Therapists and other relationship experts talk a lot about the importance of communicating with our kids. Experienced parents who aren’t mental health professionals (like me) agree that open communication is important. It can be very hard to do that, though, particularly when our kids tell us something that we don’t want to hear. How we handle those conversations can strengthen or destroy our relationships with our children.
Be Willing To Listen Without Judgment
The first step in dealing with hearing difficult things from our kids is to be willing to listen. Our kids may be telling us our flaws, or they may be confiding about a problem they are facing in their own lives. No matter which situation we’re in, we have to listen without judging our children.
By “not judging,” I mean two things. First, we don’t express an opinion until we listen to everything they want us to hear. Waiting to give our opinion may be hard, particularly if they are telling us where we’re wrong. It’s a strong human tendency to start defending ourselves right away. We need to make ourselves listen to our kids instead of just formulating our responses.
Second, we have to listen without reaching conclusions about them as people. This principle is part of what I discussed earlier this week about unconditional acceptance. No matter what decisions our kids make, we have to continue to love them and value them.
Not judging does not require that we agree with them. That distinction may be hard for our kids to understand. It’s a sophisticated concept and our culture tends to demand that everyone think the same. Nevertheless, we can show them how to disagree with people without judging them. I once heard a friend say to her child, “I’m on Team [Child’s name], and I think you’ll be happier with a different decision. Whatever you decide, though, I will still be on your team.” That phrasing, or something similar, is a good place to start explaining our stance to our kids.
Be Willing to Listen Without Penalty
Another important and difficult principle is to not punish kids for their honest opinions. We may have to talk to them about their delivery or timing, but we can’t penalize them for the substance of what they say. After all, if there’s a penalty, they won’t be honest with us again.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to intimidate kids. Shock and disbelief can be just as much punishment for kids as actual consequences. We need to avoid negative reactions if we want our children to trust and confide in us.
One of the best compliments I ever received was one of my now-adult daughters who said she was in a training session where the speaker said about a difficult topic, “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t tell your mother.” My daughter said, “That didn’t help me any. It didn’t give me any limits.” I’m not sure I really was all that calm with my kids, but it’s nice that she remembers it that way.
Be Willing to Listen With Empathy
Sometimes what our kids tell us is not everything that’s going on. When my foster kids yelled, “You are NOT my mother,” they weren’t just stating the obvious. They had a lot of anger and pain wrapped up in that short sentence. I had to listen for and help them verbalize all of the underlying emotions.
We have to do the same when we are having difficult conversations with our kids. We can’t just react to the surface words. We have to be sure that we are hearing all of the complex emotions involved. We may need to try to put ourselves in their shoes, or we may need to ask them more question. Whatever the technique, we need to listen to what they are feeling as well as what they are saying.
I will admit that this principle is the hardest for me. I’m not a naturally empathetic person, and I tend to meet everything with logic. That skill set works fine for my law practice, but I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t work in relationships. I have to listen with my right brain to what my kids are saying.
Be Willing to Admit When We Are Wrong
This final principle may be the most difficult of all. None of us wants to hear it when our kids say that we are wrong about something. It’s very easy to retreat to our position of authority and simply ignore them. But if something we are doing or saying is causing a problem in the relationship, we have to be willing to fix it.
Even if our kids are mostly wrong in their diagnosis, there may be a germ of truth that we need to hear. None of my kids, for example, has ever said that I’m too emotional or easy-going. The complaints have always been that I’m too busy to pay attention, too sure of myself to listen, or too vested in an opinion to change it. No matter how much I disagreed with those complaints, I always had to admit that, every once in a while, my kids had a point.
Even if what we’re saying or doing is not a big part of the problem, being willing to think about where we might be wrong will help our kids to trust and listen to us. After all, if we aren’t willing to change, why should they? Our children can believe just as strongly as we can that they are right; we have to show them by example how to listen and be willing to find common ground.
None of these principles will make any difficult conversations easier. Following them, however, can help keep us from damaging our relationships with our kids. More important, they can increase our chances of using the conversations as building blocks for stronger foundations.