Children who communicate have parents who have always applied this formula:
Listen + Ask Good Questions + Repeat
"So then she said that it was, like, gross. Totally. She is so totally lame. It's basically that she's just, you know, like, she's just basically totally lame. I mean like totally. I mean I can't even. And I was then like, seriously? Are you even kidding me right now? Really?"
You're trying to follow this conversation. You really are. But you are basically, totally lost. You have no idea who thought what or how this fits in to the overall scheme of the day. But you are trying. Seriously. And basically. Totally. You are an awesome parent.
This is the kind of encounter that, if you can engage, tune in, and empathize, will net you huge rewards in the form of a deeper relationship with your child as each year passes. I understand how challenging it is to appear fascinated by this kind of endless description of adolescent distress, but parenting is a long term, active duty assignment. This is part of parenting well. You don't listen for the moment, you are listening for the years ahead.
These end of school day conversations begin years earlier. You begin earning the privilege of hearing all the middle school angst and drama at the moment you have an infant. Those first babbles are communication. They are your infant telling you that they want to participate in your world. "Here I am!" They say. "We are together forever! Isn't that great?" Your job is to listen and respond. Even when you can't understand the words you can grasp the meaning and reply. I used to like counting how many exchanges I could have with my babies. Here's what I mean:
Baby: Baa aaa eeeeee aaaii baaaa
Me: Really? What happened then?
Baby: eeeee aaaaa baaa!
Me: I didn't think that was possible! How can you explain that?
Baby: aaaa eeeeeeee aaaa baaa aaa
Me: Oh..that makes sense...but what if it happens again?
Baby: AAAAA EEEE BAAAA!
Me: That is the only way to deal with that situation...you've got this
Baby: aaaaa....babbb (baby drools and waves arms)
Me: (laughing) You crack me up! That was so funny.
Five exchanges...this is how conversation skills are built and how relationships are permanently welded. Caring. Responding. Listening. Asking. Listening more. Looking your child in the eye while you listen and ask good questions.
The years pass and this process of listening, asking good questions and listening again will help determine how close you remain with your child. All the mistakes you will make as a parent can be mitigated with good listening skills. It is hard to overstate the importance of really listening to your child if you want to have a close relationship that will span the many decades you will share.
Here are some really simple things you can do to demonstrate that you are listening....some of these won't work in the car...just sayin.
Turn your whole body to face your child when they are speaking to you. This is especially important if your child is trying to communicate emotions. You know if your own child is anxious or upset, so when emotions are strong, turn and face your child. This demonstrates that you are fully tuned in and engaged. When I teach young children how to listen, I tell them to turn their noses, toeses, and belly buttons to the speaker. Now I'm telling you to do the same thing. Listening is a whole body activity.
Have an open and responsive countenance. In other words, put an interested expression on your face as you listen. Your scowling, impatient, distracted facial expression will shut down their desire to tell you anything at all. I understand that you have issues and tasks at hand and concerns that you are dealing with. You can set those aside long enough to listen to those same feelings in your child. Setting aside your own needs for those of your children is the core of parenting.
Make sure you ask enough good questions to fully understand. The story that your child starts telling you is being told for a reason that may not be obvious right off the bat. Sometimes you have to listen for awhile to get to the heart of the issue. Your child may start out telling you about a game on the playground, but they may really want you to hear that they are not able to run as fast as the other kids. They need you to listen long enough to hear that. Ask questions like, "do you like the running games best or do you like thinking games better?' Then ask why. They need you to tell them that they are okay and everything is going to be alright. You can't tell them that until you have heard them out.
Ask more good questions. Good questions will help your child think about their situation more clearly and encourage them to develop critical thinking skills. This type of question incites your child to look to themselves to work through problems and concerns, rather than blaming others or waiting for someone else to solve the problem for them. Ask questions that ask for your child's opinions and then ask why they hold that opinion. Make sure that they fact check any accusations they make. Be extremely cautious about assuming that you know the motive behind the behavior of other people. Remind your child that we can not know why a person does or say something. Help them learn to become thinkers by asking good questions.
Listening well to your children from the earliest moments will create an atmosphere in which no topic is off limits. If we can talk about it, we can deal with it...so listen. Ask questions. Repeat.