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Parenting and the Art of Communication

By Lisa Sherman, LCSW  |

In my experience as a therapist, I’ve come to understand that communication is an art form, as well a creative medium. An artist will transmit their interpretation of the world through the use of visual imagery; endlessly manipulating color and form in order to communicate a point of view. A practiced musician/composer will do the same. Through the medium of sound and vibration, along with the selection and sequencing of musical notes that vary in pitch, a musician will aspire to present a point of view. That point of view can either be transcendent or ordinary, dependent upon the skill of the musician. Similarly, speech, as a creative medium, has the same function. It can also be transcendent or ordinary, having the power to animate, inspire and illuminate some truth, or leave us feeling deenergized, disheartened, or maybe even cynical. I like to think of it this way. As a creative speaker, we are at once, being an artist and a musician. When we speak, we are helping the child form a visual image, like an artist, except we are using words to draw that image inside their heads instead of on paper or canvas. And like a musician, we have a tone and vibration when we speak. We can create melodic sounds or discordant ones, depending upon the notes/chords, sharps and flats that we select. There are endless variations. Words thoughtfully selected and articulated, in conjunction with the correct tone, can impact children in the following ways: Speech can inspire and heal, generate enthusiasm for learning, stimulate children’s innate curiosity, teach them to take responsibility, help them to be more open, loving, resilient and compassionate, to be at ease with emotional intimacy, and to learn to trust themselves, just to name a few. Or conversely, words spoken impulsively with a dismissive, critical and judgmental tone, can discourage, confuse, and create conflict, both within and without.

When we speak to children, we are teaching them to navigate their respective environments. We are communicating a set of understandings, a blueprint, if you will, which will influence the lens through which they relate to themselves, others, and the world at large. How we speak to children, specifically the tone, cadence, choice of words, the level of honesty, clarity, and precision that we can avail ourselves of when we speak, will all contribute to the formation of this lens. Is the view clear, objective, and realistic or it is confusing and discouraging? We were all kids once, and if we’re totally honest with ourselves, we can remember things said to us by adults that have influenced us, for better or worse. A hurtful, sharp word/s said in haste by an angry parent will stick with us, and it takes some work to let those feelings/thoughts go. Where then do we start to practice refining our habits of speech so that we can maximize the possibility that the child will ‘take in’ what we’re saying and learn the communication skills needed to engage in the world with competence and surety?

Some Considerations: The Fundamentals of Teen/Tween Speak:

In my work as a therapist, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to practice my communication skills on a daily basis. As the saying goes, it’s a work in progress. I’ve come to understand that refining one’s ability to communicate requires unremitting practice, skill in action and daily application. Here are some tools of the trade.

1. Recognizing Emotional Reactivity: It begins with being able to recognize when we’re being emotionally reactive to something that the child has said or done. Feelings like anger, frustration, impatience, and irritability are examples of such reactivity and will obscure our ability to be objective. The ability to recognize such reactivity is the first step towards developing objectivity and clarity. This is because the ‘recognition’ puts some distance between you and the feeling. For example, if we are reading a book too close to our faces, we can’t make out the words. We have to move the book a comfortable distance away from our eyes in order to see the print clearly. It’s the same thing with a feeling. If we’re really angry, we ‘can’t see anything.’ The anger then becomes compelling, and in essence, ‘holds us hostage.’ We now run the risk of speaking and acting from that place, which naturally puts us at risk of saying or doing something we may come to regret. The objective here is for us to be in control of the anger, and not the other way around. Gaining some distance from the angry by identifying it, puts us in control. So, if we practice ‘looking inside,’ and identify the feeling, in essence, ‘taking a pause,’ we can see that the anger is not us but merely transitory. Once the intensity levels off, we’re in a much better position to moderate our responses.

2. What Triggers the Feeling?” After we’ve identified our reactivity, the next step is to see what triggers this feeling, and work at understanding the cause/s. Often, the cause/s lie in our own histories. For example, if I feel I wasn’t listened to as a child, I may get reactive when my child isn’t listening to me. If that’s the case, then I need to work on letting go of those feelings attendant to that experience, so that I can tell the child what they need to hear, free from the influences of my own past.

3. The Timing Of The Response: Another point to consider when we’re speaking to children is the timing of our response. We don’t have to necessarily respond right away. It’s important to give ourselves the space to think about what we want to say and how to say it. Often times, when I’m working with kids, they just need to “get their feelings out.” Sometimes the most important thing that I can say is: “I understand.” Once they’ve calmed down, I’ll ask them if they want any input. If they don’t, I might probe the topic again at the next session in order to hear any conclusions they may have arrived at. Now I’ve had time to process what they have said, and I can engage with that child in a more creative and hopefully, in a more meaningful way.

4. “Say It…And Let it Go:” Just like we need time to process our feelings and thoughts, so do children. The objective here is to allow the child the requisite time needed to process what you’re saying, rather than insisting on an immediate response to our input. This allows them the time to stimulate their thought process. I call this step: Say it and ‘let it go.’ We plant the seed, without any expectation and free from any pressure. Chances are the child will come back later and say: “I thought about what you said….”Or, what did you mean when you said that?” Now, the child signals that they are open to a dialogue on the subject.

5. Examining Our Intention. We want to look at “the intention and the motivation behind what we say.” What’s the message that we want to convey to the child? I’ve mentioned earlier that we don’t want to speak from emotional reactivity, as the goal is to be as objective as possible. Once again, if we speak from anger, frustration and impatience, the child will respond to the tone of the presentation rather than to the content of the message. And then, communication will shut down. This often happens in reverse. Often times, children are not yet skilled at speaking “without an attitude.” It’s important then that the parent tries to understand what the child is saying “behind the attitude,” and practice not being reactive to it.

Everything we say to a child leaves an indelible imprint on the impressionable mind of a child. Since parents are charged with the responsibility of teaching, being as conscious and aware as possible about what we say and how we say it makes a big difference in what children take away from the experience. Suffice it to say that communicating effectively requires a lot of patience, tolerance, and perseverance. It’s practice, practice, and more practice. That being said, we can’t be too hard on ourselves. Mistakes will be made, but if we’re honest with ourselves when we make them, we’ll see the way clear to correct them. I’m still working on it.