By: Cindy Durkee
When my children were young, we created a tradition of each sharing a “Thorn, Bloom, and Bud” from our day during dinnertime. The Thorn was something that was difficult; the Bloom was the best part of the day; and the Bud was a hope for tomorrow. This type of communication continued as they grew older, though in different formats. Whether it was while shooting baskets in the driveway, driving in the car (which tends to be less intimidating looking straight ahead), or lingering after a meal, I tried to be available to listen, ask questions, and show empathy as often as possible, hoping to keep those conversations going. It wasn’t perfect by any means. They told me things that were hard to hear at times. They told me things I truly didn’t want to know. Sometimes, rather than thoughtfully listening, I reacted out of fear and frustration. However, I felt it was important to keep the line of communication open between us. Over time, I learned to ask questions differently, listen closely to the answers and give my children the trust they needed to believe in themselves. This helped them feel safe to confide in me.
Being available and undistracted is challenging in our “road-runner” culture. It is easy for our busy schedules to prevent quality time with our families. However, slowing down and carving out uninterrupted time is essential for children of all ages. Making opportunities to talk can help build the bond we all desire. Taking time for those activities you enjoy doing together is a worthwhile investment. If you have more than one child, scheduling a one-on-one with each of them is important. Not only do our children have different interests, but they are more likely to share their thoughts when siblings aren’t around, and they love the extra attention.
We can encourage a conversation by asking open-ended questions, truly paying attention, and listening to their responses. They know if we are listening or not. Children (and adults) want to tell the whole story, without being interrupted with a judgment or a solution. Listening doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, it allows your child to feel cared for and heard. We can help them process their emotions by showing, understanding, and reflecting back to them what we think they are saying. Empathy goes a long way! Sometimes “bite-size” conversations are all they can handle, especially around difficult topics. Paying attention to when they’ve had enough is important. This is an excellent time to switch to lighter, everyday topics.
As parents, we can be role models for how to communicate openly and honestly by being real with our children. At appropriate ages, we can share some of our personal struggles, triumphs, and lessons learned through experience. It is valuable to admit mistakes and failures I’ve had practice! For example, I had to apologize many times for the chaos I often created when it was time to get out the door. I tried to get every toy picked up, dish washed, and email responded to before announcing “It’s time to go!” After the flurry and frustration, we often arrived 10 minutes late to our destination, where I put on a smile like all was calm and bright with the Durkee family. I’ve also had to admit when my own anxiety caused me to overreact, such as making an assumption about the influence of a friend. Apologizing takes the pressure off of our kids. It is a two-way line of communication, and we can model how it’s done. It’s never too late to open up those lines of communication with our children and build a trusting relationship.
My children are now young adults. They still mock my “deep questions,” but I think it has helped keep us close. This past Thanksgiving, we shared a new perspective we gained the last year (a more sophisticated, Thorn/Bloom/Bud). Acceptance of others, new appreciations, standing up for oneself, striving for independence, realization that our choices are on us were some of the meaningful insights shared. My son (a college student) explained, “I realized this year, the effort I put into school is for me and not for you. It ultimately affects my future.” Hooray! My daughter said, “Now let’s share what we are going to do this year because of our new perspective.” The paradigm has shifted!
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