Parent: Pick up your room!
Child: I will, I will.
Parent: Pick it up NOW!
Child: Okay, okay!
Parent: I said NOW, YOUNG MAN, and I MEAN NOW!
Child: Okay! Get off my back!
Parent: You watch how you talk to me!!! You can’t talk to me like that!!
Now I get that I am a therapist who specializes in the intricate nuances of complex family communications, but frankly, an eggplant could figure out what’s wrong in this communication, right? So why do we all just keep doing the same thing over and over and getting frustrated with the same old results?
Maybe we are simply creatures of habit, or maybe we learned from our parents, but whatever the reason, if this little scenario rings a bell for you then keep reading. Obviously our children will learn how to communicate with us, and with the outside world, based primarily on how we speak to them FIRST.
I have had parents tell me about mortifyingly embarrassing episodes in which their children, in public places, have blurted out things they have heard at home in the same shrill, loud, and angry voices their parents have used. It is never easy or fun, but it is a wake-up call.
Family life can be chaotic, and stress from external and internal factors can cause our home lives to be hectic and difficult, but it is never, never, never okay to be verbally abusive toward those we love. Parents can become frustrated with children who don’t mind, and in turn speak to their children with disrespect and hostility.
I often say to parents, “What if someone else, a stranger on the street, came up to your child and yelled at your child the way you just did? How would you feel?” Enlightenment dawns when we see our words and behaviors being directed at our child from someone else. If we don’t work on our communication skills when our children are young, enlightenment will really dawn because there is nothing so daunting as a brash 16 year old with an angry grudge and some verbal warfare know-how!
So what are some basic strategies for improving our family communication habits?
- First, run your words through the “how would I like to be treated” filter. It really is the simplest, but most effective way of thinking about how we speak to others.
- Talk ‘with’ your children, not ‘to’ them. There is a difference. Children who are always spoken down to and barked orders at do not become effective communicators themselves, but they will learn how to ‘bark back.’
- Spend time talking with your children every day — make it your highest priority. It is sad that this suggestion needs to be made, but it is a reality that between busy schedules and electronic babysitting, parents often find that their only communication with their children is often telling them what to do and when. Remember that your children are developing their personalities right in front of you, but if you aren’t curious about them you won’t know who they really are.
- Start today. I can tell you from personal experience that it really does go by like a flash, and regret is a heavy burden to carry. We will all look back on missed opportunities and wish we had done something differently, but the sooner you begin, the easier it will be.
If you try to improve your family’s communication and find that patterns are too entrenched, or there is anger or resentment that family members can’t let go of, family therapy can be helpful. Often, in just a few sessions, old patterns can be unlocked and change can begin.