By the HELP Committee and Havre Public Schools for the Havre Daily News
Listen. Talk. Hear. Respond. Empathize. Communicate.
What do these terms have in common?
Parents. Children. Relationships. Practice. Skill. Time.
That's right. Communication takes time. It takes two people. It takes listening and talking. It takes practice and skill.
If that sounds like a big investment, why bother? Who needs the frustration? Who can afford the time to listen or the effort required to practice and develop effective communication skills?
Hopefully, parents will be the first to raise their hands.
Effective communication helps parents build bonds with their child. It also builds trust, creates a more peaceful atmosphere in the home, and encourages positive behavior in the child. Poor communication, however, will likely cause frustration in the child and stress in the family.
The American Academy of Pediatrics describes healthy communication as "a strong two-way bridge that is crucial in helping your child develop a healthy personality and good relationships with you and others. It gives your child a chance to become a happy, safe, healthy person, no matter what happens."
Parents who get into the habit of talking with their children every day build a close relationship with their kids. This makes it easier for the child to approach Mom or Dad when he has a problem, and it helps parents become more sensitive to their child's mood changes. With a closer relationship to his parents, the child is less likely to develop mental health problems and to experiment with risky behaviors.
So, how can parents effectively communicate with their kids?
First, realize that children and adults have different communication styles and different ways of responding in a conversation. The time and place can determine how successful communication will be. Parents should make time to talk with their children in a quiet, unhurried manner.
Parents also need to be prepared to stop and listen when their child wants to talk, even when it is not the most convenient time. A child or teen may finally get up the courage to discuss a tough problem, but if Mom or Dad continue watching TV, folding clothes or surfing the Internet, the child may question if his parent is really listening. The message conveyed is that Mom or Dad has higher priorities than giving full attention to the child. And that message may cause the child to feel unimportant, frustrated and hurt.
Undivided attention to what the child is saying tells him that he is important. It demonstrates that his parent values him as an individual and cares about every part of his life.
Modeling good listening will also help the child to develop these important skills:
Be interested and attentive. Look into the child's eyes while he is speaking. Forget about the telephone and the television and just listen.
Don't interrupt. Sometimes parents want to jump into the conversation with an opinion or a solution before letting the child finish.
When the child is done speaking, help the child clarify his feelings by restating his thoughts or asking questions. This can help him deal with a problem or tackle a difficult task. He can clarify, for example, that he's avoiding his homework because he's afraid he can't do the math. Facing this fear will help him overcome it.
Watch for nonverbal messages. Posture, eye contact and energy level can all be clues to the child's true feelings. She may say that school is going OK, but her nonverbal messages may tell a different story.
Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no."
Don't talk down to the child, no matter what his age. Comments such as "You're only 14, what could you possibly know about ..." discount his opinions.
Follow up by asking about issues or events the child mentioned a day or two earlier. This shows him that Mom and Dad were listening and are concerned about the outcomes and experiences in his life.
Second, adults often confuse communication with telling a child what to do. Telling a child to do his homework or get more sleep isn't really communication. It's important information that the child needs, but it's lacking the exchange of feelings and ideas.
"I" statements can be effective for expressing feelings about a situation without drawing a defensive or argumentative response. Saying "you did this wrong" will likely make the child feel angry and hostile.
"I" statements provide children with clear, direct messages and help them understand that their actions impact other people. Here are a few examples:
When you don't pick up your toys, I feel mad and tired because then I have to pick them up myself.
When you scream loudly, I feel upset because it hurts my ears.
When you try to talk to me when I am on the phone, I feel annoyed because then I have to try to listen to more than one person.
Or you can reverse the order and state your feelings first. For example:
I feel mad and tired when you don't pick up your toys because then I have to pick them up myself.
I feel upset when you scream loudly because it hurts my ears.
I feel annoyed when you try to talk to me when I am on the phone because then I have to try to listen to more than one person.
"I" statements can also be used to express positive feelings:
When you are nice to your brother, I feel happy because I like to see you getting along with others.
When you do your homework, I feel proud because I think that school is important.
When you pick up your toys, I feel happy because it shows me that you are listening when I ask you to do something.
In conclusion, consistency is key to communication. A parent who communicates effectively with his children will, in turn, teach these skills to his kids. Then everyone benefits - at school, in personal relationships, and at work.
The HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line is committed to supporting healthy family relationships for club members and everyone in the community. For more information on this or related topics, call 265-6206.