When my siblings and I were in elementary school, our family always ate weekday dinners together. During dinner we talked about everything. Everyone in the family had a chance to talk about problems, successes, and minutia of the day. My folks insisted that if we wanted to be listened to, we had to listen to everyone else, including them. Our listening training came unusually early in life, and it has served the three of us quite well. What my folks did was to create an environment conducive to sincere communication. They knew that if they wanted their children to listen to them, they needed to listen to us.

How did my parents know how to create this environment? My Mom had a mother who was a superb listener, and when my Dad married Mom, he gained a Mother-in-Law that listened so effectively to him, he was able to add effective listening to his communication skills.

So what is the basis of good communication with children? By the age of 6, your child is already copying how you communicate. If you communicate with other adults or older children respectfully, and listen for understanding and not to advise or prescribe, then your child will copy that behavior. Their first learning of what is okay and not okay in speaking and listening comes from you.

Imagine your child coming home from daycare excited to tell you what they did that day. You, busy sorting mail, prepping supper, texting, or talking on the phone, ask them to wait until you are finished without telling them how long that might be. All they can see from their perspective is that everything you are doing is more important than listening to them. Their self-esteem takes a hit. If this pattern continues, it becomes the communication norm for that child.

Unless the communication norm shifts for some reason, your child brings the lessons learned from your communication behavior into their formative and teenage years. Their experience of “What I have to say isn’t important,” has become fact. At this stage, when having important conversations with your child is critical to their self-esteem, ethical, and critical thinking growth, this long-standing norm is blocking the way.

“The most important way to talk so your child will listen is to listen to your child,” says New York City psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, MD. “If they feel listened too, they are more likely to be able to listen and will feel more understood, have more trust, and be more interested in what you have to say.”

Here is the great news. You CAN change the communication norm in your family. It will take time and practice, but it is possible, and the results become apparent in short order. No matter what type of family system you have: two-parent, single-parent, blended family, or grandparent caregiver, the norm can shift and a new one created.


Understanding What is Happening

The first step parents can take to improve family communication is to rigorously look at their current behaviors around communication.

  1. Observe your communication behavior around your significant other, your parents and siblings, and your friends. Whether the communication is in person or on the phone, what are you modeling for your children? You may want to enlist a ‘communication helper’ from outside your immediate family and let them know what you are working on. Their observations might bring into the light some behaviors that are invisible to you.
  2. Observe your behavior around communicating with your kids. Don’t let your emotions about what you are discovering get in the way. You are fact finding so you know what to work on.
  3. Once you have spent a month observing and journaling your communication and listening behavior, discuss with your communication helpers what you have discovered. Concentrate on what situations, times of day, subjects, and emotions trigger the shutting down of your listening.
  4. Create a Top 10 List of behaviors you want to change, ranked in order from most to least of how much you think they are getting in the way of communicating with your children. For each behavior decide on two strategies you will use when the behavior crops up. In a family where there are two parents or caregivers, make sure both adults are doing this step.
  5. Most importantly, sit down with your children and have a conversation with them about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make it age appropriate for each child. Ask them for their help, and set ground rules for what that might look like.

Quick Tips and Things to Think About     

  1. It is often true that the exact time a child wants to talk is the MOST inconvenient time for you. Try to have the conversation right then and there. You need to understand that your teens’ readiness to talk in a serious, deep, reflective way depends on circumstance, emotion, and mood coming into some inexplicable internal alignment. If you make the choice to delay the conversation, let your child know when you will come to them to have the conversation. Then be your word.
  2. When you are having a conversation, do so in a place where you will not be interrupted or distracted. If you have multiple children, set up times to converse with each of them. They won’t mind waiting because they know your undivided attention will be on them when it is their turn.
  3. Figure out where you are listening FROM. Are you lecturing or listening? Are you solving the issue, or helping your child solve the issue by using unemotional questions to guide their thinking? Have you decided that ‘winning’ is not important, but helping them hone their critical thinking skills is?
  4. When entangled in a conflict with your teen, you might be placed in a position where you may be provoked not to listen. If this happens, take a step backward, call a time out, and regain your composure.
  5. Most importantly, be consistent with your new behaviors. Your child has had years of communication conditioning, and it will take persistence, consistency, and owning up to your mistakes to gain their trust and co-create with them the new communication norm.

It is never too late to improve your listening skills and improve or repair your relationship with your teen. Your efforts will be appreciated, and more importantly, rewarded by your child gradually beginning to share more. In fact one day you might here yourself say to a friend, “my teen listens to me; but of course, it is because I listen to them!”