A new baby is born. Snugly cradled in mommy’s arms it is busy adjusting to its new environment. Both mom and dad look deeply into the baby’s eyes, smile, and speak to their newborn in soft, gentle voices as they caress its cheeks and little hands. When the baby suddenly grabs hold of a parent’s finger, mom and dad both gladly welcome the gesture as a symbol of connection.
From day one parents and children exchange messages. When the little one starts crying and mommy lifts him from the crib, communication has started: the baby sends a message (cries) and the mother responds (takes her out of the crib). Should the baby quiet down, the mother then knows her message has arrived and the contents of her message match the baby’s need. With this simple exchange a communication channel has come into being that will connect parent and child through the years that follow.
While spontaneous and knee-jerk reaction just happen, constructive communication doesn’t; it is not a given. Constructive communication is communication with the intent of contributing positively to the experience of the one receiving the message. It is a conscious choice. Often this conscious choice happens quite naturally. Your parental instincts will guide you or you've learned to trust your intuition. However, it is not always easy to consciously choose to send a constructive message when fatigue, irritation or old patterns direct you in the opposite direction. The importance of developing constructive ways to communicate with your kids cannot be overestimated. Why? Because the quality of your communication with your kids to a large extent determines the quality of your relationship with them. Where love is the heart of the parent-child-relationship, constructive communication is the rhythmically beating coronary artery that connects parent and child. Both the loving heart and the life-giving artery are indispensable in good relationships. No matter how much you love your child, if you allow the communication between the two of you to falter, your relationship will stagnate.
It is the parents’ primary task to guarantee the quality of communication. They are after all the ones who have been able to develop insight and self-control through the years, qualities needed to communicate constructively. Children have only just arrived; they still have to get used to everything: circumstances, relationships, skills, etc.
The family in a way is like a laboratory for children. In its safe setting they are able to express feelings and developmental impulses. The inner world of a growing child is highly active, processing all kinds of stimuli. Consequently, they have to experiment in order to make sense of all the information received. As kids grow older they will bring into this family setting a variety of influences of the outside world in order to test and assess them in this safe circle. With failing communication at home, the door is open for misunderstanding and misinterpretation of behavior. These easily lead to grudges and bitterness. At precisely the moment when children are experimenting independently with new behavior they need their parents’ loving, clear and constructive feedback. They count on it and should they not receive it for whatever reasons, the communication channel gets clogged. Parents and children start to lose touch with each other and can only guess as to the motive of their actions. Gradually mutual understanding will erode, and with it the willingness to empathize - a vital ingredient in family relationships.
However, it is never too late to adjust and remedy the situation. Blockages in communication can be dissolved applying the principles of sound communication. (Dr. Thomas Gordon has done excellent work in the field of communication.)
To create some clarity into the subject of communication, let's explore it. What happens when people are communicating? In the drawing below the four numbers indicate the elements that determine communication. (1) represents the person initiating contact. The information (2) travels along the chosen channel (3) in order to arrive at the recipient (4).
This picture clearly shows that when one of phones (1, 4) is not functioning properly, the quality of communication is affected. For instance, when a teenager is feeling somewhat blue, a simple request like: “Would you mind helping me for a second,” will be received entirely differently than when she is feeling fine. In addition, communication will falter when the choice of the channel (3) is not fitting the situation: a letter, even when written in the finest handwriting, is not a suitable channel of communication for a baby. In short, an optimal exchange of information relies on two active and receptive parties, as well as a channel that serves both parties adequately. If that is the case, you can count on the message (2) being transferred as intended.
Suppose you are the properly functioning cell phone 1. You choose a channel (for instance: calling over your shoulder) and you send a message to your child: “Please wash your hands before dinner.” Your child receives the message and responds: “All right, mom,” and washes up. This will go right a hundred times, until, one day, your child will ignore your request. Elements 1, 2 and 3 have remained the same: you (1) haven’t changed, nor have the message and the channel (2 and 3). Element 4 is suddenly different. The child (4), for whatever reason, has decided not to respond in the familiar way. Naturally, your attention focuses automatically on the one element in the communication chain that has changed, your child, and you try to bring it back to its old shape: “Hey you, wash up, please”, or “Listen to me!” Even if you’re successful in bringing about the expected response, chances are friction and irritation have been created on both sides as well. Something apparently has gone wrong.
Next week in this space we will have a look at what options you, as a parent and care-giver, have when you notice that the recipient in the communication chain, your child, has changed.