I’m only at the cusp of this thing, this elusive thing called “family communication.” My kids are just 5 and 8, but already—already!—I can see the need for intentional and thoughtful strategies to encourage and maintain open lines of communication. I recognize how important it is to set up a safe and open line of communication with my children now so that they can rely on it later.
The following list is a mash up of things we’ve just organically tried and things that the “experts” have told us are good ideas. I offer this as a starter list and hope that you’ll add on to it: especially those of you that are waist-deep in it with teenagers, or those of you that are on the other side of it with grown children. Help us navigate this winding path!
But, to start:
- Listen. An obvious one, on surface, but here’s the thing that I’ve realized: I might get impatient with my five-year-old who is taking ten minutes to tell me a story about a rock he and his friends were trying to dig up at school today, but if I don’t listen fully and openly to that story, he’ll grow less likely to tell me other stories in the future. Every story they choose to share with me now is a gift, and I need to remember to receive them all with love and appreciation, demonstrating how happy I am just to be talking.
- Empathize. Does my daughter really have a stomach ache? Maybe. Maybe not. Is she feeling some version of “off” and needing to find a way to express that? Definitely. It’s tempting to dismiss the minor complaints of our children, to brush them off in a “you’re fine” kind of way. But jeez, when I am feeling “off” the last thing I want is for a co-worker or friend to tell me to just get over it. In those moments, on those days, what I long for is empathy. A simple: “hey, I’m sorry you’re not feeling great.” I need to empathize first, so my children know that whatever manner of “off” they are feeling, I will be there with a hug first, not a critique. Something tells me this is going to be really important later on.
- Eat Together. We try to have a proper sit-down dinner every night, and some weeks we do that better than others. But the expectation that dinner is a ritual is a good one. And while we’ve never been able to stick to a behavioral ritual—like roses and thorns every night—simply being together over a meal lends itself to chatting. Whether we’re chatting about our days or chatting about something we’ve spotted in the yard or chatting about something that’s coming up this weekend, we’re chatting. And chatting feels like one of those things that bonds a family in ways much deeper than one might initially think.
- Allow Kids to Have Their Opinions. My kids both feel comfortable disagreeing with my husband and me—my five-year-old especially has no problem diving right into a conflict. He’ll challenge something I’ve asked him to do with a hearty set of “Why?”s: he’ll put me in my place with a “Why are you acting mad at me?”. If I’m being too snappy, he’ll stand his ground with why he thinks something is a good idea, even if we don’t. When kids are young like mine, I think it’s easy for parents to nip that kind of “attitude” in the bud, but I actually think it’s great. I think it’s great that they feel safe enough to argue with us and know that he is loved no matter what. To nurture that, I need to remember to encourage them to share their feelings rather than just stomping off when they are mad—I need to ask my own hearty set of “Why”s, and I need to be prepared to change my mind and say I’m sorry.
- Just Be Together. Time together, naturally, brings out conversation. I try to hang out with my kids at night, sit with them at their lemonade stands on the weekends, go to playgrounds and ice cream shops, and just generally find ways to be together. This is one that I know is going to be an increasing struggle as they get older, so I want to maximize the time now: time that says “Hey, I like you and I like hanging out with you.” As a parent, what’s more important than reinforcing this message? You Are Worth My Time. You Are Worth My Time. You Are Worth My Time.
- Ask Questions. What did you do today? Who did you hang out with at recess? Who’d you sit with on the bus? What is one thing you learned today? Did anything make you feel sad or mad today? Did anything funny happen today? What is something that you remember that your teacher did/said? What are you excited about for this weekend? What’s one thing you’d like to do this weekend? Etc. and on and on. As parents, it’s our job to be relentlessly curious, even in the face of “no” or “I don’t know” or “yeah” answers. We mustn’t get discouraged by our mumbling ones! Because though they may not always answer, they always hear… they hear us wanting to know. They hear us caring.
- Follow Their Lead. My daughter occasionally writes me notes to tell me how she’s feeling. So I’ll write her notes back. Sometimes she’ll send me a text from the iPad—even if she is sitting right next to me—clearly wanting to share something with me that she doesn’t feel comfortable saying out loud. If your child communicates with you in a way other than just talking, don’t stop it—follow it.
- Allow Them to Be in the Driver’s Seat. Wherever possible. Kids have such little decision-making abilities, so where can you find areas for them to steer their own direction? Can they choose their own clothes? Decide what music we’ll all listen to in the car? Decide what show we’ll all watch on TV tonight? Decide what we should have for dinner tonight? Help us choose whether we should turn left or right? Showing them their opinion matters, not just to you but to the entire family, is important in building connectivity and confidence.
- Create a Tribe. I think there is definitely power in families that feel like a “tribe”—like a cohesive unit that sticks together. So even if it is in just subtle things like saying “Hey, The Petrelli Wagon Is Leaving!” when it’s time to go, identifying ways to declare yourselves a “pack” is an important way to show your children that you all need each other to be successful.
- Love Them. This one shows up in all my lists because it’s the simplest, hardest, most important, most core thing that we can do, in just about every situation. As a parent, am I relentlessly showing my children that I love them, no matter what? Do they know that I love them equally when they are perfect angels and when their choices are less-than-ideal? Am I vocalizing, every day, just how much I love them and how glad I am that they are here? Do they feel this running through their veins? Youarelovedyouarelovedyouarelovedyouareloved.
What would you add? We’d love to hear your thoughts on family communication—have fun in the comments section, and we’ll have fun with you.
"Digging In To Family Communication: How to Create An Atmosphere Where Your Kids Talk to You", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016