As a Child Psychiatrist, I meet a lot of amazing parents who often feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the latest and greatest parenting advice. We read so many books on how to parent, including how to get our kids to sleep, eat, behave, listen, learn, play… and sometimes it just gets to be too much.
To make things more manageable, I encourage parents to focus on open communication and limiting electronics use. In my personal and professional experience, working on these two pieces can make a household much more harmonious.
I have compiled six pieces of advice that I give frequently to parents (and myself!) to help improve communication with their kids:
1) Spend 20 electronic-free minutes alone with each of your children every day. This is actually even harder than it sounds. Why? Because as parents we are really busy. Also, sometimes our kids are super annoying! They whine, they fight, they want to do the same thing over and over again. It is often easier to ignore them and check our FB status for the 100th time. But honestly, 20 minutes of a fun activity can go a long way as far as improving behavior and mood for both you and your child. Moreover, being present with your child signifies that they are more important than your work/social media/texting.
2) Give genuine praise and positive feedback. The key word here is genuine. We are all guilty of saying “good job” more than we should, and our kids are becoming immune. They can tell when our compliments are half-hearted, too. So my advice to parents is, when (and only when) you feel proud of your kids, TELL THEM. And be specific- this is the genuine part. Rather than, “Good job at tennis practice today,” try something like, “I really enjoyed watching you play tennis today. Your serve is really coming along.” Or, “I could tell you were really working hard on that one piano passage. I bet you will nail it next time.” You can even take this one step further: “What makes that marching band routine so difficult? Can you show me the steps?”
3) No electronics in the car. This is a tough one too. But unless you are going on a long drive, ditch the headphones and tablets. Car rides are a great opportunity for relaxed, quality family time, so set the tone by playing a favorite song or starting an engaging conversation.
On a side note, if your child feels the urge to plug in those buds, that might be a sign that they feel cornered, anticipating a talk about something “important.” It’s a common way of avoiding interaction. So I recommend no serious talks during car rides unless the child brings it up themselves. Parents often see car rides as a chance to force a conversation because they are “stuck with you” for the next 20 minutes. Please don’t do this. Save the difficult conversations for a time and place you can both agree upon. This will make car rides more enjoyable and your kids more likely to engage.
4) Limit options to just two viable choices. Would you like yogurt? String cheese? Crackers? Apple? PB? Having unlimited options can be very overwhelming for children and will often lead to a meltdown. Think about when you are getting dressed in the morning- wouldn’t it be easier if someone said, “ok, mom, you can either wear this or that?” Even with older kids and teens, if you narrow their options to two choices, you are giving them the opportunity to make the decision while you still maintain some control over the outcome.
5) No electronics in the bedroom. This is probably my most unpopular piece of advice amongst both parents and kids alike. But having electronics in the bedroom is a leading cause of insomnia in children and teens. So get them out of there! Besides, nothing good is texted or posted after 10pm anyways. Amiright?
6) Ask your child, what can I do differently? As parents we often seek advice from outside experts, but sometimes the best answer lies within your own child. If you two are having a conflict, the best thing is often to (swallow your frustration and anger) and be open and honest. Try something like, “I’m really struggling here. I feel like we are not listening to each other very well, which often leads to fighting or silence. Do you have any thoughts on what I could do differently so we both feel heard and respected?” Then take a deep breath and wait to hear what they have to say. You might be surprised. And just showing that you value their opinion can be a step in the right direction.
What else has worked for you and your family?