Effective Communication with Children
In addition to having a variety of strategies that are designed to motivate children toward appropriate behavior, parents are best equipped to foster the healthy development of their children when they are able to create an atmosphere of healthy dialogue. Effective parent-child communication is the basis of positive parent-child interactions and high self-esteem in children. Furthermore, effective communication between parents and children prevents problematic behavior and helps children understand how to interact effectively with others. Thomas Gordon (1975) developed a valuable model for parent-child communication that has been used in various parenting programs for over 30 years. This approach consists of the strategies of problem ownership, active listening and I-messages.
Knowing when to use the techniques of active listening or I-messages depends on the ability to sort out "who has the problem" when a problem has arisen in a relationship. The ability to identify problem ownership prevents parents from blaming their children for problems that have arisen in the parent-child relationship or from believing that parents must assume responsibility for solving their children's troubles. To establish who owns the problem, one needs to determine who is distressed by the situation. If the child is troubled by events that have occurred or are occurring in a relationship, the child owns the problem. When the child has the problem, it is appropriate for the parent to use the technique of active listening to respond to the child's feelings. In situations in which the behaviors of the child or events in the parent-child relationship are bothersome to the parent, then the parent owns the problem. In that situation, the most effective technique to use for communicating the parent's feelings to the child is a three-part I-message.
Active listening is a compelling communication strategy that consists of a verbal response containing no actual message from the parent but rather a mirroring back of the child's previous expression. Basically, the parent listens for, paraphrases, and feeds back the child's previous message but the feedback is not merely a tape recording of actual words bouncing back. Instead, the parent listens to and reflects back (in the parent's own words) the feelings of the child as well as the content of the child's message the parent thinks is being expressed. It takes practice and commitment to be able to effectively use the skill of active listening. To actively listen to a child, a parent needs to listen carefully (actively) to the words the child is speaking while attending to the child's voice tone and body language. For example, a child might burst into a room, with tears in his eyes, and exclaim, "I hate my teacher!" Although the child's verbal statement, in that example, does not convey that he is upset or what happened with the teacher, the child's voice tone, body language, and tears unmistakably express both feelings and content. A parental rejoinder that reflects having actively listened to the child might be "Something happened with Mrs. Smith that made you very upset."
There are two main challenges involved in learning to use the strategy of active listening. The first challenge is the development of an affective vocabulary, which includes a range of feeling words. "Boy, you're upset or angry" might be a helpful response to a child in some instances but a child has a varied assortment of emotions that need parental responses. For example, these might be: aggravated, irritated, embarrassed, left out, proud, happy, great, and so on. The biggest hurdle to being effective in the use of active listening, though, lies in the parent's tendency to use communication roadblocks instead of active listening. Communication roadblocks bring to a halt the free flow of problem sharing, whereas active listening communicates to children that the parent hears what has happened as well as how children feel about what has happened.
To develop skills in active listening, it is essential that parents become aware of communication roadblocks and avoid using them when the child is attempting to communicate a problem. The use of communication roadblocks by a parent results in the child feeling as if the parent has not heard, is not interested in hearing, or does not care about the child's feelings. Even when the parent avoids each of the communication roadblocks and provides accurate verbal feedback related to the child's feelings and the content of the message, the child might not feel heard if the parent's facial expression, body stance, and voice tone do not communicate warmth and understanding.
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