There’s a lot out there about how to talk to your kids, especially about difficult topics like drugs and sex. But what might be of greater value to your relationship and to their development is if you become a better listener.
Here are some tips.
1) Start with honest self-evaluation.
Consider how you are in conversation with your kids. Think about whether you would want to talk to yourself, if the roles were reversed.
Remember what your parents were like when they talked to you. Remember what made you feel respected, understood, and valued. Remember what created the opposite feeling.
Which of those behaviors are you emulating?
2) Determine your conversational style.
Are you more talker than listener? Is it more lecture than dialogue? Do you have a tendency to interrupt? Do you ask closed questions (those that have yes/no answers) or open ones (which tend to invite more participation from the other person)?
Some styles will be more conducive to connecting with your child.
3) Notice what makes your child open up and what makes him/her shut down.
You can do this with children of any age. Your toddler is already forming conversational preferences.
4) Work on your awareness, responsiveness, and self-control.
That can sound daunting, I know, but this isn’t about a huge overhaul. It’s about becoming more aware of your own emotions and how they influence the flow of conversation. It’s about tweaking your style. It’s about reminding yourself when to be quiet.
You’re doing some things right already. But there may be certain behaviors that are off-putting.
Often that’s coming from a place of anxiety. We might feel the stakes are high, and we need to get it right. We need to get our message across.
Think of it as a series of conversations, not just one. There’s room for you to screw up a talk and come back for round 2 (and 3, and 4…) You’re not just trying to impart one lesson; you’re trying to open up the channels of communication because your child has a lot of hard decisions to make in life, and a lot of information to synthesize, and you want to be there all along the way.
Sometimes when parents feel they’re on shaky ground (for example, they want to talk to their kids about drugs but they don’t want to be asked about their own drug past), they tend to give lectures. They don’t leave gaps in the conversation. They don’t invite questions.
But it’s important that your child feels you’re there to listen. You need to get a sense of their world view before you try to impose your own on them.
5) Show respect.
Even if you disagree with how they see things, even if you have strong opinions or want to influence the outcome, you need to fight the impulse to cut them off or tell them how things should be. They know how it is, for them. Their feelings and thoughts are legitimate.
Sometimes the respect is in the listening itself–staying quiet and taking it in, and telling them you’re going to think about what they said and you’ll talk again later.
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s room for both you and your child to fall down (a lot) and get back up. To talk, and talk some more.