Most parents tell their children, “Talk to us if you are upset or have a problem.” Yet sometimes that statement can be more accurately translated as, “Talk to us if you are upset or have a problem, when it is convenient for us.”
A child can find it hard to believe that sincere support is available if parents are distracted, stressed, tired, or busy when the child wants to talk. Also, any sense of comfort and support can be lost when parents also communicate impatience, annoyance, disappointment, or anger because they can see where problems might have been avoided if the child had listened to them in the first place and avoided making an ultimately poor choice. Finally, even assurances or solutions given quickly by parents in the interest of time can backfire because they don’t address how a child feels.
If you want to make it easier for your child to come to you when he or she has a problem or is upset, here are some thoughts to keep in mind:
- Listen attentively and be encouraging with just a few brief comments, such as “Tell me more about it” or “What happened next?”
- Make eye contact so your child knows you are giving him or her your full attention.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Keep the focus on your child rather than telling him or her about your experiences.
- Remember that feelings are not the same as behaviors. It can be OK for your child to feel like tearing up his or her math homework. It’s not OK to do it.
- Let your child have his or her feelings. Cheering up your child may make you feel better, but it may not be helpful in the moment.
- Don’t judge your child’s feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Accept your child’s feelings even if they are different from those you think you would have in the same situation.
- Give your child permission to have feelings. You can be supportive without taking on your child’s feelings.
- Remain clear about your role. Being supportive means listening, accepting, and validating. A good time to give advice may be later.
In line with encouraging your child to talk to you when he or she is upset, remember that you are a powerful model. Demonstrate healthy ways to have, express, and process feelings; to express your needs; and to set and maintain boundaries. This modeling offers a good example to your child so he or she can do