Connecting with your child is one of the greatest parenting privileges. Sharing hopes, hearing a worry or laughing together deepens family bonds. With good conversation skills, and the strong relationships they create, comes wellness, longevity and positive mental well-being, so make it happen with my top ten tips.
1. Make listening your priority. Listen, really truly listen. Telegraph this by slightly repeating back what your child has said (known as paraphrasing) because then they will know that they have been heard.
2. Make your body language count. If your child talks – particularly if it’s something unusual for them – put down the phone, close the laptop, stop what you are doing and use body language to communicate how important their words are to you.
3. Make it your business to use their words. Younger kids may use their own unconventional words in conversation. It’s very validating for children if you use their words or phrases when you talk together.
4. Make empathy your go-to response. If your child has messed up, create a space to figure it out with you, by empathising first. You can do this and still let them know what’s OK and what’s not OK. Drawing them closer to you, using a calm tone, makes it much more likely that they respond to your boundaries because we can only listen when we are calm.
5. Make it matter. If you are having trouble connecting, make what matters to them, matter to you. This might mean getting down on your hands and knees to look at a worm or putting on a princess crown. Connecting to their passions will start all sorts of great conversations.
6. Make yourself the aspirational model. Illustrate the very communication skills you want your child to learn with your words and actions. Tell them about your day, share your struggles and they will return the favour, in time.
7. Make it feel good. Even if (especially if) your conversation is a difficult one, so say they describe a mistake they made, this is a golden opportunity to communicate that they can share anything with you, so resist telling them off but convey the idea that you are glad they shared, help them figure it out and understand the lessons learnt.
8. Make it real. Young kids find abstract concepts challenging so use real metaphors – drawing it out is an excellent way to convey all sorts of ideas because it’s perfect for children’s developmental stage.
9. Make your expectations realistic. If you are at a tricky patch in your relationship or new to these ideas, adjust your expectations accordingly. Connection comes with patience and practice. It will happen if you make consistent warm, gentle and regular invitations.
10. Make connection any way you can. Connection happens without words. Remember the tiny baby days? A look or touch are precious ways to communicate, sometimes more powerful than words, so value these carefully.
Jane Gilmour and Bettina Hohnen are clinical psychologists and academics with a specialist interest in neuropsychology. Their new book, How to Have Incredible Conversations With Your Child, is published by Jessica Kingsley £14.99.