Cultivating Conversation

Talking with your kids in a "yep" and "nope" world

We've all been there. You pick your child up from school or an after school event and as soon as she steps foot in the car, there's nothing but the hum of the engine or light sounds coming from the radio. You try to spark a little chatter and ask, "How was your day?" and are met with, "It was fine." You try again. "Do you have any homework?" She looks up ever so briefly from her iPod and says, "Nope."  So, you say, "Oh, that's nice! What did you learn today?" And finally, a little bit of silence before your daughter finally says, "Nothing really."

Your heart sinks. You think, "What I am doing wrong?" If you ask one expert, take a deep breath and cut yourself some slack.  "Parenting is a tough job and when it comes to communicating with our kids, there are a lot of obstacles. We just need to navigate around those obstacles," says Julie Hecker, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.

So how do you break through the roadblocks and get that conversation flowing? Hecker says it all boils down to some simple common sense rules.

For starters, many parents need to realize that when a child becomes a tween or teen, there will be times when she might want a little alone time or might not be as chatty. Hecker says, "Some kids withdraw and isolate when they are depressed, and so you certainly have to look for other signs. At the same time, families have to loosen their boundaries a little so those adolescents can start to seek out their independence a little bit."

Keeping that in mind, Hecker says it's important to balance that with some good old-fashioned family time. There's that saying, "A family that plays together, stays together." And for Hecker, those words ring true. She says family meal time is a must. On top of that, you should also have some time set aside for the family to "unplug." Hecker stresses, "And that goes both ways – for the parents and for the children. We need to unplug. This generation doesn't see it as a problem. It is a different challenge now with all the electronics in our lives."

Hecker adds when it comes to family time, it doesn't have to be something organized. It can be something as effortless as sharing a bit of everyday life. She says, "Even if spending time together is something simple like cooking in the kitchen, that's when you can have those conversations."

Some parents have found success by meeting their kids on their level.  If your child loves to dance, have them show you a few moves. Or, if they love to play video games, grab a controller and ask to play with them. Hecker says you'd be amazed at just how much a child's walls will come down if you take the time to be interested in his or her hobbies. She says, "It is critical for us to have fun with our kids. If you are not laughing and having fun together, then your children are not going to come to you when they are struggling."

Now that you have your child's attention, make sure not to lose it. It sounds silly, but eye contact goes a long way in keeping a conversation engaging. And Hecker says, if you're not getting it in return, it's okay to ask for it. Hecker says, "Sometimes we even need to go one step further and ask our kids to repeat what we just said." She says it's all a part of helping to give your children a lesson in listening.

There will be times when your kids want to talk and you simply can't. Never fear, Hecker says, just be honest. "Kids are famous for finding us when it is not good timing but then, we need to go back and say, 'You know, I am busy right now but give me thirty minutes and I am all yours.' And then, we need to be there."

Bottom line, whether you're talking over dinner or in between homework and athletic events, the goal is to talk.  Kids won't be kids forever and if there's not a good connection while they are still living under your roof, there won't be one after they have left home.

"That connection is critical," Hecker says. "If that connection is not there, your children are going to get their needs met elsewhere."

Six Simple Ways to Spark that Parent/Child Conversation
How to help your kids open up

1. Hear what your children are saying and listen without judging. By fully listening to your child's concerns or issues without interjecting, it validates that what they have to say is important.

2. Ask open ended questions to encourage more than "yes" or "no" answers.

3. If something is bothering your child and they want to talk about it, acknowledge their feelings and show empathy.  Doing so will show your child that you care and that what they are feeling is real.

4. When you don't agree with your child or a decision that they made, avoid attacking their character. As Julie Hecker says, "Love the child and discipline the behavior. Our job as parents is to build our children's self esteem." Hecker adds that it is okay to say, "I am disappointed" rather than yelling. She says, many times that's all you need to say in order to make an impact on your child.

5. If you do, as a parent, make a mistake, Hecker says it's okay to admit that you blew it. She says, "I think we can role model to our children by admitting our mistakes and apologizing."

6. Accentuate the positive. Even if you want to chat with your kids about something negative in life, try to start the conversation in a positive way. For instance, Hecker says if the issue is grades, she suggests trying this type of approach, "You've been doing so well with your grades. Look at all these classes that you are doing well in. What's going on with these two that you are struggling in?" Hecker admits, "It's hard, but it is key. Once again, you are trying to build up that self esteem."


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