Positive Conversations with Your Child
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Written by Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Clinical Psychologist and Founding President of the MSCP
The ‘secret’ to a positive parent-child bond has its roots in communication. How you communicate can determine the quality of your relationship with your child. Done properly, it can lead to a positive and satisfying relationship. However, harmful or destructive communication can poison your relationship with him as it can make him feel small, insignificant and disempowered, leading to feelings of inadequacy and affecting future performance.
An important concept to have in mind is to “speak with” your child, not “speak at” him. When you speak with him, he is likely to be an active contributor to the conversation, versus speaking at him, where he contributes little or nothing to the conversation. Just like adults, children need to be acknowledged and empowered too. Being able to contribute makes him feel useful and empowered because he is allowed to make choices.
Children between 7-12 years old start developing the ability for logical thinking and start exhibiting adult-like thought patterns, which includes the ability to see things with more depth and prospective.
This is also the time when children begin to develop significant relationships with his peers. Though still important as a parent, your influence and authority starts to wane at this stage. This is also the point where your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence become more susceptible to how he believes those outside will perceive him. It is a good time to encourage him to be better aware of their abilities and also how he is responsible for them, by acknowledging him when he demonstrates any sign of success and accountability.
What to focus on
You can encourage and nurture his communication skills using positive feedback. Some of the basics include:
Setting aside time to talk: When you take him for an outing, as you drive him to school, or doing the dishes together. Be curious, show interest, and pay close attention to what he is telling you and be prepared to spend a little longer conversing, especially if he has something to get off his chest.
Being open and patient with emotions: Be free to identify and name his emotions, e.g. anger, frustration or excitement. This can help him be more aware of, and to learn to manage them. Children look to adults to learn how to manage emotions. It is very important to acknowledge emotions in your children, rather than to tell them to ignore or reject them. We often encourage positive emotions but reject negative ones. What he feels is natural, so acknowledging his emotions helps to normalise them and allows him to feel accepted. If you feel disappointed with him, you may express how you feel and talk about how you can address it together with him, but avoid blaming him for feeling what he feels.
Observe body language: Be aware of your own body language – using contrasting body language when speaking with him can create confusion. Their body language should also give you an indication of their state of mind, so be observant during conversations. Acknowledge how they might be feeling and ask if you are unsure. Children can see if you are upset, so acknowledge your own feelings in front of them. Hiding them only affects mutual trust.
Discussing concerns together: The objective of parenting is to guide children toward independent functioning. So if at any time he comes to you with problems, instead of solving it for him right away, explore how he might take steps to find solutions. Let him talk and listen first, then ask questions. A good one to ask is “What options have you considered?” It is entirely possible that he already knows how to solve it but simply lacks confidence that it is right. Where needed, you may model the next step or to suggest a few options for him to think about and try. It’s important to show that you will support him and accept his options, even if you feel they may not be the best. Children also need to learn from mistakes and how to manage mistakes.
Emphasise the importance of honesty: The parental struggle with getting kids to be honest is as old as time. If you want honesty, you have to reward honesty, as painful as it may be. Praise honesty, but if it is upsetting, do express how you feel. Get more ‘honesty mileage’ by NOT being confrontational when you are upset. Confronting in an angry and accusatory manner coupled with threats would ‘encourage’ him to take the easy way out – which usually is to create more lies. Don’t make him fearful to tell you the truth – if you are angry, take the time to recollect yourself before talking to him. Be firm, but gentle, and insist on honesty. Nevertheless, if there are consequences to the wrongdoing (e.g. an agreed punishment), be sure to carry it out but always acknowledge and reward honesty.
Allow him to finish before responding: This is by being the model for respect – don’t cut him off and above all, don’t make assumptions before he completes whatever he was saying. Before responding, ask him questions to check that you have all the facts. Positive communication is mutual respect.
Use simple language/ideas: For children, it is important to keep instructions short and simple. Communication is all about getting the message across to each other, so don’t confuse him by using words that he does not understand as you will need to stop and explain them to him, thus disrupting the flow of the entire conversation.
Avoid labelling children: Call a mistake a mistake. Do not label the person based on the mistake. If he has done something wrong and you wish to call attention to it, focus on the action and its consequences. Avoid using negative labels, e.g. naughty, lazy, loser, failure, worthless, irresponsible, etc. For instance, if you say “Are you stupid?” often enough, you run the risk of your child believing that he is stupid, simply because you said so. It’s much better to say, “What you did was silly. There are better ways to do it” so that there is a sense of hope for improvement. “Stupid” is more of a full-stop, with no improvement.
Encourage the skilful, drop the unskilful: When children start to develop self-efficacy and self-esteem, they learn the concepts of good and bad that are used as labels on them and on others. To reinforce the previous point of avoiding labelling, help children see that there are skilful and unskilful behaviours. This helps him understand that skilful behaviours lead to beneficial outcomes while unskilful ones lead to unwanted consequences, and that behaviours go beyond “good and bad”. They have the responsibility to constantly adapt and improve themselves.
Monkey see, monkey do
The need for a good parental role model cannot be overemphasised. It is human nature to have someone that we look up to and admire – it may be someone we want to be, so we try to emulate him or her as much as possible. This is especially true in the case of children. Parents are the very first role model that a child would have. As you are the parent, you are automatically a model for appropriate behaviours, e.g. if you want honesty, be honest; if you want apologies, offer apologies.
If you want your child to act a certain way, you need to show him how it is done, i.e. by your actions. If you want him to communicate with you in a certain way, then how you talk and interact with him and with others will serve as an example to him. After all, children learn by modelling from adults. Be sure to speak with your child, and anyone else, with respect. Be as consistent as possible in your approach together with other adults around you (e.g. your spouse, parents, siblings, friends) who play nurturing roles to your children.