Good family communication is the key to successful parenting at all stages, but it’s not always easy. We all know the advice about getting down to a toddler’s tantrumming level, offering a stroppy six-year-old a non-judgmental ear and giving a tired teenager peace to think and a cup of tea after a tough exam, but constant low-level approachability is hard to get right. There’s also a temptation to believe it’s about getting your children to listen to you, when in reality it’s just as important for you to listen to them.
Making connection a habit gives children of all ages the confidence of knowing that they will always have an opportunity to talk without having to engineer the situation. There are some situations that make confiding seem much easier, such as “sideways listening”. This has proved particularly successful in all sorts of professional as well as personal situations, as the family psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew explains.
“This has been around in a therapeutic context for years,” she says. “In that situation, it’s about positioning your chairs slightly at an angle so people feel more relaxed, and it’s much more helpful in getting them to talk more freely. You can apply that to younger children through playing with them and letting the conversation flow naturally, not just about what you’re playing with but to include other areas of life as well.”
The possible benefits of this approach seem to far outweigh the amount of time she recommends putting in.
“Generally, I would recommend 10 minutes of child-led activity every day,” she says. “There are all sorts of enjoyable activities that lend themselves to sideways listening, such as arts and crafts, baking, running and other physical activities you can do together. The aim is make this into a habit as your children will know that they can rely on this time with you and that it’s all about them and how important they are to you.”
This air of peaceful routine lends itself well to the suggestion that parents should listen to their children, especially as psychological parenting models advise letting the children lead the conversation, with parents then commenting rather than questioning. “You’re setting up a long-term background with this approach,” says Andrew. “This is actively nurturing the relationship and giving your child confidence to come to you and talk about anything, from all the little things that make up their day to the possibility of more worrying situations.”
She is keen to emphasise the importance of not taking over a conversation, especially if a child is sharing difficulties or worries.
– Joan McFadden
Read more: The power of talking sideways to children