Here’s where to start.
1. Set Aside Distraction-Free Time
Nothing says “you’re important to me” like putting your phone away. This goes for all family members, parents and kids included. Create a family policy of leaving your phones and electronic devices in your bedroom during dinner or other designated family time. Set a good example for your kids to follow.
2. Take Advantage of Car Trips
One of the best places where many family conversations occur is in the car. Kids are more likely to discuss embarrassing topics in this type of private, closed environment. The lack of eye contact also makes it easier for kids to feel comfortable discussing sensitive issues.
3. Stay Focused on the Here and Now
Nobody wants to feel like the past is being held against them. One of the most important keys to maintaining healthy family communication is to discuss only the issues at hand. Don’t bring up events from the past, even if they seem relevant. Kids are often afraid to discuss issues with their parents because they fear judgment or being reminded of past mistakes. If you’re frustrated with something your child has done in the past, discuss it with your spouse or a counselor instead.
4. Bring Back the Family Dinner
Gathering the whole family around the dinner table can seem like an outdated notion. With today’s busy schedules, it can be difficult to get everyone in the same place at once. Numerous studies show that it’s worth the effort, though. Even if you can only manage to have dinner together once or twice a week, it’s still better than not doing it at all. Keep the TV off so you can stay focused on each other.
5. Resist the Urge to Offer Advice
If your spouse or your child tells you about a challenging situation they face, you may have opinions about how they should handle it. However, it’s best to keep those opinions to yourself unless you’re asked for them. Most people don’t want advice about how to handle their own life and just want to vent. Offering unsolicited advice can make other people feel like you don’t think they can handle their own problems.
6. Model Active Listening
Active listening is one of the best ways to establish healthy communication. You can do this by repeating back what you think you’ve heard. For example, you may say, “what it sounds like you’re feeling is ___, is that true?” Give them an opportunity to agree or dispute your impressions. Encourage your children to use this same active listening technique with you and other family members as well. Avoiding the tendency to make assumptions is always beneficial for communication.
7. Show Empathy
Everyone wants to feel as though their experiences and emotions are taken seriously. This is true for both children and adults. Even if you don’t understand why your child is so upset about a teacher choosing favorites, for example, it’s important to show empathy with your child. Don’t minimize his or her feelings or say that they’re being silly. Reflect their feelings back to them to let them know you hear them and understand. (For example, “It sounds like that really upset you.”) Remember that you don’t have to solve their problems for them. Just being there with a sympathetic ear and a hug or pat on the back can be enough.
Healthy communication takes practice. It’s normal to feel intimidated, especially if your family has gotten out of the habit. Be persistent and earnest in your efforts to establish a connection. See a counselor if you need help improving your family communication. It’s a process that’s definitely worth your time and attention.