How can I . . .
- encourage my child to communicate and come to me with questions and problems?
- have healthy communication with my child and family members?
- manage challenging relationships, and solve problems and conflicts between family members?
What Is Positive Family Communication?
Family life usually involves multiple people of different ages, personalities, and needs living together under one roof. A family can include biological parents, step-parents, step-children, adopted/adoptive children and parents, foster children/parents. It may also include extended families, such as cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. For families to function well and for family members to get along, it takes patience, cooperation, and understanding. Disagreements and arguments are natural in close relationships. Knowing how to talk through problems before they become bigger conflicts is one of the most important skills parents can teach children.
Effective, positive communication among family members is essential for strong, healthy family relationships.
Positive communication means family members feel comfortable expressing their feelings and emotions openly. It allows them to share their needs and concerns with one another honestly, without fear of being blamed, shamed, or misunderstood. Through open, honest communication, family members can grow closer and talk through frustrations together before they become larger conflicts.
Effective communication enables family members to:
- Understand and build closer bonds with one another
- Feel respected, listened to, and understood
- Work together to solve problems and conflicts
- Support and help one another through challenges
- Develop strong relationship skills (both within the family and with others)
In his article “3 Essentials for Healthy Family Communication,” (Psychology Times, Dec. 2019) social worker, Sean Grover, explains that parents and caregivers often get trapped in negative patterns of relating to their children. He cites five common parenting mistakes:
- Blaming each other for their children’s behavior.
- Shaming, criticizing, and lecturing their children.
- Relying too heavily on punishments.
- Dictating rules without discussion.
- Modeling impulsive or disrespectful behaviors.
Why It Matters
During the teenage years, parents and caregivers may feel like their child is “pulling away” or“testing limits.” There is often a push-and-pull for control as teens naturally seek more independence, and adults try to figure out how to adjust rules and boundaries while making sure their children are safe and cared for.
In addition, teens are growing rapidly and going through a range of physical, emotional, social, and behavioral changes all at once. It can feel temporarily like your child is a different person! This can be a confusing and overwhelming time for both teens and their caregivers.
Grove warns that these “mistakes” can result in ongoing conflicts and further breakdown of family relationships. Negative communication or a lack of communication can disrupt the sense of family connection. This can cause both the children and adults to feel stress, anxiety, isolation, and loneliness, even within their own family.
On the other hand, a supportive atmosphere that encourages open, positive communication and values everyone’s input can make a big difference for your teen and your family, both now and in the future. Good communication helps the whole family maintain strong connections and happy, healthy relationships.
Take this brief survey to reflect on positive communication in your family.
Check the statements that are true about communication and relationships within your family and with your teen.
MY FAMILY MEMBERS . . .
feel that communication is important.
trust one another.
spend time together and talk frequently.
know one another well.
view one another as friends.
feel comfortable talking about their feelings.
can express frustrations without starting an argument.
feelings and opinions are valued.
give input on family decisions.
support one another through challenges.
talk through disagreements and solve problems together.
My teen and I know each other well.
My teen and I trust each other.
I spend time with my teen and talk with them daily.
My teen feels comfortable talking with me about their feelings.
My teen comes to me when they have a problem.
My teen and I value and respect each other’s opinions.
I ask my teen for input on decisions that affect them.
My teen and I support each other through challenges.
My teen and I talk through disagreements and solve problems together.
Reflect on your responses. In which areas do you feel communication is strong in your family? With your teen? What are some areas that could be improved?
Connect & Communicate:
The adults in a child’s life provide the main examples of relationships and communication. When parents speak disrespectfully to each other or to their children, deal with problems by arguing, or by not talking at all; children watch, listen, and learn these same habits.
Likewise, if children see their parents resolve conflicts and treat each other with respect, they have a good chance of learning these skills themselves. Even if communication hasn’t been a family strength in the past, you can start to set the example by taking time to connect and modeling positive communication in your relationships with your child and other family members.
Family life is busy, and technology makes it easy for everyone to be in their own “bubble.” Put down the phones and eat dinner together a couple of times a week. Have an informal chat in the car. Make time to talk about plans and decisions that affect the whole family. Check in with your child about their day before they go to bed.
Here are some sample conversation starters to help open up the lines of positive communication with your teen:
Be a good listener
Children who feel listened to, heard, and understood develop strong self-esteem and trust their parents more.
Encourage them to come to you
Teens may choose not to come to a parent for help with a problem because they are afraid of the reaction they’ll get. They may worry that a parent will be disappointed in them, judge their behavior, or react angrily. Letting your teen know you want to help, and they can talk to you about anything is an important step to building trusting, open communication.
Be conscious of language and tone
Words matter, and so does the way they are spoken. Young people are sensitive to words and tone of voice. They also often imitate the communication style of adults around them. Avoid language that is mean, degrading, or hurtful. If you’re frustrated or angry, take time to cool down, until you can speak calmly and respectfully.
Ask for their input
Give your teen the opportunity to weigh in and share their ideas on family decisions. Whether it’s a new living room paint color, a vacation destination, or other choices about their lives, it’s important that they feel their opinions are valued.
Offer positive reinforcement
It’s natural to focus on problems, worries, and concerns when it comes to your child. Remember to notice the positives in your child’s communication. For example, “Thank you for telling me how you feel.” or “I appreciate the way you said that.”
Activities to do with families and teens:
- Family Meeting: Set aside a regular time for the whole family to check-in. Depending on family schedules, this can be weekly, or even monthly. Use the time to talk about family rules and responsibilities, goals, and plans for the future, and to discuss any frustrations or issues. Make sure to focus on the positives and appreciation for each other, as opposed to complaining and harping on the negatives.
- Do things together offline. Make time every week to disconnect from cell phones and other electronic devices and plug into healthy family time. Activities may include,
- Going for a walk, hike, bike ride, or to the gym
- Taking a drive
- Making art or visiting a gallery
- Going to a religious service, meditating together
- Doing a jigsaw puzzle
- Volunteering with a community organization
- Problem Solving Process. When there’s a family conflict, set a time to talk it out with everyone involved. Set guidelines for the discussion, for example:
- Take a cool-down period and then set a time for everyone to sit down in a comfortable space together.
- Everyone takes turns sharing their point of view and expressing how they feel.
- Family members cannot judge or make fun of each other’s feelings and needs.
- Everyone works together to list possible solutions or ideas for a compromise.
- Once there’s a good list of ideas, everyone goes through each one and decides whether it will solve the problem, is doable, etc.
- The group votes on a solution.
Contact & Collaborate:
Most families go through communication challenges. Every family deals with problems and conflicts differently. Reaching out to friends, relatives, or seeking ideas and advice from a parent support group can be helpful.
A licensed marriage counselor or family therapist can also help families work through difficulties and learn to communicate with and understand each other.
- The guidance counselor, school psychologist, or licensed social worker at your child’s school is a good starting point. Schedule a meeting and ask them for suggestions. They can also recommend local resources if counseling is needed.
- Consider family counseling with a licensed therapist.
- Join a parenting support group in-person or online.