Communication is one of a successful family’s most impactful and long-lasting elements. Unfortunately, many of our kids learned unhealthy communication before coming to our home. Building healthy communication while raising adoptive, foster, or kinship children can therefore be extra challenging.
Healthy Family Communication Is an Investment.
We can all agree that we must create a culture where all our kids feel heard and seen. However, the imperative is even more significant when a child has experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma. We want our kids to feel safe, that we can meet their needs, and that they can express their needs and learn how to advocate for themselves. Learning that we are safe can often be harder for our kids who have lived with unhealthy communication patterns in their early years.
Teaching new, healthy communication skills in our homes helps us set our kids up for successful experiences in school, the workplace, and future relationships. It’s an investment in your family and the people you want your kids to become.
5 Tips for Healthy Family Communication
There are several effective ways to build healthy communication in our homes. These tips will help us tell our kids they matter, their voice is important to us, and we are a safe space to learn how to be a family. We thank Dr. Jana Hunsley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and TBRI® Practitioner, for her insights on the topic.
1. Build a foundation of mindfulness.
As with most issues around building strong families, a strong start to creating healthy communication starts with us. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of and present with our feelings. Think about how your body feels when your emotions are running high or when you are stressed. Learn how to link your thoughts and feelings with your physical state by observing your responses in good and challenging moments.
If this awareness is a challenge, we highly recommend you seek counseling or professional help to build healthy self-awareness. When you are aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can be present for the child’s thoughts and feelings without being reactionary or triggered, thus communicating safety to the child.
2. Model openness.
Openness is a practical scaffold to your mindfulness. You should train yourself to say your thoughts and feelings out loud. When you narrate your day, it helps normalize the ranges of emotions you feel during the day. You can then normalize the many different feelings your child experiences. You are also telling them that we can do something to take care of our feelings. The repeated scaffolding of openness about this range of daily emotions builds a strong communication pattern for you all.
3. Ask open-ended questions.
As you build mindfulness and openness, practice regularly checking in with the kids about their days. Ask them about their experiences and how they felt or thought about them. An example of an open-ended question would be,
“When the teacher assigned the Civil War and slavery project, how did you feel about it?
An easy way to make this a new family habit is to try conversation starters around the dinner table. If you are a breakfast table family, do it then. The point is to create a family ritual around sharing thoughts and feelings and responding with presence and empathy to those expressions.
This link is for conversation starters that will also build your whole family’s emotional language skills. Here are a few fun and productive conversation starters the CreatingaFamily.org team has tried with our own families:
- The high point of today was…, and the low point of my day was…
- Would you rather be a bird or a fish, and why?
- What annoys you the most?
- If you could only choose one, what superpower would you choose and why?
- If you could easily get to either the top of Mt. Everest or the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which would you choose and why?
- The hardest thing I faced this week was…
- If I could travel back to any time in history, I’d go to… because…
- What is something you are afraid of?
- When do you feel most alive (full of joy/fulfilled)?
- What are you most interested in lately, and why?
When we give our kids space and time to share experiences safely, we support them in developing the habits of sharing and carrying others’ loads. These skills are priceless and will go far in helping them build other crucial life skills they will need to succeed.
4. Be receptive.
When practicing mindfulness and openness, you can be ready to hear your child’s thoughts and feelings at the moment. Your receptiveness makes them feel safe coming to you with the awesome and challenging things they are experiencing. Accepting each child’s different way of experiencing the world and their response to it communicates that their experiences matter – even if they differ from your experiences.
Receptiveness to your child and their perspectives or experiences also communicates that they are valuable to you. When we respond in a way that makes our kids feel like a burden or distraction, we can short-circuit all the other healthy habits we are trying to build together. And let’s face it, in this culture of hand-held devices and work-at-home careers. It’s easy to be distracted from authentic presence and receptiveness to our kids.
5. Affirm their preciousness.
How are you communicating to your children that they are loved? Healthy communication is made with both our words and actions. We must intentionally build a culture in our home that speaks of how cherished and valued our kids are. We need to find ways to say that they matter, are safe in this family, and are unconditionally accepted, even when we have to correct them.
One way to affirm your child’s preciousness is to spend time with them. For some families, that will look like Family Movie Night. Others will enjoy a weekly hike together. We also recommend that parents get one-on-one time with each child. You can make your time together an event your kid loves or even learn a new skill together.
Get into their world — and model that openness and receptivity while you are at it. Take them to that concert they’ve been waiting to see. Go to their high school theater productions, even if they aren’t in the show. Offer lots of yeses and try new things together. Let your child teach you about their favorite video game or soccer move. Make your home an open and safe space for their friends to gather and welcome the chaos of it. Your presence in their world communicates that you see them as precious and “worth it,” even if you feel uncomfortable.
Healthy Family Communication Makes Self-Care Critical
Building healthy communication habits with our kids is hard work. It requires consistency and intentionality of us in ways that we might not expect. Being present and open can feel exhausting when practiced in the context of all the other hard things we do for our family. For that reason – and many others – self-care is critical for parents. We parents need to be refreshed and strengthened from the inside. So, find what brings you peace, joy, and refueling – then schedule it!
And the bonus of regularly engaging in self-care is that we are also modeling another great healthy habit for life for our kids! Make the appointment with yourself because you are precious too.
How have you created healthy communication in your home? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: RODNAE Productions; Karolina Grabowska; Boris Pavlikovsky