The “secret” to a positive parent-child bond has its roots in communication.
How you communicate can determine the quality of your relationship with your child. Done properly, it can lead to a positive and satisfying relationship.
However, harmful or destructive communication can poison your relationship with your child as it can make them feel small, insignificant and disempowered, leading to feelings of inadequacy and affecting future performance.
A very important concept to keep in mind is to “speak with” your child, not “speak at” them.
When you speak with them, they are likely to be active contributors to the conversation, versus speaking at them, where they contribute little or nothing to the conversation.
Just like adults, children need to be acknowledged and empowered too. Being able to contribute makes them feel useful and empowered because they are allowed to make choices.
Between the ages of seven and 12, children start to develop the ability for logical thinking and exhibit adult-like thought patterns, which includes the ability to see things with more depth and from different angles.
This is also the time when they begin to develop significant relationships with friends and peers.
While you are still important as a parent, your influence and authority starts to wane at this stage.
It is also at this point where your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence becomes more susceptible to how they believe those outside will perceive them.
It is a good time to encourage them to be better aware of their abilities and how they are responsible for them, by acknowledging them when they demonstrate any sign of success and accountability.
What to focus on
You can encourage and nurture your child’s communication skills using positive feedback. Some of the basics include:
• Setting aside time to talk
This can be, for example, when you take them for an outing, as you drive them to school or when doing the dishes together.
Be curious, show interest and pay close attention to what they are telling you and be prepared to spend a little longer conversing, especially if they have something to get off their chest.
• Being open and patient with emotions
Be free to identify and name their emotions, e.g. anger, frustration or excitement. This can help them be more aware of, and to learn to manage, their emotions.
Children look to adults to learn how to manage emotions. So it is very important to acknowledge emotions in your children, rather than to tell them to ignore or reject them.
We often encourage positive emotions, but reject negative ones. What they feel is natural, so acknowledging their emotions helps to normalise them and allows them to feel accepted.
If you feel disappointed with them, you may express how you feel and talk about how you can address it together with them, but avoid blaming them for feeling what they feel.
• Observe body language
Be aware of your own body language – be careful not to use contrasting body language when speaking with your child in order to avoid confusion.
Their body language should also give you an indication of their state of mind, so be observant during conversations.
Acknowledge how they might be feeling and ask if you are unsure.
Children can see if you are upset, so acknowledge your own feelings in front of them. Hiding them only affects mutual trust.
• Discussing concerns together
An objective of parenting is to guide children toward independent functioning.
So, if at any time they come to you with problems, instead of solving it for them right away, explore how they might take steps to find solutions.
Let them talk and listen first, then ask questions. A good one to ask is “What options have you considered?”.
It is entirely possible that they already know how to solve their problem, but simply lack the confidence that it is the right choice.
Where needed, you may model the next step or suggest a few options for them to think about and try.
It’s important to show that you will support them and accept their options, even if you feel their choice may not be the best.
Children also need to learn from mistakes and how to manage mistakes.
• Emphasise the importance of honesty
The parental struggle with getting kids to be honest is as old as time.
If you want honesty, you have to reward honesty, as painful as it may be. Praise honesty, but if it is upsetting, do express how you feel.
Get more “honesty mileage” by NOT being confrontational when you are upset.
Confronting in an angry and accusatory manner, coupled with anger and/or threats, would “encourage” him to take the easy way out, which is usually to create more lies.
Don’t make them fearful to tell you the truth – if you are angry, take the time to collect yourself before talking to them. Be firm, but gentle, and insist on honesty.
Nevertheless, if there are consequences to the wrongdoing (e.g. an agreed punishment), be sure to carry it out, but always acknowledge and reward honesty.
Allow him to finish before responding
This is by being the model for respect – don’t cut them off – and above all, don’t make assumptions before they complete whatever they were saying.
Before making any response, ask them questions to check that you have all the facts. Positive communication is mutual respect.
• Use simple language/ideas
For children, it is important to keep instructions short and simple.
Communication is all about getting the message across to each other, so don’t confuse them by using words that they do not understand, as you will need to stop and explain those words to them, thus disrupting the flow of the entire conversation.
• Avoid labelling children
Call a mistake a mistake. Do not label the person based on the mistake.
If they have done something wrong and you wish to call attention to it, focus on the action and its consequences.
Avoid using negative labels, e.g. naughty, lazy, loser, failure, worthless, irresponsible, etc.
For instance, if you say “Are you stupid?” often enough, you run the risk of your child believing that they are stupid, simply because you said so.
It’s much better to say, “What you did was silly. There are better ways to do it”, so that there is a sense of hope for improvement.
“Stupid” is more of a full-stop, with no improvement available.
• Encourage the skilful, drop the unskilful
When children start to develop self-efficacy and self-esteem, they learn the concepts of good and bad that are usually used as labels on them and on others.
To reinforce the previous point of avoiding labelling, help children see that there are skilful and unskilful behaviours.
This helps them understand that skilful behaviours lead to beneficial outcomes, while unskilful ones lead to unwanted consequences, and that behaviours go beyond “good and bad”.
They have the responsibility to constantly adapt and improve themselves.
Monkey see, monkey do
The need for a good parental role model cannot be over-emphasised.
It is human nature to have someone that we look up to and admire – this role model is someone that we may want to be, and thus, we try to emulate him or her as much as possible.
This is especially true in the case of children, and parents are the very first role models a child has.
Because you are the parent and the adult, you are automatically a model for appropriate behaviours, e.g. if you want honesty, be honest; if you want apologies, offer apologies.
If you want your child to act a certain way, you need to show them how it is done, i.e. by your actions.
If you want them to communicate with you in a certain way, then how you talk and interact with them and with others will serve as an example to your child.
After all, children learn by modelling from adults; so be sure to speak with your child, and anyone else, with respect.
This way, you are giving a much more powerful message on positive communication.
Be as consistent as possible in your approach, together with other adults around you (e.g. your spouse, parents, siblings, friends), who play nurturing roles for your children.