Aha! Parenting Blog

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How to use a conversation journal to sweeten and deepen your relationship with your child

"I did what you suggested and bought a journal for the two of us. I was afraid I wouldn't know what to write, so I got one with prompts. My daughter rolled her eyes when I gave it to her, but sure enough the book was on my pillow that night and she had written in it. Just a short comment about something at school.  I shared a time when something like that happened to me. We have been going back and forth for several months now and she's actually asking me questions about personal things that I know she would feel mortified to say to my face. And I do my best to answer, and she keeps coming back for more! I feel so much closer to her, and there's a lot less door-slamming on her part. I'm so grateful to have this now, before she gets any older."

Parenting is really hard, and when kids act out, we often turn to threats and bribes to get cooperation. But those don't work long-term, because kids feel manipulated and controlled, but not understood. All humans rebel against that. So the only real influence we have with our kids comes from our relationship with them. Luckily, that's enough.

That's why I say that Connection is 80% of parenting. If kids don't feel connected to us, they won't accept our guidance. But what exactly is Connection, and how do you do it?

In the early years, you can just scoop a child up and roughhouse to get them laughing. That physicality and laughter produces bonding hormones and an easy physiological connection. But as kids get into elementary school and then the preteen years, that easy connection isn't so easy any more. Parents often ask me how to stay close to their kids as they get older and the connection has to rely more on words. So today I want to recommend a tool that many parents of elementary and preteen age kids find invaluable -- the Conversation journal.

It's a simple idea.

You get a journal for you and your child to share. You write something in the journal. Something warm, short, non-threatening. You leave the book in a private place for him to read. He finds it and writes back to you. Soon, you find it on your pillow. You write back. 

The amazing thing is what happens as you keep this going. You create a lifeline that keeps you connected even when there's eye-rolling and door slamming on a regular basis. You end up talking about things that would have been too awkward to discuss verbally. In fact, you establish a precedent that the two of you can talk about anything. And you have a golden opportunity to tell your child just how much you love her, and why, on a regular basis. Every child needs that, but kids often find it hard to take it in and really feel it when you say it verbally. When you put it in writing, they read it over and over, for years. Bottom line, a conversation journal helps you sweeten and deepen your relationship with your child. 

I especially like these books for preteens who are trying hard to be independent but still really feel the need for a parent, even though they couldn't admit that out loud.

And for kids who go back and forth to another household.

And for kids with sibling issues.

And for boys who've started to clam up, but who wish they had someone they could ask about so many things.

And for girls approaching puberty.

And for middle children who need some tangible evidence that they're loved and valued.

And for kids who have dealt with any kind of trauma, from divorce to death.

And for kids who struggle with insecurity or anxiety.

And for kids who have any kind of attachment issue.

And for any parent who's ever wondered how to get a good conversation going about something that really matters.

And, really, for every parent who wants a closer relationship with her child. Isn't that all of us? These journals are great to begin in the elementary school years, but you can start them as late as the teen years.


A few suggestions to get you started.

1. Put your child in charge of the journal. This can't be an obligation that you force on your child. They need to see it as an exciting opportunity, a present to them. One journal (the Connected Hearts Journal) goes so far as to include a mysterious sealed letter to the child with an entire story about how the journal is from a long lost civilization and any child who completes it with a parent to discover what makes them special will gain magical healing powers. (Yes, the message is that connection is a source of strength for both child and parent!)

But any journal will be "special" to a child who receives it from you and gets to decorate it. If your child seems a bit hesitant and wants you to make the first entry, use that first entry to tell her why you’re looking forward to journaling with her, or to ask him how you can be a better parent. (Yes, really. Swallow hard and listen to what he says. You'll learn a lot!)

2. Treat the journal as something special. Ask your child where to put the journal in their room to keep it private, and agree where it will go in your room. Always keep it in the same place so it doesn't get lost in clutter, and so your child can find it in your room if they suddenly want to ask an urgent question. 

3. Never correct grammar or spelling. The minute you do that, the journal becomes educational and your child stops seeing it as an opportunity to connect heart to heart. (Some day you will both treasure those misspellings!)

4. Keep the journal positive. This is not a chance for you to "improve" or "correct" your child's attitude or behavior. This is solely about connecting with, adoring, and delighting in your child. 

5. Set a tone that anything is fair game for discussion in the journal. If your child brings up a subject that makes you uncomfortable, take a deep breath and think it over before you respond. But don't sidestep it. Instead, thank them for bringing it up, and thank your lucky stars you have such a courageous kid.

6. Be sparing with advice. If your child asks for advice, don't withhold it, but be careful about your tone. The more we give advice -- even good advice -- the more our child thinks we must see her as incompetent, and the more she pushes us away so she can feel independent. Mostly, stick to empathizing ("That's a tough decision!") and asking questions that will help your child ("What matters to you most in making this decision?" or "I guess you could do that. What do you think would happen then?")

7. Don't overreact. Kids want to be able to talk to parents about whatever bothers them, but often they don't, because the parent overreacts. Please note: When your child tells you a secret in the journal, don't rush to discuss it in "real life." Ask permission first, in the journal.

8. Respond promptly when your child writes to you. You set the tone. If you're prompt in replying, your child is more likely to prioritize answering you. Even if you're busy, find time to write a short response. This is tangible evidence to your child of your love. The more regularly you write back and forth, the more life the journal takes on and the more fun it is for both of you. If your child doesn't answer you after a few days, ask them if they want to answer or if they're ready to give you back the journal. Then start a new conversation. Even thirteen year old boys who don't write much will read every word you write to them.

9. Change journals if it isn't working. Some kids get stressed out by the prompts and hate them. In that case, take a look at other journals to see if the prompts might be more conducive to the conversations you want, or just get a plain lined notebook and let her decorate the cover. On the other hand, if you feel the conversation keeps lagging, take a look at journals with prompts that might spark better discussions.

10. Keep completed journals in a safe place in your child's room so she can re-read them when she needs reassurance. You'll both savor the memories you're creating even more as the years go by.

Ready to get started?  Sometimes parents worry about getting a good conversation going. If that's you, don't fret. There are many predesigned parent-child journals that get you started by giving you prompts and topics. And some children find the predesigned journals more exciting, so I've provided links below to my favorite ones. But you certainly don't need anything fancy -- you can simply take any notebook and let your child decorate the cover. It's what will grow inside that counts!




Here's a brand new journal available for elementary schoolers that I love, by Sumitha Bhandarkar. It's called Connected Hearts Journal: Fun Memory Book (Smart Parent Tool) and can be pre-ordered now on Kickstarter. I like that this journal has beautiful artwork to color in, that will be appealing to both kids and parents. I can even see doing this artwork together during Special Time, which gives a golden opportunity to chat about things that have come up in the journal. 

And below are a range of conversation journals for boys and girls, dads and moms. If you try this, please let me know how it goes for you and your child!

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