Relationship above all else
We all want to create loving, supportive, connected relationships with our children. Yet, for many of us, we have never been taught how to do this. We assume we should just know or we wing it based on what we think, which usually doesn’t create the kind of relationship we want with our children.
We want our children to listen to us, to heed our advice, to come to us when they are upset as if that is just expected, a given because we are the parent. Then, when that doesn’t happen, we often times blame the child, unintentionally, by getting upset instead of learning how to communicate so as to create the relationship we truly want. As Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate state “parents need to matter more than peers” so we are the ones who can raise our children into healthy functioning adults. You can read more in their book: Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
We all know that to create a relationship it takes time, attention, and investment in positive outcomes for both… good relationships don’t just happen, we put effort into them. Our relationship with our children needs the same time and attention and investment in learning ways to communicate that bring positive outcomes not just for you, but for your child too. Our children won’t listen to us if we are demanding or one-sided in our communication with them just because we are the parent. At least it didn’t work that way for me. I learned by making many mistakes. I share with you here 5 ways NOT to communicate with your children, and what to say instead for better outcomes and connection. I also point out what communicating in these new wanted ways teaches your child… a needed life skill.
1. Develop Your Child’s Voice
“When I was growing up_____________________.” This puts you back in the past, and it becomes all about you and what worked or didn’t work for you. It doesn’t validate what your child is currently experiencing as you switched focus to you and it usually becomes more a lecture than helpful information. Your child doesn’t feel heard or understood, and frankly, our children can’t relate to our experience. Notice when you say this, as your reason is usually to point out what your child is not doing that you don’t like, but you aren’t being direct. For instance, let’s take an example: “When I was growing up, we never talked back to our parents. If we did, boy were we in trouble!” What is the message in that statement that is not spoken? It’s something along the lines of “be seen not heard” or “it doesn’t matter what you have to say as I am the parent and you need to do things the way I was raised.” This kind of communication doesn’t teach your child how to communicate, it doesn’t teach your children to share their feelings or how to handle a disagreement with you so they can actually learn to have a voice of their own. I’m certainly not saying you need to allow your children to talk to you any way they want and be disrespectful or yell at you… but I am saying anything that comes after the “When I was growing up” statement is not going to give you an outcome you really want.
Instead say, “It’s important to me that we _________________. Put in the wanted outcome. So with our current example it might look like “It’s important to me that I hear what you have to say and I want to understand your experience. Can you say what you want without calling me names or accusing me or yelling at me?” Let them test out their own voice with you. Guide them and help them express their situation in language that works, in a tone that works and learn from you.
2. Help them See options
“If you don’t do _______________, then you won’t be able to _________________. This is so limiting and puts children in a box that they don’t want to be in. This also creates resistance and defiance… the opposite of what you want. It also doesn’t allow for new possibilities to be created to solve a problem or an upset. And our children never get to share with us another way to do something that might work better and help us grow too. For instance, don’t say “If you don’t take school seriously and study, then you won’t be able to get into a good college and your life is not going to turn out.” While this is true in many ways, it is not going to get your child to study more or take school seriously to better themselves in the future. It will usually back fire on you and they will double down on it, even though they may want to put more effort into school they won’t just to not listen to you. Don’t take this personally, it is just what happens when we as the adult, or parent, speak to the child in an either or way and they feel shut down as if there are no options. And chances are they don’t see any options either. They need our help to explore options and see things from another perspective.
Instead try, “I notice you aren’t really engaging in school and something seems to be off. Can you help me understand what your experience of school is like and what isn’t working for you?” Ask a question, explore options, let them speak and tell you what it is really like without you negating their experience. You don’t need to future forecast doom. When our children are allowed to share what their experience is like, without us offering a solution or telling them a negative outcome, they will come up with a solution themselves with time. We just need to give them a chance and some time so their natural motivation can kick in. Tell them you believe in them and you know they are struggling and that you are there to bounce ideas off of and come up with a different way. It’s ok to state you aren’t thrilled with the way they are handling something, just try to not make it an ultimatum.
3. Cultivate empathy and compassion
“You think what you are experiencing is bad, you don’t have it that bad, look at all the other people in the world who don’t have _________________________ (giving a worse situation).” We really need to be aware of what we compare our children’s experience with as this doesn’t help our children connect to their own feelings and thoughts and they end up stuffing emotions… only to fester and come back later.
Instead say, “Whoa, I get it you are upset, and you don’t like what is happening right now. Please tell me about it as I want to know how you are feeling.” Model empathy and compassion and your children will learn to have empathy and compassion for themselves and for others. For so many of us we don’t have to deal with any real extremes as in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean we minimize what our children are experiencing. When we can help them “right size” their experience, they will naturally feel fortunate and blessed and put their problems into perspective, creating manageable experiences. Our children usually don’t have a broader perspective when things happen to them and don’t consider others yet. Remember our children have to grow into adulthood and be able to handle situations, but they won’t be able to if we minimize or discount what they are feeling at any given time.
4. Speak from your heart
“I can’t stand it when you __(are always on your phone)____. Or I am stick and tired of __(you not listening to me)____.” When we speak like this we will not get cooperation. We will get resistance and pushback, and usually an argument as a way for the child to deflect the big emotion coming from you that they can’t handle. Our children are very sensitive to disappointment. They feel wounded when we point out what we don’t like in them. When we speak like this to them we are usually coming from our head not our heart.
Instead, turn this statement into how you are feeling, not projecting your feeling onto your child. For instance, say something like, “I am really struggling to find a way to enjoy this activity with you when you are on your phone. I want to spend time with you and enjoy our time together. Is that possible?” And have a more lighthearted attitude, maybe add in some humor to break up the intense emotion you are experiencing if you can. Speak with your heart at these times, as your head will just throw you off center and want to be right, instead of be in relationship.
5. State what you want
“Don’t ______________.” The mind doesn’t recognize don’t so it will pick up whatever comes after the don’t. Eliminate don’t from any request you make to your children. Always state what you want them to do. Try it… say “Don’t worry.” Your mind just hears and acknowledges worry. Instead say, “What do you need to feel better about this situation?” Don’t say, “Don’t forget to pick up the mail on your way home.”
Instead say, “Please remember to pick up the mail on your way home.” Or even better, “I would so appreciate it if you can pick up the mail on your way home, it will help me out.” Adding a feel good experience will help your children connect to you even when they are doing what you want or need.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what not to say, but these have been my top 5 communication changes that have made a world of difference to my own motherhood experience, and taught my children communication skills in the process… a win win! I think you will agree that we want to teach our children how to have a voice of their own, be able to see options, cultivate empathy and compassion, speak from their hearts, and state what they want… right? It all starts with how we communicate with them.
I hope you will always remember that cultivating a relationship with your children is the key to being able to share your wants and wishes with them, and learning how to talk with them will help them grow up into capable, communication-skilled adults so their other relationships can flourish too.