COLUMN: Is anyone listening?
By Alice Nickelson
"Did you hear what I said?" or "How many times do I have to tell you?" are common pleas heard among adults that live or work with children. Communicating with children can be a daily challenge — a challenge that can be met easier if one takes time to listen to what children are really saying.
What does your child say?
Children communicate through words and behaviors. Many times their behaviors speak louder than their words and can tell us something both positive and negative. Communication with children can be more effective when we listen carefully and sensitively to a child's behavior.
At times we try to interpret a child's behavior by asking every adult what they think is causing a behavior. Sometimes we just need to ask the child. This simple hint is clearly noted in the following example: A three-year-old had been sleeping on the floor beside her bed for months. The concerned mother asked several adults what they thought the reason could be for this behavior. Finally, the mother asked her daughter, "Why don't you sleep in your bed?" The daughter replied, "My sheets are cold." Flannel sheets solved the dilemma.
What are you really saying?
Nonverbal communication often has more impact than verbal words. Children watch adults intensely from birth to adulthood. Our eyes, tone of voice, and posture often send contradictory messages to our verbal words. Remember that children will listen to the nonverbal cues first. If you tell a child to do a task, but there is a hint of guilt or hesitancy in your tone of voice or facial expressions, a child hears that this task may not need to be taken seriously.
Just as children hear if we are "serious" about a request by our nonverbal expressions, they hear if we respect them as individual human beings. Our impatient tones, sighs and rolls of the eyes often send children messages that lead them to believe that we "don't like" them. This belief can build a communication block as a child learns to not hear what we said to protect their own self-esteem.
Is your message clear?
Remember to be specific if you want a child to do a specific task. Don't be surprised to find everything in the closet or under the bed if you have just told your five-year-old, "Clean your room." Sometimes children need to know what specific steps are expected with such a demand. You may need to limit the number of expected steps with younger children. If you expect a five-year-old to clean her room, you will need to show her how and then outline the steps specifically until the task becomes a habit. Comments such as "hang your clothes in the closet" or "put your books on this shelf" communicate to the child your specific expectations.
Children need to hear that we will be there for them during their happy times, their sad times, their times when they make mistakes and their times when they don't know why they act like they do. They hear this support and acceptance from us through our verbal and nonverbal responses. For effective communication, consider your verbals and nonverbals and focus on "listening" to what your child is showing and telling you.