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Improving Communication with your Child

Parenting NI understands that these are difficult and uniquely challenging times. We hope the advice and information in this article will be useful to your family during this challenging time. Even when this pandemic has passed these strategies should help to improve communication and reduce conflict in your home. 

Living in relatively confined circumstances can be challenging for anyone. If you and your partner are newly working from home and your children are no longer at school your home may feel very busy. Families, particularly children – often miscommunicate, unintentionally under the best of circumstances. This article will contain some information and advice on how best to maintain good communication during this crisis. 

Age appropriate

Obviously, there are different strategies that work for younger or older children. However, some things are universal. In their report for UNICEF, Kolucki and Lemish stratify children into three sub-sets – early years, middle years and early adolescent years. They outline four principles regarding how you approach communication with children, it should be:

  • Age-appropriate and child friendly
  • Address the child as a whole – and bear in mind their own personality
  • Positive and strengths-based
  • Talk about everyone’s needs, including those who are disadvantaged

Taking the current crisis as an example, children may not understand words like “pandemic”. They may struggle with concepts like “self-isolation. This lack of understanding may lead to a child or young person being frightened or confused. In older children, this might lead to them taking unnecessary risks or ignoring official advice. 

Parents know their children best – when attempting to explain a complicated idea to a child, use examples they are familiar with. Equally, if you find yourself struggling to explain, take this as an opportunity to learn together. Do not guess, instead look up answers together. Ask your child what they understand already and be sure to correct any disinformation. The UN recommends a strategy they call ‘Child-Friendly Honesty’ when talking about the coronavirus, for example. This means using language they understand, watching their reactions and being sensitive to their anxiety levels. 

Remember that children – particularly those who have access to the internet – may have read more than you expect. However, they may lack the critical thinking skills to determine fact from fiction effectively. There are plenty of reputable websites that can help dispel errors or misinformation like the BBC or the Government’s own websites. 

Everyday Communication

While it is important that children understand the current situation (to an extent), it is also important that the lines of communication remain open in a busy household. 

Family Lives, a UK-based family support organisation outlines three types of communication between parents and children. These are: 

  • Organisation of an event or activity, or to check arrangements; 
  • Bonding – genuinely sharing and learning about each other; 
  • Chatting – idle conversation about unimportant issues. 

All three sorts of communication will be important in the coming weeks. It is important that parents and children are aware of the types of communication and when they are appropriate. For example, it is okay for a child to interrupt a workday for an important conversation. It may not appropriate for them to attempt to chat, but that will take time to get used to so it is important you learn to work together.  Perhaps you could agree a signal that indicates you are on an important call or put a note out to explain that you are not available (unless of course in emergencies) for 10 or 15 minutes.  But most of all, understand that you are all adjusting  and that it is going to take time to find your new family ‘normal’.   

If you find for example, that your children continues to regularly attempt to talk during times when you have to focus, it is worth speaking to them during a calm moment. Attempting to explain while you are stressed is likely to have negative outcomes. Discuss with your child what your strategies are and how you are going to make it clear when you are unavailable, agree with your child what is reasonable and what is not, and be mindful that you follow your own guidelines. It is unfair for a child who is working on home-schooling to be interrupted with idle conversation, and then be told off for doing the same to you during work. 

What does good communication look like?

Good communication is the result of setting out a number of basic elements. Parents should remember that communication is a two-way process, and make sure to listen as well as talk. According to the Australian Department of Social Services, this will help to encourage children and young people to do the same. Listening is an active behaviour – pay attention not only to what is being said, but also how it is said. Look at body language and be positive and encouraging. It can be difficult to listen under stressful circumstances, but that makes it more important. 

Be clear with your intent

It is natural to be polite, or to seek to avoid conflict by your words, but if you have certain expectations of children it is important that they understand this. This is especially relevant for parents of adolescents. When talking to a teenager, remember that they are going through complex physical and social changes. When you add in the complications associated with the need for self-isolation this can become overwhelming. Nonetheless, experts have been clear that teenagers in particular are not following the advice regarding avoiding social gatherings6. While it might be easy to react angrily if you learn that your teenage child has been to a party or been seeing friends, this is not necessarily the best way to react if you want them to listen. 

Rebelliousness is a natural part of teenage life

In fact, brains develop during the teenage years to specifically be more likely to take risks. This does not mean that they cannot understand risk, that they do not care or that they cannot be persuaded to behave differently. Communication, based on listening and respect are a parent’s best tool to getting a teenager to avoid a behaviour. In the context of the coronavirus, explain in reasonable terms why you need them to socially distance themselves. Listen to their concerns and worries about the effect of this, and do your best to mitigate them. Stress that this is not a ‘normal’ circumstance, like staying late at a party or using alcohol.  

This won’t be forever

Remind them that this is temporary, and if practical offer them a reasonable incentive if they comply. This is not a ‘bribe’, but a mutually agreed reward for them to focus on when the temptation to socialise during lockdown is particularly strong. This does not have to be money – let them propose what they might like or offer family-based incentives like getting to choose a film, more screen time or having time when they are allowed to be alone to chat to friends digitally. 

Consistency

When communicating with children remember to be reasonable but consistent. If you explain the consequences of an action, and the children do not comply, you should follow through with any disciplining. This applies for any positive consequences too – do not let the unique circumstances reduce the fun or family time that you normally enjoy. It is just as important to fulfil the promise to make pancakes for breakfast as it would be to instil discipline. 

Having your own space

Time alone is important in maintaining communication as well. It is hard to keep your own composure if your family are constantly around, making noise and disrupting your already disrupted schedule. It is a good idea to plan time for each member to have time spent away – in another room, in the garden or the like. This gives them time to collect their own thoughts, and should help with communication later on. 

Finally, it is important always to not be too hard on yourself as a parent. These are uncertain times, and while it is good to aim for perfect communication, you must have a reasonable expectation of your own capacity. Do not judge yourself for mistakes, instead simply aim to improve from that point. If you feel overwhelmed, you can continue to contact Parenting NI on 0808 8010 722.