Effective Communication with Children (page 2)
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.
Using Active Listening to Respond to Nonproblematic Behavior
Even though active listening is a valuable strategy for letting children know that parents hear and care about the problems they express, this approach is equally effective for responding to children's efforts to convey their feelings related to positive experiences in their lives. In response to the child who runs into the room and says, "Dad, I hit a home run, today!" the parent can send the following active listening response. "Wow, you're pretty excited about hitting a home run. Good for you!"
As previously explained, when the parent owns the problem, an "I-message" is used for the purpose of expressing the parent's feelings regarding the child's behavior. I messages are not blameful; hence, they are not you messages. This is the main objective of the strategy, not to blame the child for the feelings the parent is having regarding a particular action or lack of action of the child. I-messages have three parts: (a) the feelings of the sender, (b) the unacceptable behavior of the recipient, and (c) the tangible effect of the recipient's behavior on the sender. An example of an effective three-part I-message goes something like this: "Kelly, I have a problem I would like to discuss with you" (problem ownership). "When I went into the kitchen and saw the peanut butter and jelly jars with the lids off, and the bread and milk not put away (unacceptable behavior of the recipient), I felt frustrated (feelings of the sender) because I knew that I would have to either clean up the clutter myself or ask you to do it" (tangible effect of the recipient's behavior on the sender).
Notice that the parent in this case has not sent a blameful you-message such as: "Kelly, you never clean up after yourself. Get in there and clean up that mess you made." Children and adolescents are much more likely to respond favorably to a parental I-message delivered in a warm, nonthreatening manner than to an angry-sounding, blameful you-message. When children and adolescents feel parents are criticizing their personalities (you-messages), they feel put down and misunderstood by their parents. In these cases, they are likely to respond defensively. The purpose of using I-messages is to express dissatisfaction with a child's behavior, not to attack the child. Sending a three-part I-message to inform a child of how that child's behavior affects the parent might sound as if the parent is telling the child what the child already should know. People in relationships often believe that others ought to be more considerate without being told, should know how some behavior would affect them, and so on. Even though it would be wonderful if all family members could guess how other family members feel and act accordingly, that simply does not occur in real life. People in close relationships are continuously affected by each other's behavior and do all sorts of things without considering the ways in which their actions affect the people they care about.
Although children's behavior is sometimes unacceptable to parents, the behaviors of parents (as well as siblings) often cause difficulties for children. Thus, it is important that both parents and children learn to use effective communication skills. One of the positive outcomes of the parental use of I-messages is that parents model for their children ways in which to express their feelings related to others' behaviors that their children find bothersome. When children learn to use I-messages, they have a skill that makes it easier for dealing with the annoying behaviors of other family members as well as the behaviors of peers.
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