One of the most common reasons for not-so-good step-family relationships is lack of communication. It is important to include the children in family processes such as formulating rules and new rituals. This is a great start! The next thing to do is to encourage communication.

Talking is the best way to strengthen relationships, understand emotions and keep informed of what’s happening with the entire family. However, talking can sometimes have a negative effect if feelings are ignored or people are misinformed.

So how would you rate yourself as a communicator? Rate yourself on the scale below which ranges from 1 (pretty ordinary) to 10 (absolutely fantastic). Remember to rate yourself on your ability to communicate with your children and step-children, as it’s a lot harder than talking to adults. Hopefully you have been honest in assessing your communication skills. Now let’s try to improve them. We’ll discuss the differences between adults and kids, and then look at some do’s and don’ts in dealing with children.

Adults and children think and speak differently. Adults tend to think logically and rationally while children have very basic thinking ability which develops over time. Language also develops gradually and until about age 12, children are only able to understand “concrete” words which relate to things they can see, hear, feel, taste or smell.

Adults use language in a more indirect way and are able to follow and interpret the meaning of indirect conversation. Keeping this in mind, parents need to create an environment where children are encouraged to freely communicate without feeling confronted.

You can be sure to have noticed in your dealings with people, certain communication barriers which have annoyed or upset you. This may have occurred in certain jobs you’ve held, in friendships or even as a child when a parent or adult spoke to you. Here are some communication blocks which parents need to avoid.

Avoiding the real issue
This happens when we are in a conversation which is usually important to us, where the other person either ignores your feelings or changes the topic.

Invalidating emotion
This can be done in several ways. Some examples are:

  1. Discounting: “That’s nothing”
  2. Contradicting: “You don’t feel like that”
  3. Reassuring: “Don’t worry about that”

Providing solutions
Sometimes people don’t think we can think for ourselves and provide solutions such as:

  1. Ordering: “you have to…”
  2. Threatening: “you better… Or else”
  3. Moralising: “you should…”
  4. Suggestions: “why don’t you…”
  5. Closed questions: “did you…”

Whether we mean to or not, we are judging others and their actions when we:

  1. Criticise: “why did you…”
  2. Label: “you idiot…”
  3. Diagnose: “your problem is…”

Do you recollect being on the receiving end of any of the above communication blocks? Or even worse, are you guilty of using these not so helpful techniques when speaking with your children? Don’t worry – it’s never too late to change.

Before re-assessing your communication skills, let’s look at some tips to becoming a better communicator with your children and step-children:

  1. Always show interest in what they are talking about. This can be done by physically getting down to their level, making eye contact and repeating what they have said.
  2. Always use simple language and don’t assume that your child understands you. The younger the child, the more direct, brief and specific you need to be.
  3. Always be gentle when communicating. Don’t bully him/she into agreeing with you – this will make him/her reluctant to talk with you in the future.
  4. Don’t feel you always need to fix the problem. The best response is to just listen.
  5. Always be truthful when talking to your children. You are a source of information on important topics such as death, God, sex, drugs etc and your input will assist your child to develop their own ideas and values.
  6. Don’t talk for too long. A child’s attention span rarely lasts more than a few minutes, so keep your conversation brief.
  7. The best conversations are those that are lighter and have humour. Don’t make all your chats together heavy and instead help them develop a healthy sense of humour.