You see eyes rolling. You hear whining, arguing, complaining, demanding, rudeness. Sound like your house? You are not alone. Communicating with your child can be one of the hardest parts of parenting, no matter your child’s age. Providing basic food, clothing and shelter can seem like a walk in the park when compared to managing the behaviors and words of children. Your situation may be even more intense and include screaming, crying, hitting, property destruction, isolation and being ignored.
Some negative interactions between parents and children are inevitable, but negativity doesn’t have to prevail. Your response as a parent can make a situation better — or worse. Want to productively talk with your child? Want your child to listen? Here are some tips and information.
Understanding how the brain works is an important part of effective communication with your child. It also helps you have realistic expectations. The front part of the brain controls judgment, impulse control, problem-solving and emotions. Unfortunately, this frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until a person hits their late 20s. At times children, and even young adults, act in ways that make no sense. The more effectively you and your child communicate with each other, the more successful your child will be in the future.
Have patience. Recognize that children don’t have the skills to think through complex situations. You can take the stress out of situations by practicing patience and accepting that there will be difficulties.
Think about times you have been particularly upset. In these situations, people can say things they don’t mean or behave in ways they otherwise would not. Brain science shows this occurs because when emotions run high, people lose connection to the all-important frontal lobe. This results in functioning from the emotional, not logical, mind. It happens to adults with fully developed frontal lobes and children whose are still developing. Fortunately, researchers have identified communication techniques that can help parents calm that emotional mind and bring the logical mind back on board.
Money doesn’t always lead to happiness in kids
How does your parent-child interaction influence the mental health and overall well-being of your child? More than you may think. And if you assume that by providing your child with everything materially, things will be good, that’s not quite the case.
Many people assume children from successful or rich families are at lower risk for mental health problems. However, studies show that in financially stable families, issues in the following areas can be even more prevalent:
- Substance abuse
- Pressures to achieve
- Isolation from parents
As a parent, you can have an influence over all these problems.
A summary of studies involving teens and mental health problems uncovered some alarming statistics. One in 5 suburban girls in 10th grade reported significant levels of depression — three times higher than the average rate. Anxiety among girls and boys in suburban high schools is also higher than average. Similar patterns were also reported for substance abuse. Of suburban girls, 72 percent reported ever having used alcohol and more than half of boys from affluent families reported use of illicit drugs.
The patterns don’t just apply to teens. Elementary and middle school children also report many of the same kinds of concerns, with early onset of anxiety and depression and early exposure to substances.
Parents are the best resource for kids
Kids are stressed out, sad, anxious and increasingly turning to substance use or other negative behaviors instead of their parents to cope. This doesn’t have to be the case in your home. This information isn’t designed to scare you, but to help you see the valuable role you play as your child’s most valuable resource for well-being.
What causes kids to feel anxious or depressed? Many kids have a strong desire to get good grades and fit in, so parental expectations for their children to succeed may also contribute to a child feeling anxious or depressed.
Isolation from parents can have literal and emotional forms — the lack of time in your actual presence and the degree of emotional closeness. Isolation from parents can come about due to the demands of parents’ jobs, hours spent outside the home, time involved in activities and from pure exhaustion. A jam-packed day has become the norm for many working parents, leading to over-scheduled families. Isolation can also come about due to the use of electronics — especially handheld devices — rather than direct, positive interaction and communication on a daily basis. Think about it: how often is everyone sitting around your house in silence, each on their own device?
Showing up physically and emotionally
What can you do when your youngster is throwing a tantrum or your teen is flipping out? Your first task is to show calmness in yourself; model this behavior even if you have to fake it. It is impossible to help your child calm down and communicate effectively if you are also having an outburst. You may just need a brief pause and a few deep breaths. You may need to walk away for a moment and return once your frontal lobe is back on board. Then, you are ready to connect with your child’s emotional brain so you can help get their logical brain back in control.
Think about the last time you tried to reason with your upset child. The frontal lobe controls reason, so despite your best attempts, reasoning with an out-of-control or angry child is often fruitless. It can be a more productive approach to speak the language of the emotional brain: nonverbal. The emotional brain responds well to nonverbal communication. It needs to feel, see and hear. By getting on the child’s level, offering a physical touch or an empathic look, you are on your way to helping reconnect the logical, frontal lobe.
Avoiding (or at least reducing) questions, criticisms, commands
Questions, criticisms and commands can also get in the way of a close emotional relationship with your child. Question-answer, question-answer is an adult form of communication. Kids are different. Through their teenage years they communicate better through play and shared experiences.
Most parents greet children with a barrage of questions every day:
- How was school?
- What did you do today?
- Who did you hang out with?
- What did you guys do?
- What do you want for dinner?
Unless you have a unique kid who loves to be interviewed, this questioning rarely leads to a rich conversation. Instead you get typical responses like: “fine,” “nothing” and “I don’t know.” Kids get irritated and parents get frustrated. Closeness is not achieved. Communication then moves into commands:
- Do your homework.
- Clean your room.
- Take out the garbage.
- Pick this up.
- Put this away.
Kids get cranky, parents get annoyed and the tasks don’t get done. Then the criticism starts:
- How many times do I have to tell you?
- What is wrong with you?
- Why don’t you ever listen?
- You are driving me crazy.
Voices get raised: “If I have to tell you one more time, I am throwing it all away!”
Do any of these phrases sound familiar? All parents have been there. Yet we wonder why our kids are not always thrilled to see us or hop to every task we ask. If your boss talked to you like that at work, you would likely not appreciate it, and might even look for another job. Kids are no different, but for some reason, many people think they should just listen. But they are humans, too.
A different approach is to:
- Avoid — or at least reduce — questions, commands and criticisms when spending time with your kids.
- Find ways to connect first. Spend a quality 10 to 15 minutes per day doing something your child chooses and enjoys — with your smartphone far away. Follow their lead and play in the way that they want.
- Gently follow that with some basic questions and commands that are really necessary.
- Resist the urge to try to control things that are not important. When you are building Legos, don’t make sure they follow directions perfectly. When playing trains, don’t take over and build the track the way you think it should be built. If they make something, don’t redo it to make it perfect.
- Cut out the criticism and sarcasm. It may make you feel better to rant about misbehaviors, or make a sarcastic comment out of frustration or disbelief, but it does not motivate kids to listen or make them more likely to communicate with you. Instead, it makes them angry, less, not more, likely to listen and less likely to turn to you when there is something really important to discuss.
- Avoid saying the words “no,” “don’t” and “stop” whenever possible. There are many other ways to phrase things without starting with a negative word. The word “no” itself can be a trigger. This doesn’t mean giving them whatever they want. For example, if your child asks for a cookie, the common parent response is: “No cookies right now.” Instead, try saying: “First dinner. Then dessert.”
- Tell kids what you want them to do, instead of what you don’t want them to do. Parents often say things like “stop that” or “don’t run.” The child could skip, hop, roll or jump and they are still ‘listening’ because they are not running. It is much more effective to say, “walk, please.” You are not criticizing, rather saying what you want to see happen.
- Use commands sparingly, however, because no one likes to be micromanaged.
Positive reinforcement and validating your child’s point of view
- Hear the feeling behind your child’s words, rather than the words themselves. If you are only paying attention to your child’s words, when they say, “I hate you mommy!” it is going to be very difficult to respond with compassion. If you are able to hear the feelings — “I am really sad because I wanted to be able to play this game and I’m worried there won’t be time to do it later” — you are more likely to be able to connect with that sadness and worry, and help your child work through the feelings.
- Focus on the positive. Kids are much more likely to change behaviors and respond to you when you point out things you like about them and what they are doing, rather than the things you dislike. They will also be more likely to want to talk to you afterward.
- Kids usually carry out more negative behaviors if you talk about them. A thousand lectures about the same thing won’t suddenly inspire a child to do something different. If you are constantly harping on something, it is time to figure out a different way to solve the problem.
- Unless it involves aggression or destruction, let go of the little things. Pointing out everything your child is doing wrong leads to distance in relationships rather than closeness. Wait until your child does something you like, and then pile on the comments at that time, as opposed to when they are being aggravating. Kids will start to notice the difference between your response to their positive and negative behaviors.
- Validate your child’s feelings rather than minimizing them or trying to convince them otherwise. If the child says: “This never works. It’s broke. I hate this dumb thing.” Don’t say: “Calm down. It’s not a big deal. It will be fine.” Let them know you hear them. Try: “You feel frustrated that it is not working how you want. I would be frustrated, too. I can help if you would like.”
Simply changing how you think about conflict can change communication in times of conflict. Treat conflict as an opportunity to teach your child how to have healthy interactions and respond skillfully and respectfully. Don’t treat conflict as an obstacle to be avoided. By modeling healthy communication for your child, you are nourishing your parent-child relationship as well as nourishing the child’s brain and their capacity for positive future relationships.