Ever heard this before?
“How was your day?”
“What did you learn?”
“Got any homework?”
“Wanna talk about anything?”
“Nope, I’m good.”
I call this a “communication pit.” To some, this is a daily routine. Nearly every parent I talk to wants to communicate better with their kids, and nearly every kid and teen I talk to wants their parents to listen. So what are we missing?
The most common issue is timing. When we want our kids to talk to us, they aren’t ready, and when they want to talk to us, we’re not ready. Thus, we miss each other and then later wonder what happened. I have some ideas about improving communication and staying out of “The Pit.”
Shatter the Old Routine: For those of you who say the same things at the same times every day to your kids, it’s time to switch things up. One way to do this is to use open-ended questions (“Tell me what happened at lunch today.”) Closed questions make kids feel interrogated or that they are in trouble. Another is to not accept one word responses (“Nuthin’”) or shoulder shrugs. Demand full sentenced, articulate responses – and demand the same out of yourself. Another way is to tell your kids about your day. I find it interesting that parents expect kids to share all about their day but the parents never tell anything about their day. It has to go both ways.
Create “Space” for Communication to Occur: Zinging questions from the driver seat in the car back to the 3rd row of the SUV or family van doesn’t work very well. Good communication happens when there is a face-to-face or an equal body position. Eliminate distractions such as phones, TV, or outside influences. Tell your young person, “Hey, later on let’s take 15 minutes and talk about today. How’s 7:30 sound?” This creates expectations and sends the message that talking with them is important. Once you’re in position, listen and don’t interrupt or make snap judgments. For example, when your 15 year old daughter is telling you about how disappointed she was when her friend wore a skimpy outfit to the football game, don’t jump in with a comment or judgment (“I’m tellin’ you, if she was MY kid I’d really tan her hide!”). Your daughter has told you that she’s already disappointed in her friend; the lesson is learned and the point is made so shut your mouth. One interesting factor in getting kids talking is where you, the adult, decide to sit. I’m amazed when I sit on the floor while a kid sits on the couch how comfortable they are talking to me. Remember: What works with one kid may not work for another. Be willing to be flexible and don’t get discouraged.
Use Toys and Art to Talk about Tough Topics: Situations like loss and rejection bring about emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. These are hard for young people to put into words. However, when you grab two LEGO mini-figures to play out the fight that your son had with a friend at PE, or you grab some paper and start sketching with your daughter while you’re listening to some of her favorite music, communication will usually start to flow. A blob of clay or Play-Doh becomes the oil that gets the communication gears going. The use of these tools creates a safe distance for the young person to look at the problem and examine their thoughts and feelings and then be able to talk about them. This is why play is so powerful: It takes the real situation that’s awful and makes it not so scary.
One thing to remember is that if you haven’t done a good job at connecting with your kid they are going to look at you like you’re crazy when you start trying. This is because they want to know that you are for real, because they aren’t going to buy in if it’s just going to be another disappointment. Be consistent, and don’t give up. Deep down, you are the one person that your young person is dying to receive attention from, even if they act like it’s not true.