Did your family have great discussions when you were growing up? Were people interested in hearing and learning from each other’s opinions?
What happened when your needs conflicted with those of your parents? What happened when your parents disagreed with each other? Was there a sense that family members could respectfully disagree, come up with a solution that worked for everyone, and end the discussion feeling closer to each other?
Could you tell your parents anything?
Want your kids to tell you what’s going on in their lives when they’re fifteen?
Start by making these commitments today.
1. Commit to dealing with your own issues. If you’re uncomfortable talking about your son’s birthmark or adoption, he will be also. If you’ve been struggling with your weight for years and your preteen is eating everything in sight and showing it, your conversations with her are guaranteed to backfire. Start by working through your own issues yourself so you’ll be more able to help your kids with theirs. Get professional help if you need to.
2. Commit to a No Fault household. They’re more likely to tell you things if you start from a premise of compassion for all us, because we’re all human and we all make mistakes. Here’s a commitment that will change your life: Next time you find yourself automatically beginning to blame someone, stop. It’s a defense against feeling out of control, and against knowing that you had some role, however small, in creating the situation. Accept any responsibility you can – its good practice to overstate your responsibility – and then just accept the situation. You can come up with better solutions from a state of acceptance than a state of blame.
3. Commit to connecting with your kids when you’re with them. Most parents of teens will tell you they regret not talking more with their kids between the ages of eight and thirteen. They may have moved their kids along from homework to baths or from church to soccer, but always assumed they’d have the deep discussions when their kids were a little older. But most parents are shocked to realize that teens have other priorities, and the opportunities for family discussion and parental influence dwindle unless you’ve made deep discussions a habit all along. How? Commit now to focusing on your kids when you’re with them, and put energy into creating real discussions.
4. Commit to habits of connection, such as not answering the phone when you’re talking with your kids, and using car rides to connect with each other. If you absolutely have to take the call, apologize and explain that it’s an exception. This may seem extreme, but you don’t take calls when you’re in an important meeting. Your goal is to give your kids the message that you really value talking with them. And if you can make yourself turn off the radio when your child gets in the car, you’re lots more likely to make a connection with him and hear about what happened at band practice. Many parents swear by car rides to get their kids to talk with them, but it helps if you set the habit up early, rather than introducing distractions like radio and tapes with your preschoolers.
5. Commit to talking about anything and everything. This may seem obvious, but in most families there are some things that are off limits. Do you talk about people who have died? Your abortion when you were a teenager? Are your kids able to tell you when they do something wrong or make a big mistake? Can your eight year old ask you if you ever used drugs? Could your twelve year old tell you she’s uncomfortable with her budding body? Could your fifteen year old count on your support if he thought he might be gay? Could your 16 year old ask you about sexual pleasure? Whatever’s off limits, your children will sense the taboo, and it will limit what they’re willing to broach with you.
6. Commit to not letting little rifts build up. If something’s wrong between you, find a way to bring it up and work it through positively. Choosing to withdraw (except temporarily, strategically) when your child seems intent on driving you away is ALWAYS a mistake. Use the difficulties that come up to bring your family closer.
7. Commit to regulating your own emotions. The biggest hurdle to communication in most families is that when the topic is tense, we over-react. If you can regulate your own emotions, you’ll find that your child is more willing to open up with you. Even with a subject that raises everyone’s anxiety level, when we stay calm, our child is more likely to stay calm. Not only can we work together to come up with a solution that works for everyone, but our child is more likely to come to us next time there’s a crisis.
8. Commit to spending time together. Regular family dinners, family game nights, picnics under the stars. Find times when you can turn off all technology and just be together. Enjoy each other. Wonder about each other’s lives, interests, opinions. Great conversations have a way of happening once we focus on each other instead of screens.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.