Steven Covey coined the famous phrase,
“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
Communication is the number one problem I encounter in family therapy. This obstacle was clearly expressed in a text I received from an exasperated teenage client, “Who made communication so hard?” Such a wise question. I simply responded, “Everyone sweet girl, everyone.”
Miscommunications tend to occur in families for two reasons. First, parents are not communicating on the developmentally appropriate level of their child. Second, parents are talking more than they are listening.
If you want to communicate better with your children, you need to understand how children at each age and stage best receive information. To fully appreciate this, we have to explore the cognitive and emotional development at each stage. This month, we are going to focus on birth to age 6.
Talking alone is not how children at this age learn. Think about teaching a 6-month-old to play “peek a boo”. You hold his little hands in yours and go through the motions. One day, the child starts to cover his eyes on his own. It took your words and physical guidance for him to learn.
Apply this approach to everything done with a child of this age. Do not simply say what you want them to do. Getting dressed, picking up toys, homework, etc. are all going to require your words and physical guidance for the child to fully understand and comply. We all want an obedient toddler. There is no better way to teach your child to comply than to physically help them follow through and praise them for doing what you asked.
Children at this age are just becoming aware of their emotions and do not know how to communicate them without screaming or crying. It is NORMAL for them to be overly emotional and illogical. It takes time to learn how to communicate and handle these complex feelings. How do we teach them? The same approach: words and physical guidance.
When your child is sad that she can’t have a cookie, pick her up and say, “I am so sorry you are sad that you can’t have the cookie, but you have to eat the chicken first.” That way you are teaching her to name her emotion and express it calmly with words. In teaching children to handle emotions you can also use games.
Say an emotion and have your child make a face to express it. Have them practice “healthy” ways to express emotions by acting and saying their feelings in appropriate ways.
Just say, “Pretend you are angry, what could you do?” Give them verbal hints to use calm words to express what made them angry and then physically encourage them to scribble, take a walk, or throw pillows to get out their frustration.
The bottom line to communicating well with children this age…do not just talk. You are going to have to use lots of gestures and physical guidance to ensure they fully understand what you are saying.