As children grow and develop communication skills, the degree to which they communicate with you may increase or decrease depending on their stage of development. To keep the lines of communication open throughout the stages of development, it's important to create an open line of communication between you and your children beginning at an early age. Casual communication may look differently from one stage to another, but it can always help your child feel close to you and cared for. Occasionally, more structured forms of communication, like family meetings may be necessary to help create a safe environment for each family member share feelings and practice listening.
You may notice that your children share information with you differently as they grow. A baby communicates solely by crying and it is up to you, the parent, to decipher what your infant needs. As your children grow, they may become better communicators but may actually talk to you less about their feelings because they're learning to sort out feelings on their own. Instead of coming to you with problems, your child may turn to friends out of fear that you will lecture him or her. Use the following age guide to inspire casual conversation with your child:
- Age birth to 1 year – Conversations during your baby's first year may be a bit one sided, but don't let that discourage you. Just the sound of your voice can be nurturing to your baby. As your baby begins to make sounds and eventually form words, be sure to be attentive and even repeat these words back to your child as a primitive form of communication. By the end of your child's first year communication will improve; your child can respond yes or no (either vocally or by a head nod) to simple questions.
- Age 1 to 2 years – By now your child is learning to say many new words and may understand even more! Continue to build a strong communication foundation by patiently answering what may seem like an endless string of questions. You may soon discover that you can speak and understand your toddlers own little language.
- Age 2 to 3 years – Toddlers will continue to be inquisitive, and may turn to you for everything from a boo-boo or lost toy to sharing the highlight of their day. Continue to be patient and give your toddler your full attention whenever possible so it is obvious that you care about what is concerning your child.
- Age 3 to 5 years – Children are now beginning to communicate more like young adults. To help the flow of conversation, ask specific questions, like "What did you learn in math today?" It can be difficult for children to sum up an entire day's events to answer questions like, "What did you do today?" While conversations are possible and often productive at this age, you might have more success communicating through books, music and play. Continue to make sure children feel safe talking to you and understand that you care about what is on their minds.
It's important, no matter what your child's situation, to spend time talking casually together, both to foster open communication and to further develop your child's communication skills. Always give your child your full attention, listen with interest, ask questions that encourage talking and remember that children have their own points of view that deserve respect. Above all, strive to be approachable and understanding so that your child can come to you with problems or questions without fear of criticism or lecturing.
Structured communication for school-age children
When you feel your children are old enough to be included in more structured conversations-generally beginning with school-age children —family meetings are a simple way to allow everyone to discuss specific concerns while practicing communication, cooperation, decision-making, problem-solving and listening skills. Weekly, monthly or as-needed meetings can help your family resolve a conflict, make plans, share good news or give a family member a chance to discuss feelings about an issue that affects everyone.
Decide on a time when anyone old enough to participate can be present, such as after dinner on a certain night or on a weekend morning. Choose a meeting schedule that best fits your family's needs, and make sure that any member of your family can request an unplanned meeting if an unexpected issue arises. Remember to include stepchildren or a child care provider in the meetings if applicable, and if you have a very young child in the family, consider holding meetings during naptimes or after bedtime so your older children can have your full attention.
Meetings are an opportunity for each family member, even those who are more reserved, to share ideas and better understand each other's views and opinions. They can also be helpful with special circumstances that your family may be facing, including the care of an older adult or a family member with a disability. For example, they can be a good place to explore long-term care options or divide care giving responsibilities. Tips for effective family meetings include:
- Let everyone have a chance to talk – At certain times, you'll probably want to go around the table to make sure you have everyone's views on an issue.
- Be polite and respectful – Agree as a family that there will be no yelling, interrupting, name-calling or sarcasm. You may want to begin on a positive note to help break the ice; let each child mention one good thing that's happened since the last meeting.
- Be prepared – Research details for discussion topics, like vacation dates or finances before the meeting. An organized list of discussion topics can also help your family stay on track during the meeting and ensure that everyone's concerns are addressed.
- Keep meetings brief – Aim for no more than 30 minutes for most meetings.
- Have someone in your family lead the meeting – After getting an idea of how things work, children might want to lead all or part of some of the meetings.
- Eliminate distractions – Try to avoid meeting in a room where children might be distracted by the TV or other diversions. Don't allow children to bring toys or homework to the meeting and don't take any phone calls during a meeting.
- Don't hold meetings when friends are visiting – If you meet on a weekend morning and your child has a friend sleep over the night before, make arrangements for the friend to return home before the meeting begins.
- Offer reminders – Consider creating a family message center with mailboxes and a universal calendar to keep track of each family member's schedule. Note family meeting times here to prevent making other plans during the meeting time.
- Consider rewards for children – A special treat after the meeting will remind young children that your family meetings are important events.
Using family meetings to resolve conflicts
The goal of a family meeting is to try to resolve disagreements by reaching a consensus without a formal vote that can create hard feelings between winners and losers. Instead, look for compromises or solutions that everybody can live with.
- Brainstorm – All family members can suggest solutions to the problem. Entertain even the ideas of young children so they feel involved and they know you're listening. Be flexible and willing to consider any good idea even if it wasn't yours.
- Discuss all of the suggestions – Consider all options your family came up with during brainstorming and-as politely as possible-decide which are realistic. If you can't find a solution that everybody likes, go over all the options together and pick one you can try out for a certain period, say, two weeks. Then talk about the results of the trial at your next family meeting and make any needed changes.
- Remember that some issues are not negotiable – If, for example, your son says he doesn't want to wear his bike helmet, make it clear that your family doesn't compromise on safety issues. Let children know up front which decisions are not negotiable and be consistent with those decisions.
Structured communication, like family meetings, can seem awkward at first but they'll get easier with time. When you hold family meetings, you aren't just solving day-to-day problems; you're showing children how to work out their differences in a calm and responsible way. Both regular structured and casual communication with your children at any age can remind them that you are available to listen and that you genuinely care about what is going on in their lives.