When we think of communication, we might think just of words. It turns out that communication is far more complex than just language, and also involves connection and listening. Understanding all three of these elements can help you communicate in more effective ways, and better communication can help you build stronger, healthier family relationships.
The foundation of communication is connection. While there are many ways for families to connect, one of the most important things adults can do is simply to give a child their full attention. On a regular basis, even for just 10 minutes, try to schedule “special time” with your child. Put aside any distractions (like a phone or TV), tell them they have your undivided attention, and let them choose the activity or topic of conversation – this is a great opportunity for them to share their interests and hobbies. During this time, avoid telling them what to do and how to do it, or criticizing what they’re doing. Be sure to let them know how much you enjoy spending time together!
What we say to children matters, and something young people love to hear is genuine, specific praise. Instead of “Good job!”, try something that really shows you’re focusing on what they’ve done: “The way you built that Lego ship is incredible! Those wings look like they could really fly!” It’s important to praise more than just a successful outcome – celebrating the efforts they make, especially with challenging tasks, tells kids you believe in them, and helps them feel capable and empowered.
One of the most powerful communication tools we have is our ability to listen, and it turns out the key is in how we listen. Active listening is the process by which we let a child know the value and importance of what they have to say. Active listening is not simply opening our ears, but involves three distinct components: reflection, validation and resolution.
Reflection is listening without interruption and then repeating back the core message of what the person has said. An accurate reflected statement shows you were really listening, and helps the other person feel understood. It's important to maintain a neutral tone, and make sure the reflection is phrased as a statement, not a question.
Validation is how we tell someone, “Your feelings are understandable.” If a child expresses a feeling that makes sense, you can let them know that you hear what they’re saying and you understand why they feel that way. Validation is important because it helps build emotional safety, increases trust and can reduce power struggles. Some folks hesitate to offer validating comments because they worry the other person will think they’re agreeing. It’s important to focus on how they feel, not whether or not they’re right.
Resolution is finding a way for everyone to feel good about the outcome - a successful resolution turns a win-lose situation into a win-win. You can begin by identifying shared goals or desired outcomes, and then work together to find a solution that meets both people’s needs. Ask them to brainstorm ideas that can work, and then offer options that are acceptable to you and feel like a fair compromise.
A common area of conflict for families is technology, and arguments over the use of phones at night can be challenging. An active listening approach utilizing reflection, validation and resolution might look like this:
Young person: “I’m not giving my phone up at night. I need my phone, you can’t take it away, I have to have it at night.”
Adult: “You feel having your phone at night is important.” (Reflection)
Young person: “Yes! It’s really important, it’s when everyone’s on and I can’t talk to my friends without it.”
Adult: “It’s understandable that you want to connect with your friends.” (Validation)
Young person: “Yeah.”
Adult: “You need to be able to stay in touch with your friends, and I need to make sure you’re getting enough rest. What do you think might work?” (Resolution)
Young person: “Well, what if I have my phone but promise to put it away at a certain time?”
Adult: “That’s a good idea! Tonight, let’s try free time on your phone to talk to friends after homework, and then put it on my dresser by 9:30 pm.”
Putting It All Together
Communication in families can be tricky, and it’s impossible to always say the right thing. When mistakes happen, it’s important to repair the damage: think about what went wrong, how you might handle it differently next time, and talk it through with your family member. Taking the time and effort to practice these key communication skills will help all of your family members build closer, happier, and healthier relationships, now and into the future.
- Anne Van der Veer and Laura Sophocleous, LCSW, LMFT, CASAC; School-Based Health Center Program, Adolescent Medicine, Cohen Children's Medical Center, Northwell Health