Does your child refuse to even look at you when something is bothering him let alone talk to you about it? Kids often pull the silent treatment when something's on their mind, and for parents, this can be a frustrating kind of exchange. Not to mention, parents are often left to guess at what's irking their child. But parents can take comfort in the fact that they're not alone when it comes to this kind of communication (or lack there of) with their kid.
Selena George, program manager of PET (Parent Effectiveness Training), explains that children sometimes express their problems as anger or fear, by saying things like “I hate you!” or by avoiding a situation all together. George explains that the goal of communicating with children should be to “peel off the layers of anger and fear until you can figure out what they’re really feeling" and get at the core of what's truly bothering them.
Never fear! Luckily there are things you can do to help you crack the proverbial code of kids' feelings. Here are some tips to try out:
Reading Between the Lines
As with anyone else, body language is key when it comes to understanding what your child is saying and not saying. When your child is talking about a problem he may have, or if he seems troubled about something, be sure to pay attention to his body language and listen carefully to whatever he says to you. If your child is pushing his pasta around on his plate during dinner, sitting with his shoulders slumped while staring at a wall, and answering all questions with “Yeah, whatever” (assuming that this isn’t your teen’s normal response to any given question, of course!), you’ll know that there’s a problem. Reading your child's body language can be the first step in identifying if something's bothering him.
Keep in mind that watching body language and listening carefully to muttered words is important during the conversation process as well, so don’t stop looking out for physical cues once you’ve already initiated the conversation.
If you’ve noticed that your child is unhappy or behaving differently than usual, or if you know something happened in your child’s life that may have upset her, try mirroring the emotion back at her by naming it and calling her attention to it. For example, you might say gently, “You haven’t eaten a bite of dinner, and your face looks worried about something” or “Losing a game can be frustrating, even when you know you gave it your all.” This will open the door for your child to talk about whatever is bothering her.
Keep in mind that this isn't a surefire way to avoid a door slam in the face. If your child responds with something like, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” back off and give her some space. It may take several conversations for your child to feel fully comfortable discussing a problem with you. Express your understanding of your child’s position and your willingness to talk. “No problem. I’m here if you ever need me.”
Using Active Listening will show your child that you are truly trying to understand where she is coming from. When your child speaks to you, you may find yourself wanting to respond with advice, suggestions, or question after question. Instead, stick to the following guidelines for Active Listening:
· Don't interrupt. If you need clarity about what your child has said, wait until after he has finished expressing himself.
· Avoid all distractions, and do nothing else during the conversation whenever possible. Simply stop what you are doing, and listen. If you can’t stop, tell your child a time that you will be able to give her your full attention. This will let her know that what she's saying is important to you.
· George encourages the use of door opener phrases that invite your child to further explain how she's feeling. Phrases like, “Tell me more about that" or "How does that make you feel?" You can also use noises (e.g., sighs, gasps) or short phrases like “No kidding,” “Really.” or even just “Oh.” These simple and seemingly small responses will let your child know that you are still listening and interested and more importantly, paying attention.
· Retain eye contact with your child and make sure that your own body language conveys sympathy and focus, rather than annoyance and distraction.
Once your child finishes talking over an experience, expressing a feeling, or making a complaint, make sure to confirm your child’s feelings before doing anything else. Confirmation statements can be something like, “So from what you’re telling me, you feel annoyed when your sister takes your things without permission. You think that you should be allowed to have a lock on your door to prevent this from happening again.” Or whatever the case may be. It's important to communicate to your child that you've heard what she's had to say. These kinds of confirmations assure your child that you have heard what she's said and understand how she feels. It also gives her a chance to clarify if you've misunderstood any part of what she said.
George says that in PET courses, one of the most difficult concepts for parents to accept is the behavior window, which is the step of PET where you determine who owns the problem. For example, if a child is getting bad grades in school, it is sometimes hard for parents to realize that that is the child’s problem, not theirs, and needs to be addressed accordingly. On the other hand, if a child wants to stay out late, but the parent has a conflict of needs with such a late curfew, the problem belongs to both of them. Identifying the "owner" of the problem will allow you to not only better understand the problem itself, but also how you might be able to solve it and what solutions might work. If it is the child’s problem, actively listen to your child and encourage her to talk out the situation. If the problem belongs to both of you, however, you can use the win/win approach to conflicts.
If you and your child both share the problem, and the issue must be addressed, make sure to present your child’s side of the story first and to present the disagreement as a problem to be solved. For example, you might say, “You feel that you should have a lock on your door to keep your little sister out. I don’t feel comfortable with any door in our house being locked so that I cannot access it. Let’s think if there’s anything we can do so that we’ll both be satisfied.”
Often you may find your child is more willing to come up to a solution to the problem and follow it than to simply follow your way of doing things. Inviting your child to be a part of the problem solving process and weigh in with her own opinions and ideas will make her more likely to adhere to and support the solution you both come up with. George also maintains that “the best way to raise responsible children who make their own decisions is to let them actually make their own decisions!”
Communicating well with your children, and making sure that you truly understand what they are saying, can give your children the strength inside themselves to come up with their own solutions to problems. Harsh discipline or heavy-handedness does the opposite, creating fear and resistance instead. So the next time there's a problem involving your child, try some of the tips mentioned above. You may be surprised by how much more easily you’ll be able to understand your child and hear what she's really saying.