Improve Communication with Complex Kids and Teens

It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you’re constantly talking past each other, especially as your complex kid starts to get older. Here are a few tips to help you create opportunities to open up and improve communication with your complex kids and teens.

3 Levels of Listening

Listening is an art. We hear people talk all day long, but actively listening to what they are saying – and what they are not saying – well, that's a different story.

We all want to be heard – to feel that the people are listening to us. In fact, I've heard it said that being listened to feels so much like being loved that people can scarcely tell the difference.

So, how can you be a more effective listener with your children? Become aware of the 3 levels of listening, and try to make sure that you're in Level 2 or 3 when you're listening to your child. Level 1 is okay, too, but you don't want to get stuck there!

Listening at Level 1:

When you are paying attention to what is happening to you while you're listening to someone else. You might be thinking about how you are feeling, what they might be thinking of you, or you might be waiting to speak.

Listening at Level 2:

When you are paying complete attention to the other person, to what they are saying, what's important to/what's motivating them, etc. In this level, you are curious about the other person's experience.

Listening at Level 3:

When you are paying attention to what is going on around you. Is the environment calm or stressful? Is there a distraction, or is this a good space to talk? What is not being said that is important?

When parents listen at Level 2 or 3, they are confident and clear, and their children experience that support. Give it some practice – and like any muscle, it won't take as long to develop as you might believe.

Digital Dates with Your Kids

Ok, I know that the prevailing wisdom is to put down our cell phones, model limits, and look our kids in the eyes. Absolutely agree. But I also say, “If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Setting up digital dates with your kids can ease the pain of screen time.

Since my teenager moved away, I've had some great conversations with her. True connection, a deep meaning, even problem-solving – all in the privacy of our telephone screens. There are times when a text conversation is exactly what we need to communicate, even if no words are actually spoken.

Am I suggesting you replace your dinner time with text time? Of course not! But rather than just seeing the “evil” of digital distractions, I suggest that we can use these new forms of connection to our advantage. Be human with your kids. Text, chat post. Make jokes. Will you embarrass them? Maybe a little. Will they secretly appreciate your attention? You bet – as long as you're not judging or criticizing.

Oh, and an added bonus: if you use the technology to have some fun, your kid may be more likely to answer the phone when you call!

Rediscover “Parallel Play”

When kids are little, they actually get to know each other while playing independently in the same space. This is often referred to as parallel play. As they get older, a similar phenomenon happens in families – everyone is doing their own thing, but they are doing it in the same house. Family members get accustomed to (or, conversely, annoyed by) each other's rhythms and routines. You might say that family members are constantly in “parallel play” with each other.

As a parent, you can open up communication in a non-threatening way by creating opportunities for “parallel play.” Think about an activity that you can do “with” your child, one that is not competitive and does not require your instruction. Maybe it's something that you enjoy doing, a hobby or art that doesn't require all of your focus – knitting or scrapbooking, or painting.

Set yourself up in a public space in the house, and give it a little time. After a while, invite your child to join you, if they haven't already, either in your activity or something else of interest. Try HARD not to correct or even to make suggestions unless your child asks. Encourage each other creatively, allow for small talk, and then see what conversation flows from there. Sometimes, the best conversations happen when you're not looking each other in the face and have another focus – especially with complex kids. It takes the pressure off!

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How to Ask Good Questions to Improve Communication with Kids and Teens

If there is one fundamental coaching tip that underlies all others, it's this: ask questions. Not just any kind of questions, of course, but open-ended questions, questions that do not end in a yes or no answer. Instead of telling people what to do, ask them what they think they might do. Instead of telling people how to feel, ask them to share their feelings. 

Questions are a kind of invitation, a welcoming from one person to another. They say, “You matter to me. What you think, or say, or feel truly matters.” Of course, there's one part to asking questions that is an important part of the process. Remember to listen for the answers! 

Find a Phrase 

When seeking to improve communication with your kids and teens, find a phrase, like a mantra, that helps you love your children even when their behavior is unlovable or annoying. A phrase that helps you want to support your kids even when their behavior makes you want to throw up your hands in disgust! It's not something that you say out loud – it's just a private reminder from you to yourself. 

Here are some examples: 

  • “Oh, she doesn't know how. I can help her with that.” 
  • “Clearly, he forgot – drat that working memory – let me remind him.” 
  • “I wonder what distracted her – let me get her back on track.” 

What's important about this phrase is that it speaks to you, ties you into your compassion for the challenges your child is facing, and helps you offer re-direction in a way that is respectful and encouraging rather than punitive and critical. 

Avoid the “But” to Improve Communication with your Kids and Teens

Have you ever had one of those moments of miscommunication when you just can't figure out why someone is so upset? After all, you're in agreement, but they are hearing something else.

It might be that a simple twist of language is at fault. Often, we use two simple words interchangeably: But and And. The truth is, they take a conversation in very different directions.

The word “and” is generally positive – it adds something to a conversation. Even if there is disagreement, “and” can allow people to find a way to agree to disagree. It keeps communication open and agreeable.

“But,” on the other hand, can take conversations in a negative direction. Even if there is a basic agreement, the use of the word “but” can make someone feel disregarded or not heard.

So try this trick: replace the word “but” with the word “and.” Then, notice what happens. Does it get a different response? Does it begin to change how you think about what you're saying?  If nothing else, it will help you become really conscious about how you are using simple words that have a powerful impact.

Here are some examples:

Replace:   “I agree with you, but I don't want to do it that way.

With: “I agree with you, and I'd still like to try it a different way.”

Replace:  “I know you want to go to the movies, but I can't get you there.”

With:  “I know you want to go to the movies, and I'm okay with that as long as you can get a ride there, and then I can pick you up”

Replace:   “I love you, but I don't like it when you interrupt me.”

With:  “I love you, and when you interrupt me it makes me a little crazy.”

Don’t Gloat When Your Kids Admit You’re Right

“I hate it when that happens,” my daughter said in response to my son's confession: “dang it, mom, you were right.”

I love it when that happens!

It's late, and my son is pounding out a paper (I still haven't gotten him to stop counting the number of words out loud). He's in the room with me – a strategy he chose to try to keep himself focused. But he's starting to get tired, like the energizer bunny running out of batteries. He knows he needs to finish the paper, so he reluctantly turns to me for a little suggestion.

“Any ideas about how I can get my brain going again, Mom?”

I smile. I try to keep smug out of it. I answer simply, in my best matter-of-fact tone: try a few push-ups.

So what's the coaching tip here? It's not, actually, to use push-ups to help kids activate the brain, though that is a terrific strategy, and I highly recommend it! Pull-up bars are great, too.

No, this tip is about HOW to respond when your kids actually learn something from you. This is critical: DO NOT say “I told you so” with your tone of voice. Take it in stride. You can high-five yourself later when no one's watching. But for now – just nod, say something inane like, “glad it worked for you, kiddo,” keep your impish grins to yourself, and watch how it improves communication with your kids and teens.

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