I have two children — Megan (23) and Brandon (21) — from my first marriage and two children — Emma (8) and Ethan (6) — with my present husband, Gil. Megan and Brandon no longer live at home but frequently visit. Last night while visiting, they were teasingly commenting I had the same parenting style with their younger siblings as I did when they were growing up. They were laughing at my clumsy, sometimes inappropriate parenting skills.
Brandon gave examples of how I continually denied his feelings. He remembers coming home from a weekend with his grandparents and telling me he had a really lousy time. My response had been that I couldn’t believe it because I knew for a fact his grandparents worked really hard at giving him a fabulous time. Megan remembers me defending her friends instead of her. She remembers being really furious at a girl that shoved her down on the ground and I told her to have sympathy because the little girl’s father was let go at his work. They both said I gave too much advice and amateur psychoanalysis instead of true empathy and just listening to them.
I’m not worried about my relationship with either Megan or Brandon. They’re doing well and I’m very close to both of them. If they believe, though, that my parenting techniques could use improvement — especially for Ethan and Emma — I don’t want to ignore the message. Could you coach me on how to communicate more effectively?
Before we explore how to communicate verbally, let’s look at nonverbal language cues. When listening, do you lean slightly forward or hold back? Is your eye contact direct or avoidant? Is your facial expression warm or cold? Are you listening attentively, fully focusing your attention on your child by being involved and interested or do you appear distracted or detached? In order to more effectively help your children when you observe them struggling emotionally, stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention rather than keeping busy and just half-listening. Encourage them to continue communication by giving them empathic smiles and nods.
Listening is often thought to be the hardest part of communicating but, in reality, you don’t have to do anything special. Just be fully present and available. Visualize Ethan telling you something that’s important to him. Listen attentively until he’s completed his message, then mirror (repeat back in your own words) what he has just said (i.e., “What I’m hearing is …” and “sounds like you are saying …”). Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with his train of thought, you need to respect that his reality is real for him even if it’s not for you.
Suppose he says the boy next door is a monster and you know he’s a nice little boy. Resist correcting Ethan and, instead, try to understand what it is he’s feeling. Ask yourself: What’s it like for him to feel like he’s living next door to a monster? Paraphrase what he has told you and listen thoughtfully to his responses. Focus not only on his words but also on the feelings connected to them. Is he sad, scared, annoyed or enraged? It’s positive to gently seek confirmation of those feelings (i.e., “That sounds frustrating. Is it?”).
Now let’s look at how not to communicate. Try not to do the following:
1. Advise or instruct: “Honey, you need to go out and play with your friend more in order to feel comfortable when he’s around.”
2. Defend the other party: “He’s a nice little boy. I don’t understand why you’re reacting this way.”
3. Deny your child’s feelings: “Oh, come on. There’s no reason to be so upset about such a little fight” or “It’s foolish to be so angry. You’re probably just overtired.”
4. Philosophize: “Everybody has difficult days. You need to learn to adjust and deal with it.”
It takes concentration to respectfully listen with full attention and acknowledge your child’s feelings, but it will create a bond of closeness and intimacy between you. Once you learn how to integrate communication skills into your parenting style, you’ll see your relationships with your children become closer and more gratifying.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.