Advice & Features Articles

Bridging the Communication Gap: How to Speak So Your Child Will Hear

by Susan Sugerman | Contributor

Question: How do we speak with our children in ways that impart wisdom and save them from the hard lessons we learned at their age? 

Answer: It’s a trick question.  The real answer is to stop talking. 

We have had ample opportunity by the time our children reach adolescence to provide instructions and give advice.  By then, teens take over much of their teaching themselves.  This is when the brain “prunes” its neurons, making new connections and cutting back on unnecessary ones based on their own experiences. They learn in real time, reinforced by events and the emotions that go with them.  Think about it—our strongest memories stem from the lessons learned from our own mistakes (compared with “lectures” from our parents).  When children learn from their own actions, they gain wisdom that lasts a lifetime.

But wait! We have a lot to say.  We want them to hear us; we want to stay involved in shaping their development. How do we let them explore independently and yet continue to influence them as they grow?

Start by focusing on connections that foster productive conversation in the first place.  Reinforce healthy bonding by emphasizing non-judgmental—and often non-verbal—shared experiences.  Create pleasant, regular rituals, such as walking the dog together, watching a favorite TV series, or making cookies on rainy days.  When you do nothing other than share the same air, you establish “safe zones” for mutual interaction regardless of whether she is mad at you or whether he is grounded.  Maintaining connected relationships allows the possibility of meaningful conversations when it really counts later.

When your child does want to talk, slide shut the imaginary zipper over your mouth.  Be the sounding board, not the sound.  Our kids know exactly what we think; they can give our own lectures for us by the time they’re ten years old.  What’s new to them is their own thought process, using their own intellect to verbalize their experiences and develop their own judgments.  You can help by guiding them in a choreographed way with a few well-placed “Hmm’s” and the occasional “So then what happened?” With a few gentle phrases, you can direct the conversation exactly where you want it to go.  Even when a consequence is warranted, you can use this type of “active listening” to help your child figure out on his own what went wrong and what to do next (“So now what do you think you should do?”).

When you let your children do the talking—without feedback, opinion, or criticism—they are more likely to keep talking.  When they keep talking, they are more likely to connect the dots on their own.  When they link cause and effect in the context of their personal experiences, they learn to adapt those lessons to new situations in the future.  When we speak up, we interrupt that process.  We “short-circuit” the pathways that lead to learning new lessons and building new skills.  They don’t need us to solve every problem for them.  Just like when they were toddlers, they need to learn how to do it themselves.

When we refrain from talking too much, we increase the likelihood our kids will come to us when they need us in the future. When they know we will listen instead of immediately reacting, when they know we will involve them in problem-solving, and when they do not have to fear our responses, we become a resource to trust instead of an authority to hide from (or lie to).

The less we say, the more they figure it out for themselves.  And those are the lessons that stick.  If we do it right, they will hear us even when we don’t say a thing.


The Art of Listening

Be available

Teens don’t plan their emotional needs on your schedule. They may want to talk late at night when you’re exhausted and not in the mood for a long conversation. Take what you can get, or you risk getting nothing at all.

Eye contact is overrated

Adults may prefer “eye to eye” conversations, but teens may feel safer not having to look at you directly, especially when discussing emotional subjects. Take advantage of parallel “postures,” such as driving in the car, doing dishes after dinner, etc.

Curb the interruptions

Learn to tolerate silence. It takes time for teens to review information, consider their feelings, and reach their own conclusions.  Allow the opportunity for their “wheels to turn” a bit.  The minute you jump in with a question or advice, you shut down their own processing, depriving them of the opportunity to learn in ways that stick long term.

Be a consultant, not a coach

When your child wants your opinion, he will ask (I promise).  If you just can’t help yourself, ask permission before giving advice. “Would you like my opinion?” or “I have some ideas about this. Do you want to hear them?”  Even if a “correction” in behavior is warranted, give your child a chance to propose a solution first, e.g. “How do you propose we handle this?” Your teen may propose a consequence even more strict that you would have imposed yourself.

For more information or to reach Dr. Sugerman, contact Girls to Women and Young Men’s Health and Wellness, www.GTW-Health.com.

Originally published 4/17

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