“Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out,” goes a popular catchphrase. Parental communication styles affect us, even if we don’t like it.
Which is hardly surprising. As a child learning to speak, our first model is most likely to be our parent or parents. We learn our first words and first gestures from the people we spend the most time with.
It found that if a child is enabled to talk about their feelings freely, or even see their parents or other family members do the same, they are likely to develop higher emotional intelligence.
Beyond communicating our feelings, how we resolve potential conflicts could be based on a learnt pattern as well. (Which can account for why when arguing with your teenager you end up feeling like you are arguing with yourself or your partner!).
A study on conflict management styles suggests that how we handle conflict with our adolescent children could affect their conflict management when it comes to friends or romantic relationships.
The study pointed out that it is best to replace 'conflict engagement' and 'withdrawal' with positive problem solving. So instead of dealing with problems in an angry, defensive way where we lose control (conflict engagement), or avoiding the problem and person and becoming distant (withdrawal), we use reasoning. This means an attempt to understand the other’s point of view and then working toward a compromise.
So how to communicate with our children to support their well-being?
Undivided attention is necessary to build trust. From a young age it's important to have some together time when we put away our devices and try to tune in and take part in out child’s world fully.
As they get older, this can become a family tradition of device-free time together. This way we can also pass on an example of active listening.
We should never speak to a child in a way we wouldn't speak to a colleague or friend. Just because they are children does not mean they do not deserve our full respect.
Always think about how you would like to be spoken to, and never use your position as a parent to make your child fear you. Learning comes from a positive, respectful environment.
We have to know the level of understanding of a child, and how much they can process through communication.
With a toddler, for example, we might need to use more keyword-based conversation, avoiding overwhelming them with instructions.
As they grow up, we change the style of the sentences and the amount of information and the level of abstraction, but remember to respect and treat them as equals.
It is very important to validate our child’s feelings, and hold space for them to process them fully. That doesn’t mean we accept all the behaviour that comes with them.
For example, if a toddler hits, we can say: “I understand that you are angry, but I don’t let you hit me”. We can help more to find an appropriate way to get rid of their anger, such as hitting a pillow, or running around.
With adolescents, the discipline is the same. Don’t label them via their actions, try to see their point of view. This doesn’t mean letting the boundaries go, or that they won’t be mad at you. But they won’t feel belittled and disrespected.
Make time for creative, connected communication. This means not always falling into the same old, "How was school?". "Fine." "Okay great".
Learn to ask more questions, or to take time to have creative conversations with your child that help them open up. Questions like, “If you could be the headteacher of your school for a week what would you do?”, or, “what animal would you be today if you could be any animal?” are likely to start an interesting and meaningful conversations about their feelings. You can find templates for fun questions to ask children online.
Absolutely. We might have generational cycles to break and our own issues to work through. And the healthier we learn to be, the healthier the habits we pass on to our kids.
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*Liz Szalai is a freelance writer with a Master’s in psychology. She worked with children and young people for more than 15 years, including teaching students with learning difficulties. Find her at @lizszalaiwriter. .