Giving your child a voice and teaching them how to use it well will empower them, writes Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist

It can be difficult knowing exactly what to do when it comes to keeping those communication lines wide open between yourself and your child. The ever popular and very old expression that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is probably one of many misconceptions about how to raise responsible children, which can lead to ineffective communication.

For parents who prefer to exercise a more authoritarian parenting strategy, the risk might be that their children will never learn to speak their minds, be allowed an independent voice, or develop a sense of efficacy.

Worse yet, it could lead to your child fearing or not knowing how to speak out when something is not right. With bullying, inappropriate physical contact and other forms of abuse flooding the media, parents do not have the luxury of assuming that their children will speak up when it really matters.

As if it’s not difficult enough to navigate one’s way through old (and often outdated) parenting advice, the current day and age where messages and communication are done by someone hiding behind a screen does not make it any easier. The result is that children are growing up in an era where they believe that their feelings, thoughts, fears and concerns are of no importance and do not weigh the same as that of an adult.

Or, they experience that no one will really pay attention or take them seriously when they do voice their feelings and concerns.
Children should not only be taught how to speak up, but they should also be allowed to speak up. It is not only healthy when it comes to basic communication skills, it is also imperative so that parents can protect and help their children in cases where wrong things are happening to them.

Teach a child to speak up
It may come as a surprise, but by picking up a crying baby, you are showing her that her voice counts and that you are listening to her. Babies who are not attended to consistently, will stop crying and learn that there is no one they can count on.

We should most definitely demonstrate the essential communication skills such as turn taking, listening attentively and good eye contact, but have you ever noticed how a little child tends to have meaningful discussions during times of walking or driving to school, while eating, during bath time and, most often, at bedtime? These times or activities tend to loosen tongues because the level of pressure is low and because parent and child are not really looking at each other all the time. Most often, this parallel position of communication is what makes it easier for kids to open up and relate deeply. Make sure to initiate and model some talking about general and important topics during these day-to-day activities with your children.

If you are happy with a general answer such as, “Okay,” go ahead and ask a general question, such as, “How was your day?” If you want more detail, help your child to zero in on some detail and ask specific questions, like, “What did you enjoy best today, snack time or story time?”

If you want to know how your toddler is feeling, observe her behaviour and ask about it. For example, you could say, “You did not look happy when I picked you up. What happened?”
Share something about your day first, and be honest in doing so, such as, “I was really disappointed that I could not find those sweet strawberries at the shop today.”

Allow a child to speak up
Not all children have the same conversational style. One child may be ready to have a discussion the moment they open their eyes, while another is barely human before first break at school. Some children enjoy when their parents ask them questions, while others have colourful language and enjoy elaborating on even the most boring of topics. Another prefers a slower pace and a parent who just listens attentively without saying much. Some children want to talk about the same topic for many days in a row. The key is to allow a child to speak in their own unique and hard-wired conversational style.

If your child does mention something negative from her day, be sure not to overreact. Little children tend to shut down when adults’ reactions are too much. Instead, emphasise and tell her that you would like to hear more.

Do not start an interrogation as soon as you arrive for pick-up. Aim to first reconnect with your child by just being present and saying something simple like, “Hey lovey, I have really missed you today.” Some children might still need more than that and by sitting down and doing a focused activity together after arriving home (such as reading or colouring) – one can create that safe space.

Remember that if you ignore or brush off your child when she is telling you about some trivial matter, you are missing out on an opportunity to show her that you are a good listener.

It is simply not enough to just mention to children once in a while that they should tell you when something wrong has happened to them or anyone else. When we are really in tune with our children, our bodies are leaning in and our phones, tablets and televisions are switched off.

Parents often find that if they really aim to do a good job in those moments, their children will come straight to them to talk about the awkward stuff as they feel that not only do they know how to talk about uncomfortable things, but they are also allowed to share them.

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