Parenting is one of the hardest but most important jobs in the world. How you choose to communicate with your child or children shapes how they will choose to communicate with others. If you yell at your child when they are misbehaving or aren’t listening, they will also yell when others aren’t doing what they want them to do. If you don’t acknowledge what they are feeling, they won’t acknowledge what others are feeling. Children mimic behavior and are sponges so it is especially important that you as parents model the communication you are looking for from your child. Easier said than done right? I am a father of four young daughters so I understand how challenging it can be to practice what you preach! Here are four ways that may help you model the communication you would like to see in your child. These strategies will also help strengthen your child’s overall mental health.
1. Check In With Yourself
Stressors may feel like they are at an all time high between work, bills, and not enough balance in your life to do the things you want to do. After a long day, your child just wants to spend time with you, but maybe you don’t have the bandwidth to give them the attention they need. As a result, they may start to misbehave to get your attention. You ask them to clean up a mess they made or to do their homework but they don’t listen to you. You find yourself getting frustrated and begin to yell at your child only to escalate the situation. Before you even go down this path, check in with yourself. You may even need to remove yourself and self-isolate for a few minutes. Take some slow, deep breaths and ask yourself what you are feeling and what outcome you are looking for. By identifying your own emotions and focusing on the end results you are looking for, you will have a better time communicating with your child and other family members which will result in a more productive conversation. If your mood is elevated and you are having a difficult time identifying or coping with strong emotions, now may not be the best time to engage with others. Be sure to let your family know that you just need some time to decompress and/or meditate. Encourage your child to check in with his or her self as well during times of distress and follow the same course of action.
2. Listen First
Whether your child is expressing a need or emotion in a rational way or they are misbehaving because they are having a difficult time communicating a need or emotion, be there to listen first. Ask open ended questions and let your child talk. Try to acknowledge their perspective and validate what they are feeling. It is okay if you disagree with something they say or have a different opinion. If this is the case, you can problem solve and brainstorm solutions that work for both you and your child. Simply letting them know that their perspective and feelings matter shows your child that you value them. It also models healthy communication, relationships, and problem solving/conflict resolution skills. This requires patience. You may need to take a few deep breaths should your child’s mood become elevated if they are having a difficult time expressing what they are feeling to you. Keep in mind, if you remain calm and continue to listen, you will help your child express their need and emotions. You will also prevent things from escalating further which can lead to more time and energy invested in resolving whatever the issue is. If your child is not able to effectively communicate or is not ready to talk, let them know that you are ready to listen when they are ready to talk. Give them time to calm down and be available when they are ready to talk to you.
3. Spend time connecting with your child
You are your child’s hero and they just need your time. Sometimes it may feel difficult to consistently give your time to your child with all of the other responsibilities that parents have to manage. Try to incorporate some time each day even if it is just 10-20 minutes. Maybe it means having a catch outside or playing house or a board game. If possible, try to also make time to spend one on one time if you have multiple children as this really increases bonding and connection with each child. Try to connect at least once per month if possible even if just for an hour or two. Go to the boardwalk/beach, take a hike and fish together, go for a bike ride and picnic, or come up with a new, creative idea you haven’t done yet. By taking the time to bond and remain connected, your child is much more likely to look to you as you continue to model positive communication for them. Having healthy relationships with your children will have a positive impact on your mental health as well as theirs.
4. Normalize negative feelings
Humans are emotional beings. How we act and communicate is a direct result of what we are feeling. The same goes for children. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was happy all the time? Your children always got along and everyone listened all the time and followed through with chores and responsibilities. Adults have their fair share of struggles with emotion regulation between work, home, and other stressors. Don’t forget that children and adolescent brains look completely different than adult brains as the part of the brain that helps to control emotion regulation is not completely developed yet. As a result, your child, who is experiencing all sorts of heavy emotions, doesn’t know what to do with them! It is important that you as the parents provide a safe place for your child to express their feelings even if they are negative. Be the calm in your child’s storm and let them know it is okay to not be okay. Reassure them that all emotions eventually pass but do not try to fix what they are feeling. Simply being present, patient, and ready to listen and provide support will affirm that you care and that it is okay that your child is experiencing a negative feeling. Should your child’s negative emotions be persistent or should they struggle with emotion regulation regularly, it may be helpful to find healthy ways for them to cope including exercise, playing an instrument, or going outside and connecting with friends. If you find that nothing seems to be working, it may also be helpful to reach out to a professional as having an outside counselor can be a great outlet for anyone.