size. By the time the child is three, their brain will be 80% of its adult size.  During that journey from birth to age three, the helpless, completely dependent newborn will transform into an autonomous young child.

Right in the middle of that transformation are the “terrible twos”.  That period of time when ‘no’ is their favorite word. Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer of experience-based early childhood education, called this stage of development a progression from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind.  “Unconscious” because they begin unaware of their own participation in the learning process, but as they become “conscious”, they arrive fully aware of themselves as independent, thinking, and learning beings.

They discover they can have a thought about something that is different from their caregiver’s thoughts.  They can even have their own opinion – one that might be contrary to the adult’s opinion. They test their new understanding with practice.  Lots and lots of practice. Which means lots of “No!”.

Adults have been frustrated by this phase of child development for so long it bears the label “Terrible Twos”.  But understanding that the “No!” is coming from a new awareness of their own ability to choose can help. When parenting a child in this phase of development, encouraging the choice can help encourage cooperation.

Maintain calm authority.  Children growing in awareness can also be uncertain.  Caregivers reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for by using a tone of voice that is confident and supportive.  Try to avoid sounding angry, even as they try your patience. Use your words to help them understand what you need them to do.  “Oh I see you are not happy about having to put your boots on now. We can’t leave until the boots are on.”

Offer them a choice between two things – but only 2 things.  More than two can overwhelm the child.  My favorite choice is: “Would you like to put the boots on all by yourself, or would you like me to help?”  Countless times I found that when offering the choice between doing it themselves or having my help, their desire to be independent spurred them to action.  They much preferred doing it themselves than having help. But be prepared to be patient and take the time to wait when they choose to do it themselves. Help with any hard part, but don’t rob them of the satisfaction of accomplishing the task independently.

Another option is the choice between first and next.   “Do you want your coat before your boots – or boots first?” also changes the request by providing the child the opportunity to decide.

Notice that we can give them an alternative to their assumption that the choice is “do it” or “don’t do it”.

Change the subject as you proceed to help them cooperate.  “Oh look, I found a fuzzy scarf in the closet.”  Handing them the scarf, begin putting boots on to their feet.  Calling their attention to something else helps them move past the defiance and onto a new emotion.

And finally, mission accomplished, be sure to begin a new conversation as you move onto the next activity.  “Now that we have our boots on, let’s go!  We are going to walk around the block – let’s look for birds as we walk.”

Sometimes you can choose from among these strategies.  Sometimes you will work your way through all of them in succession –  and still face opposition from your toddler. Once you’ve exhausted all efforts at cooperation, just remember you’re the parent.  Lovingly, but firmly, complete the task and move on.

In moments where no amount of encouragement succeeds, doing it for them without further comment on the matter helps the child disengage from the struggle.  With the child in my lap and boot in hand, I would begin a conversation about something entirely unrelated to the boots. “Look, you have your green sweater on.  It matches your green raincoat.” More often than not, their attention is drawn to the next thing by a change of subject. And the protest is forgotten.

Yes, they are now old enough to have their own opinion, but the ‘terrible two’ is also amazingly more verbal.  Listening, answering, and participating in a conversation will very often draw their attention away from the ‘no’.

And rest assured, this stage will not last forever.

Rough Patch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately, but my wife Kyrie is super well trained in child development. We’re talking the whole gestalt ball of wax: Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, the regular OSU kind. So when she tells me that what is going on with our youngest daughter is not an extraterrestrial brain-swap or demonic possession or something equally drastic, but just an expected shift in the child’s growth (known in Waldorf arcana as “the seven-year change”), why then I believe her.

Never mind that we have seen nothing like this with her older sisters. The next one up went through a rough patch at around the same time (in fact, I covered it pretty thoroughly while it was happening). That one didn’t want to sleep without an adult in the room even though she had been doing so just fine for a couple of years now. My solution to that had been to 1.) shunt her younger sister into our bedroom and sleep in her bed, which required me to be quite a bit shorter than I actually am, or 2.) move the seven-year-old into the grownup bed and take hers, thus allowing the younger one to continue sleeping. Neither particularly worked, and the whole operation was almost certainly prolonged by my method.

So when this one adds an inability to sleep for more than an hour at a time to a complete loss of her words to express a need for help (the words having been replaced by loud grunting and yelling), I tried to wait it out. I can get up once an hour, no problem. Get her some water, get her a homeopathic lozenge, and pack her back into bed. Repeat.

The results were apparent after a couple of nights of this plan. She continued not sleeping and neither did I. Turns out that neither of us does well on sleep deprivation. Something had to change, but I was fresh out of empathy. We were both pretty sure that she was just never going to sleep through the night again. And we both felt terrible.

It was at this time that I was preparing for the Nurturing Fathers class and came across the following passage: that we as parents want our children to know that “you are lovable, and you are capable.” Let’s read that again.

“You are lovable, and you are capable.”

It was enough. That night I reminded her of how good a sleeper she is and that this was a temporary phase. We would get through it. In fact, it was already better. Her hard work had already paid off.

I’d like to say that it turned around right away. We’re kind of still working on it.

But boy, it does suck less. I’ll keep you posted.

 

She’s Not Me

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther.

I watched as my 2-year-old daughter concentrated on building a tower of blocks. She paused for a moment and swiped her right hand from her eyebrow up above her hairline, brushing hair out of her eyes—except that she didn’t have any hair hanging in her eyes! No, she made that gesture because –since birth—she had seen me do it several times a day. That image has stuck with me as a powerful reminder of the unconscious impact we parents have on our children.

We certainly inherit many things from our parents—from genes to habits. We often find ourselves saying the things our parents said to us to our children, those “OMG I’m turning into my mother!” moments.

Sometimes we see behaviors in our children that we don’t like or that we think will cause problems for them. Sometimes this happens without us being aware that the child is simply imitating us. Usually, we are well aware that we are the source of the behavior. And well aware of the problems it can lead to. So we try to correct it in our children.

But that form of correction is not only ineffectual, I believe it is harmful. Why?

When I’m told not to do something that I am doing unconsciously it feels like an attack on me. And if I know of no way to stop doing it, then I feel stupid.

What can a parent do?

  1. Set a different example. If you want your child to do something—do it yourself. It won’t be easy—quite possibly you behave this way because that’s how your parents behaved. But change is possible. Share your struggle and your strategies with your child. You may want to ask your child to help by reminding you or praising your progress.
  1. Be aware of your child’s environment and their viewpoint. Be curious (in a non-threatening way). Share your observations—especially of positive things your child does. Ask questions: What do they want do about something? What do they think will happen if they do that? What do they think they can do about a problem.
  2. Use your knowledge of yourself when thinking about your child’s behavior. Try to put yourself into your child’s situation—how would you react? What’s different? What is the same?

It may be helpful to increase your knowledge of yourself. Some behaviors are learned from our parents, but others result from our temperament. Temperamental traits are not good or bad, they are characteristics present from birth—such as sensitivity, activity level, persistence and many others.  A helpful way to think about these traits is to consider whether you are right or left-handed. Handedness is not learned and trying to change it can cause problems. But both right-handed and left-handed children can learn to write—they just need strategies that work for them. Often, particularly in the past, some traits were viewed as faults that needed correction. If that happened to you as a child, you probably found ways to cope but you still might see that trait as something that ought to be changed—and want to spare your child from the problems you encountered. A trait is NOT an excuse for bad behavior or for avoiding difficult situations, by the way. However, once we recognize a trait as the reason underlying a behavior, we have an easier time modifying our behavior and helping a child modify theirs. For example, a highly sensitive child can learn strategies that help them deal with the barrage of stimulation in school. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is an excellent source of information about temperament and strategies.

  1. Recognize that, despite the similarities, your child is a unique individual growing up under different circumstances. Behaviors and traits that caused problems for you, might not do the same for your child. The world is a different place from the world of your childhood. No matter how similar you and your child are they are NOT you.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillowcase that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched stormtrooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

As I said, I thought that this pillowcase I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillowcase, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

Volunteering

As much as I write about ways to guide and structure the lives of our kids (as much as that is advisable or possible), I am always surprised by the ways in which our kids can influence the course of our own lives.

On the most basic level, the fact of becoming a parent will (ideally, I believe) stop your life in its tracks as it takes on new passengers. No doubt (also, ideally), you have done your best to prepare yourself for what is to come.

But as you might remember, no amount of preparation really made you ready. Right? No reading, no financial reinforcement (getting a job, say), no supplies, and no advice (especially no advice) is sufficient for the journey. Learn all you want about an expedition to Mars, you haven’t done it ’til you’ve done it. And even then, having one kid (or two, or five) is no indication of what the next one will bring.

As the years go by, the compass continues to spin. Kids’ needs change and the ground keeps shifting. Keeping up with the routines, and figuring out what they need at each stage, can be exhausting.

What can a parent do?

Sometimes, the only thing to do is let go.

It took me a while to realize that when my oldest daughter kept asking to volunteer–at my work, at church events, in response to other family’s requests for help–it wasn’t a whim, but a trait.  And since she’s 12 and can’t drive, she needs someone to go with her. And that is me.

Eventually, I saw the pattern. Volunteering makes her happy. As someone who can barely cross the room without the expectation of a reward, I only came around to this gradually. It took me even longer to realize that volunteering is good for me as well. In fact, I’d say it’s still in process. My daughter’s easy selflessness reminds me of how self-absorbed I am.

And that I can change. Still! Who knew?

Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

The next one was very promising. It focused on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?) She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me, “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here.

By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc, etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, tiredness, hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, not a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, and take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles, and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is that I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain, I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—any more than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself ,“I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus.

On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.)

My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, and take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect. Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

A Few Words on Empathy

If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad, or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

This is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”). And,  — and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it — to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.