Amid afterschool activities — homework, dinner prep, baths and bedtime — it can be hard for parents and children to make time to talk.
But whether it’s a quick chat at the dinner table or an in-depth discussion during a road trip, communication is key to maintaining healthy parent-child relationships as children grow older.
The key is to set up a time to check in every day, says Diane Bales, an associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
“Maybe it’s right when they get home from school, before they go to bed, before they start their homework or when they get home from soccer practice — but the important part is that it becomes part of the routine. At this time, we’re going to sit down and talk for five minutes,” Bales said. “Maybe it will turn into a deeper discussion and maybe it won’t, but at least they know that you’re there to listen.”
It may seem awkward at first, but establishing an expectation of communication will pay dividends when parents or children have something important to discuss.
“You want it to be low pressure, so they don’t have to reveal some deep personal thing for it to be successful,” Bales said. “Even with teenagers, you may want to give them some structure about what they should talk about. I’m a big fan of asking children to give me a high and low point of the day. As long as you’re not asking them, ‘What did you do today?’ because then a lot of kids are going to tell you, ‘I don’t remember,’ or ‘Nothing.’”
Parents may want to schedule this check-in time during a daily commute when their children are a captive audience. That’s fine, but Bales cautions parents to keep the conversation light unless it’s a long road trip.
“Timing it well is important,” she said. “If you’re only driving five minutes to soccer practice, you don’t want to start a serious conversation because you’re not going to have time to finish it.”
Bales stresses that parents should avoid judgmental reactions to what their child says.
“It’s hard because parents want kids to make good decisions, but a big part of it is being nonjudgmental,” Bales said. “You can’t tell kids that they can come to you with anything and then yell at them or criticize when they tell you something that you don’t like.”
It’s better to phrase it like a conversation to help children reflect on their decisions.
“Asking, ‘How did that work out?’ or ‘What do you think could have made that go better?’ are good ways to help kids evaluate their own behavior without feeling attacked,” Bales said.
For more resources for improving communication with children, visit the family communication page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.