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Shifting Your Communication Approach: Foster Deeper Relationships With Your Children

Speech Pathologist, Stephanie Bendel, shares her insights into communication styles.

As a speech-language pathologist, I’m often approached by parents with some variation of the following: “well, yes, my child can talk, but why won’t they talk to me?”

Of course, they don’t mean their children aren’t talking to them (unless we are talking about selective mutism, which is a topic for another day!) Instead, what these parents are referencing can generally be described as a lack of connection - having conversations rooted in emotion and open dialogue; children sharing their friendships, feelings, challenges, and innermost thoughts, and ideas.

Sometimes it can be difficult or overwhelming for your children to engage in an open-ended dialogue surrounding these topics. If this is the type of “talking” you’re seeking with your child, sometimes simply shifting how you approach the conversation with them can make a huge difference in fostering those deeper connections you’re seeking.

And in addition to creating these connections between you and your child, these shifts have added benefits such as decreasing anxiety, promoting regulation, and increasing their ability to understand and subsequently communicate emotions. This skill is way harder for kids than many think.

Before actually shifting your approach, it is important to check in and consider a few things. Before (or during) an attempted open-ended exchange or desire to connect with your child in conversation, do the following:

  1. Stop and assess the situation. Consider the circumstances and your environment. Are you making direct eye contact with your child? Are you talking to them in a small, safe space? Are you distracted while talking to them? Are they distracted? Are you truly present and “checked in”? If not, change these factors and restart.

  2. If the environment and circumstances are ideal for connecting, ask yourself a few questions in order to understand how you will ultimately begin or shift your communicative approach:

  3. Does my child understand what I’m asking them or telling them? Is there a breakdown in comprehension? Are they processing what I’m saying? Did I use too much, or too complicated, language?

  4. Is my child in a place where they are willing to talk? What is their emotional state? Was it a long day for them? If they’re not in the right place, honor that. Come back to the conversation at another time.

Now, depending on your answers above, you can shift your communication style. So you know you have to shift, but how do you do that?

To make it easier to understand, let’s take the example of a mother talking to her son after his day at school: “I heard from your teacher that you and Johnny argued on the playground. She said you guys were playing a game, and he lost and called you a name. What happened? What did you say to him? How are you feeling now?”

Below are eight different kinds of “shifts” you may consider making that can help facilitate a more productive and connected conversation regarding the above scenario:

1. Slow down. Simplify your language.

  • “Was recess tricky this afternoon? Let’s talk about it.”

  • “I heard you played with Johnny today. How was it?

Children often become overwhelmed with too much language. Simplifying how you present scenarios or questions can do wonders to decrease their anxieties around tough conversations.

2. Change your tone. Lower your volume. Create a calm and approachable space simply with your voice.

Again, kids can pick up on their anxieties through tone, volume, etc. If they hear in your voice that you’re regulated and calm, it’s easier for them to match that energy.

3. Probe with more specific, direct questions if necessary.

  • “Did you play with Johnny today?”

  • “Did you guys have fun?”

  • “I know Johnny sometimes calls friends names when he gets upset. Did that happen?”

Some children need to be directly asked certain questions. TOO much open-endedness (especially all at once, with one question firing after another) is a sure way to get those “I don’t know” responses, or sometimes no response.

4. Use open-ended questions or comments (that allow for more elaborative answers) instead of closed questions.

  • “Tell me about recess today” vs. “Did you and Johnny disagree today?”

  • “Tell me your rose (best part) and thorn (the worst part) of your day.” vs. “What name did Johnny call you today?”

As opposed to #3 above, other children do better when “the floor is theirs,” so to speak. You’re leaving them with the option of how much to share and how to share it. They are in control.

5. Use nonverbal gestures to keep the conversation flowing.

  • Hold your hands up in a questioning, curious way.

  • Put your finger to your temple, aka a “thinking face”

  • Make a confused/concerned/thoughtful facial expression

  • Maintain eye contact to show interest

  • Provide a gentle touch or tap to encourage your child to continue

This lets you stay quiet and let your child speak openly and fluidly while showing you’re invested, interested, and following what they say.

6. Use statements or commands vs. asking questions

  • “Tell me about recess with Johnny” vs. “What happened today at recess?”

  • “I wonder what made Johnny upset today” vs. “Why did Johnny get upset?”

This small but impactful shift can decrease anxieties and promote a more open, sharing dialogue.

7. Try using sentence starters, providing choices, or utilizing sabotage methods

  • “Today at recess…”

  • “Was Johnny upset or calm when he lost the game?”

  • “You had no thorn (the worst part) of your day?! It was perfect?! That ever happens to me!”

Some kids just need something to start, as their thoughts can be too overwhelming to articulate into words.

8. Provide wait time for your child. Wait 5-10 seconds at least for them to respond. Give them a chance.

This gives your child more processing time to formulate their thoughts and emotions, and it can do wonders if you just give them the chance to express something how they wish to express it. Try out these tips and tricks to cultivate more connectedness with your children

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