You’re being tested!
How? Here are 5 simple but powerful ways.
1. Put your phone away and listen to your little ones when they want to tell you all the details of their day.
When you're reunited with your child after a day apart, put your phone away. Seriously. The research shows that the phone is just too hard to ignore, so you're likely to pull it out while your child is talking. And pulling out your phone gives your child the message that you don't care about what she's saying; that she's not as important as some random text. Again, the research is clear that when you look at your phone during a conversation, the conversation deteriorates. (For more on these and other studies, check out Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle.)
The ins and outs of the preschool playground may not rivet you, but communication habits start early. If you get in the habit of really listening when she prattles on about her second grade friends, she’s more likely to still be telling you about her social interactions when she’s twelve.
It’s hard to pay attention when you’re rushing your family through the schedule, but if you aren’t really listening, two things happen. You miss an opportunity to learn about and teach your child, and she learns that you don’t really listen, so there’s not much point in talking.
2. Train yourself to listen and not over-react.
Kids often say they don't talk to their parents because they're afraid they’ll create an even bigger problem. Prove they can trust you to support them without losing your cool when they get pushed down on the playground, and you’ll get to hear about the boys in their crowd shoplifting when they’re a few years older. How can you stop yourself from jumping in? When your child says something that find upsetting, breathe. Listen. Get yourself calm before you even open your mouth.
When you do speak, don't rush in with solutions. Start from the assumption that your child will have definite ideas about how to solve this problem, and with your support, can sort out some solutions.
Coach, instead of leaping in to rescue. (And yes, if the problem continues, you may need to do more direct intervention. But not most of the time, and certainly not until you've coached your child to try to handle the situation himself.)
3. Keep confidences.
Remember how embarrassed you felt when your dad blurted out in front of the relatives that you were terrified of spiders? Or your mother called the neighbors to share what you'd told her about their daughter? Consider everything your kids tell you as privileged information. If you think you need to share it with anyone else for any reason -- even your partner -- talk to your child about it first.
4. Start small.
When your kids are little, start talking about the hard things, from special circumstances like being a single parent or Grandpa’s alcoholism, to the conversations that unnerve most parents, like sex. If you breathe and act natural, and keep your references short and matter of fact, sooner or later you’ll feel natural, and your kids will be comfortable building on those discussions to ask questions and talk about their own feelings. Research shows that kids in families that tackle tough issues early are more likely to consult their parents as teens.
5. Tell the truth.
It's tempting to tell your child that shot at the doctor's office won't hurt. But why should she trust you after that? If you want to build a relationship of trust with your child, be trustworthy, right from the start.