After a year of spending a ridiculous amount of time with our children, many of us feel that our family communication habits have devolved a bit. Kids yelling upstairs that they need a glass of water? Check. Me repeatedly calling their names while they watch TV and getting no response? Check.
But I’ll be honest, there are times when I’ve been amazed talking with my kids about the pandemic, or racism, or missing people they love. As with many things during COVID-19, kids and parents have backtracked, struggled, and grown through all of these challenges. No matter what your family dynamics, it helps to take stock of your communication habits and practice some playful ways to improve them.
4 Playful Ideas to Up Your Communication Game
Communication is about more than just telling other people what we want: it’s connecting our minds, sharing and reading emotional states, seeing others’ perspectives, and solving problems. Back and forth communication — whether through words or body language — is the essence of shared play. Here are some ways to practice these skills:
1. Say less, express more! Parents, sometimes we talk TOO much. Sometimes it’s important to leave some things unsaid, so our kids can do the work of “filling in the gaps.” This flexes their emotional detective skills, especially when they have to read our facial expressions, look at what we’re gazing at, or follow gestures. To communicate nonverbally, families have to pull away from screens and really check in with each other.
Try this: Charades and dance parties are classic nonverbal turn-taking games, but you can also communicate nonverbally when doing something together like baking or cleaning. Instead of communicating with words, try using an eyebrow raise or a head nod! Even throwing a ball back and forth involves checking in to see if the other person is ready.
2. Connect your minds. When life is busy, we sometimes get hyperfocused on our own to-do lists, but it’s important to spell out what you’re thinking and feeling to other people, and teach your kids to do the same. It’s easy to blow up and yell, but takes more presence of mind to realize what the other person needs to know, and help them understand what you’re going through internally.
Try this: Look through a photo album from your childhood and tell stories about what you did and how you felt. Tie these feelings to how your child sometimes feels, or how it shaped your personality. I was amazed watching my wiggly 7-year-old settle down while my husband took him through his grandfather’s memento box — see if you can find something similar!
3. Check your tone. Remember, the HOW of what you say matters as much as the WHAT. Tone of voice carries a lot of emotions, from shame and disappointment to joy and silliness. As one friend of mine said: “I’ve been trying to watch my tone and stop the yelling. My 5-year-old was starting to be a mini-me, yelling at her brother to do this and do that, and it stopped me in my tracks!”
Try this: When my kids demand something in a sassy tone, I pretend not to understand them, and ask them to “redo” their request politely. To help yourself practice a non-demanding tone, try some of the play ideas from my last post (about helping kids get in touch with their feelings) that let the child take control.
4. Raise a good listener. Listening is hard. Listening requires that we stop paying attention to all of our own interests flying around in our heads, and think about what the other person is experiencing. We may need to teach our kids to hear things out before they “jump to conclusions.” You can practice by reading books, listening to podcasts, or having grandparents tell stories from their own childhood.
Try this: “Walk and talks” are key for encouraging listening and sharing. You may find that children are more likely to open up on walks or drives when kids aren’t needing to make eye contact with you. Also, thank your child when they really seem to process what you say!
Unfortunately, sometimes kids don’t communicate with words — they communicate with tantrums! Just take a deep breath, try to think about what’s going on in that little mind, and resist the urge to hand them a digital distraction. If you can talk about how you think they’re feeling, and how to handle it, they will build those emotion regulation skills much faster. It takes time, but pays off!