Did you know that how a baby's caregivers communicate with them not only impacts brain development but also how they go on to behave in relationships in the future? Dr. Nanika Coor explains how respectful communication can positively impact your current relationship with your child and their future relationships.
Babies begin to communicate with their caregivers from the moment of birth. How that caregiver responds not only impacts their brain development, but also how they go on to behave in relationships. That's why it's crucial to communicate with your child in ways that strengthen trust and the emotional bond between you, even when you disagree.
Communication doesn’t only involve the exchange of information through language. It also involves non-verbal cues about our internal thoughts and emotions, the sensations happening in our body, and whether or not we feel safe. And that’s all influenced by our personal, social, psychological, and cultural traumas and conditioning. There’s a lot going on!
Even so, it’s possible to have interactions with your children where you both feel understood and both get a chance to express your feelings and needs in a connected way. Here are 8 tips for respectful communication with your child.
1. Remember that respect is not the same as agreement
When frustrated parents say to their child, "I don't like that you're not being respectful to me," what they usually mean is "I don't like that you're not agreeing with me!"
Respectfully offering understanding isn't the same as agreeing. Instead, it shows that you're trying to see a situation like your child is seeing it, from their unique vantage point.
2. Become aware of the words you say to yourself and to your child
Everyone has a continuous dialogue playing in their mind, but you may be more or less aware of yours. How you talk to yourself is usually how you talk to your child. And how you talk to your child becomes their inner voice.
Do you speak to yourself with kindness or with criticism? With respect or disrespectfully? Notice what your behavior, gestures, facial expressions, and posture are saying to your child too.
Even your silence communicates what’s going internally for you. Still-developing brains take a longer time to process what you've said and reply, and silence plus patience can be respectful of that process. But while your silence can heal, comfort, and support, it can also reject, judge, and punish. Be aware of the effect your silence is having.
3. Self-kindness is key
Start speaking more kindly to yourself. When you notice that you're having self-critical thoughts, get a pen and write them down.
Your brain works so instantaneously that you can think of 100 self-critical thoughts lightning-fast, resulting in a lot of psychic pain. But writing longhand slows you down. You may only write down a few self-critical statements in the time it might take you to think those 100.
Communicating in a respectful way with your child starts with communicating respectfully with yourself.
The end result is you feeling 20 times less bad about yourself than you might have. And perspective-wise, once you see them written out, it may be easier to see them for the extreme or irrational statements that they are.
4. Slow down
While it's not possible to be the speaker and the listener at the same time, you might find yourself trying. This happens when you ask your child a question and then answer it yourself in the same breath before they can. Or maybe your child is saying something to you and before they've even finished, you've completed their sentence and responded to what you imagined they were going to say.
Instead, practice and model listening until your child has finished talking, without interrupting them. Rather than giving rapid solutions, advice, or dismissals, slow things down. Listen closely and try to understand their perspective. Respond by paraphrasing what they're saying to clarify you're receiving the message that they're actually intending to send.
5. Read the room
It's easier to engage in connected communication when you're aware of your bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. At the same time that you're actively listening to understand your child, practice shifting back and forth between your own inner experience and what you imagine your child is experiencing.
6. Don’t invite defensiveness
If you try to convince or force your child to agree with you or decide unilaterally on outcomes that only work for you, you're inviting rebuttals, arguments, conflict, and anger.
Similarly, if you have difficulty taking responsibility for and being honest with yourself about your feelings, you may tend to project those feelings onto your child and blame them for your internal experience. For example, you might say "You made me sad" instead of "I'm disappointed and upset about this."
Behaving your feelings in a passive-aggressive way, rather than saying them directly, can lead to an underlying resentment in your child. They can tell how you really feel!
Instead, model identifying, regulating, and appropriately expressing your emotions.
7. Prioritize process over content
Imagine that process is the view of the forest from a helicopter, and content is standing in the forest hugging a tree. Content is the topic you’re talking about with your child. Process is what’s happening between you—the atmosphere influencing if you're able to hear each other’s messages and collaborate on solutions to conflicts.
Any discussion you have with your child in an adversarial atmosphere will be affected by it. On the other hand, talking about something in an atmosphere of warmth, collaboration, and love fosters mutual respect even if you disagree.
8. Keep in mind that what you say may be different than what your child hears
Remember that what you're thinking and what you say comes from your feelings and experiences in life. What your child hears is also going through their filter of feelings and experiences, which in turn are driving their words and behaviors. So it's natural that communication with your child can sometimes feel super challenging, getting derailed by anger, defensiveness, and conflict.
So while the process is the priority, it’s still important to remember that once your words and behaviors are out there, they have an impact and influence on your child that you can’t take back. It takes more time and effort to deal with the impact of regrettable actions on your child than it does to pause, reflect, and choose not to say and do unhelpful things in the first place.
It's natural that communication with your child can sometimes feel super challenging.
Respect-based communication between parents and children isn’t always easy and takes practice. Your efforts can lead you and your child to feel more connected to each other, even when you’re physically apart. And that’s what you want—for the love and respect that you’ve conveyed to your child in your everyday communication to become the resilience that they carry with them into their adult lives, out into the world, and potentially on to the next generation. And remember, communicating in a respectful way with your child starts with communicating respectfully with yourself.