Negotiating Your Relationship With Your Kids
Kids are people too. That may seem obvious, but we often trivialize or treat kids with a diminutive approach. We make them ‘less than’. We forget that our kids have a whole range of complex adult emotions – they just haven’t learned to control them yet, to process them, to communicate effectively about them. You may be asking what this has to do with negotiation. Well, as I always say, all of life is a negotiation. And negotiating your relationship with your kids is no exception. So here’s a few quick tips and strategies you can easily incorporate to improve your negotiations (and with it your relationship) with your kids.
As with any relationship, strong communication is key. Strong communication requires recognizing that we all communicate in different ways. You may be a great verbal communicator. Your child has probably not developed that skill fully yet. That is particularly the case with young children, but even as teens they’re still searching to find their voice. And as adults, they often find it hard to communicate with you in the same way they may communicate with others – the mother-child dynamic can colour the interaction to some extent. Children will communicate in a myriad of ways as they’re developing their language skills. Pay attention to those other means of communication.
With your kids, it’s particularly important to make sure you master the art of active listening. When you have a conversation with them, give them your full attention. This may seem obvious but we rarely do it. Put down distractions – including your cell phone or your work. Make eye contact. Show them you’re there. You’re engaged. Pay attention to your body language. Use it to create connection. Pay particular attention to their body language.
Encourage them to talk to you. Give them lots of opportunity to share what they’re feeling and thinking. Set aside time to talk and listen to each other. Remember our 5 W’s from my earlier blog post series on the issue. Choose your where and when with intention. Consciously choosing the best time and place to broach a potentially prickly topic (where possible) can profoundly impact on how the conversation goes. Family meals can be a great time for establishing regular communication opportunities, but maybe setting aside ‘connection time’ in another way works better for you. But also recognize that those moments or opportunities when they need or want to talk can be rare and fleeting, so try to be open to catch those windows, even if it’s outside your ‘allotted’ time. That may mean stopping what you’re doing when the opportunity arises. Your intuition will come in handy here. Remember to pay attention to their attention span, as appropriate to their age and temperament.
Be ready to listen to the full range of issues – pick up on anger, hurt, embarrassment, fear, shame, etc. They may need encouragement and positive feedback to keep them talking. Start the practice early in their life of sharing and talking about everyday things with your child as you go through your day. Get them used to having lots of open communication. Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings – including your own fear, hurts, etc. It helps give them familiarity with the vocabulary of feelings.
And it also shows them it’s okay to talk about it.
Remember that you can’t solve everything. In fact, you don’t need to solve everything. Sometimes you just need to listen, and be there. You can always come back to it later. But be there – fully present – in that moment. Don’t interrupt. Try not to jump in or cut them off. Don’t put words in their mouth – even if they’re having trouble finding the words. Let them find their way to say it.
Use active listening skills. Even if – especially if – you disagree with what they’re saying. Listen. Stay open. Remember the goal is to model and improve open, honest communication. Listening isn’t just about hearing the words. Try to understand what’s really behind the words. If you’re asking them to open up to you, then set the conditions that encourage them to do so. Try to avoid criticism and blame in those moments. Instead, encourage and reward honesty.
When you’re initiating a conversation about an issue of their behaviour, use ‘I’ statements, especially as an opener to the conversation. In other words, open with your reaction or experience to the issue rather than leading with what they did or didn’t do. Own your own feelings or reactions. ‘I’ language shows that you accept responsibility for your own thoughts and behaviour. It helps diffuse their defensiveness. And it models good practice for owning their stuff and taking responsibility. I also encourage you to dig to find your why before the conversation, and to try to be open to figuring out your child’s why too.
Use questions effectively. Use open questions to elicit their perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Use confirming questions to let them know you’re listening and really hearing them. Use hypothetical questions for problem solving.
Build rapport. Build trust. Show empathy. Be flexible. That will open the door to having the more difficult discussions as they get older. Don’t panic if your kids are older and you didn’t set that framework. It’s never too late to start.
And finally, think of the Five Languages of Love (from the book of the same name):
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of Service
- Receiving/giving gifts
- Quality time
- Physical touch
I have three kids. They are all dramatically different. It’s important for me to know how each of them gives and receives love. My daughter hates physical touch. Physically recoils from it. One of my boys is a receiving gifts kid. The other I’m still trying to figure out. So I try them all on for size. And I try to recognize when they’re showing love in their own way – in their own language. We have such high expectations of unconditional love from our kids (whether we admit it or not) so be careful not to impose those expectations and expect love only in your language. Love is perhaps the most powerful communicator of all, so I invite you to take the time to consider your own language of love and that of your kid(s). Knowing how to show them unconditional love, in their own language of love, is a potent and persuasive ingredient to negotiating the best possible relationship with your kids.