The key to many parenting challenges is finding ways to communicate where both your needs and your child’s needs are met. Although this sounds simple, in the heat of the moment it is difficult to identify and differentiate
- your needs,
- your wants, and
- the positions you take.
Most parents can probably identify with a conversation that sounds something like the following:
CHILD: “I want a ham sandwich!” [Stating a want; the need is I’m hungry]
PARENT: “This is not a restaurant! You’ll eat what’s for dinner, and it’s not dinner time yet.” [Taking a position]
The result of this conversation is that the child is upset and the parent is angry. This conversation ends in a way that takes away from the relationship rather than enhances it. Intentional communication helps both you as a parent and your child get needs met in a way that supports and even enhances the relationship. The result is a child who learns how to
- understand and manage oneself,
- relate to others, and
- make responsible choices based on self and others (social and emotional skills), and a parent who enjoys, rather than dreads, having a tough conversation with their child).
Intentional communication does not happen by chance. Intentional communication is deliberate. As a parent, you can do it! With practice and patience, you will see results in your child and in yourself. Intentional communication skills are not easy, so a method called scaffolding is recommended. This means waiting to add a new skill until the previous skill is stable. Essentially, start slow, and as you get better, add more.
The rest of this document is divided into three parts. First, intentional communication is defined in detail. Next, reasons why using intentional communication is important are provided. And finally, examples of how to use intentional communication are described.
What Is Intentional Communication?
Intentional communication is a way of communicating that deliberately fosters social and emotional skill development. Put simply, social and emotional skills include
- understanding and managing oneself,
- relating to others, and
- making responsible choices based on self and others.
Intentional communication creates a safe environment that allows you and your child to increase your awareness about
- what you are feeling,
- what you want, and
- what you need (Self).
Intentional communication creates space to listen to each other and understand what the other person is feeling as well as the other person’s wants and needs (Others). Intentional communication allows for developing a mutually beneficial solution where both your needs and your child’s needs are met (Choices We Make Based on Self and Others).
An intentional communication approach is a two-way street that includes
- listening, and
- spending time to truly understand the other’s point of view.
It’s about “talking with” as opposed to “talking to.” Lecturing and giving advice are one-way approaches to communication and do not align with intentional communication. Intentional communication provides opportunities to grow cognitive engagement. Cognitive engagement is intentionally being an active participant in processing the information and reflecting on the content.
Why Engage in Intentional Communication?
Intentional communication grows social and emotional skills. Social and emotional skills are associated with a variety of successful life outcomes for you and your child. Intentional communication is not just to inform, it develops your child’s skills and strengthens your relationship with your child. Intentional communication grows the brain by creating a safe space for learning. It encourages curiosity from your child, rather than defensiveness. Intentional communication teaches and models an effective communication approach that has broad application in many areas of your life and your child’s life. These skills are applicable
- in school,
- at work,
- with friends,
- in conflict, and
- in communicating with others.
Intentional communication fosters a sense of ownership in the communication because it is more relevant and meaningful.
How Do You Do Intentional Communication?
Intentional communication includes
- creating the conditions for intentional communication,
- listening actively to understand what is being said and the feelings being communicated,
- using “I” messages, and
- apologizing when needed.
Create the Conditions for Intentional Communication
An optimal setting is one where both parties can truly hear and learn from each other. Unfortunately, when you feel upset or react, the part of your brain that can listen or learn is not engaged. To get beyond a place where you are reactive and instead to where your brain can listen and learn, self-regulation skills are needed. To help your child get to this place, you can use empathy and connection. If the conditions for intentional communication are not created, it is easy to end up with conversations that do not facilitate actual change in behavior and that potentially wear down the relationship. Creating the right conditions fosters positive interactions and models empathy and respect.
Tips to create the conditions for intentional communication
- Describe the purpose for the conversation.
- “I’d like to hear more about how things went on the playground today.”
- “I’d like to talk about your plans this weekend with you.”
- “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about when you are starting your homework each night.”
- Make sure there is enough time available. Find a mutually agreeable time. Don’t start a serious conversation when you or your child are upset. Make sure the time you have set aside is a priority (no cell phone, no TV, etc.).
- “What would be the best time for us to talk?”
- “Do you have a few minutes to talk after dinner?”
- Be mindful of your state of mind and your child’s state of mind. Your own emotions and current state will influence the way you listen and talk. Your child’s frame of mind also matters. Talking after a bad game or after flunking a test is not a time to talk about practicing or studying more. Recognizing your child’s mood and deciding on an appropriate time is important (i.e., it is difficult to have a serious conversation when they are in a silly mood).
- “Let’s take a break from this topic and talk more later tonight.”
- Start by connecting. Focus on the relationship before the content. You could use an empathic statement like: “You seem really upset about this.” Or ask an open question like: “Tell me how you are feeling about this.”
Active listening is seeking to truly understand someone. It is a two-part style of listening. First, convey you are listening through your body language (e.g., nodding, eye contact). Second, convey understanding by stating back what you have heard or feelings that have been communicated. If you do not quite understand or need more information, ask open questions. This takes practice to truly listen and understand without placing assumptions or judgment on what is being heard.
Listening actively is important for your child. Active listening:
- shows your child you are genuinely interested in what they are saying;
- creates a respectful interaction that honors your child’s thoughts and feelings;
- allows your child to explore ideas and clarify ideas and feelings, which builds self-awareness;
- allows your child to practice self-soothing skills, which builds self-regulation;
- models for your child how to engage in active listening; and
- strengthens social and emotional skills like: empathy, identifying emotions, communication, and reflecting.
Listening actively is important for you as a parent too. Active listening helps you:
- slow down and suspend assumptions while truly listening to what your child is saying, feeling, and thinking;
- clearly understand the verbal and non-verbal message your child is communicating;
- clarify meaning, seek additional information, and to learn about your child;
- have a respectful interaction that builds and strengthens your parent-child relationship; and
- build your social and emotional skills like: perspective taking, empathy, respect for others, listening well, and patience.
How to engage in active listening
- Pay attention without distraction.
- “Let me turn off the TV and silence my phone.”
- Be aware of your body language and notice your child’s body language.
- Use open-ended questions to invite your child to tell their story in their own words without leading them in a specific direction.
- “How does this make you feel?”
- “Can you describe what happened at school before math today?”
- “Can you help me think through how you can join the school club and have time to finish homework and chores?”
- “How can we work together to solve the struggle we seem to be having about cell phone use?”
- Convey understanding by reflecting and re-phrasing what you have heard or feelings that have been communicated.
- “So, you feel angry?”
- “It sounds like you are wanting more time so you don’t feel rushed?”
- “You’re saying that…”
- “Almost as if…”
- “It’s like…”
- “It feels like…”
Remain calm even when you hear something you don’t like.
Avoid interrupting, judging (“that’s a bad idea”), giving advice (“I think you should…”, “why don’t you try…”).
Using “I” Messages
The purpose of communication is to deliver a message in a way that it can be received. It is more important to deliver less information in a way that your child can understand, than to deliver all the information you wanted all at the same time. Using “I” statements allows your child to receive the information without raising defenses.
“I” messages are about conveying the impact of someone’s actions without blame. Notice the difference between:
“You are being so rude slamming the door like that” and
“I feel upset when you slam the door.”
Put simply, the “I” portion is the impact on you, the “you” portion is the behavior you noticed. “I” statements leave out any interpretation of the behavior (e.g., “You did it because you don’t care”). “I” statements avoid making any guesses about the intention behind the behavior (e.g., “You did it to get your way”).
“I” messages model for your child a way of communicating that is respectful in different settings (i.e., conflict with peers, teachers, other adults, etc.). “I” messages also allow you to express your opinions without eliciting negative reactions. “I” messages work well during conflict and build the relationship by not assigning blame. “I” messages also build social and emotional skills like: communication, negotiating conflict constructively, respect for others, self-discipline, and regulating emotions.
How to do an “I” Message
“I” messages usually contain three parts: my feeling / your behavior / the impact. For example, I feel terribly worried (my feeling) / when you come home later than we agreed (your behavior) / I can’t stop thinking the worst (the impact). Including these three parts in the message is very different from a message like: “You are so disrespectful because you came home late.”
When communicating with older children, you can add additional details about how you interpret the behavior (the story you tell about the behavior). For example, “I feel angry when you slam the door, and the story I tell is that you don’t care. Help me correct my story.” This is very different from “You are so inconsiderate” or “You just don’t care.”
Rather than saying, “If you do that one more time, you will go straight to your room,” try saying, “When I see you do that, I feel sad because it hurts my feelings, and it makes it hard for me to keep playing with you.”
Value yourself and your ideas. Be authentic. Respond calmly and consistently. Make sure the environment is conducive to conversation. Make sure your expectations are appropriate for your child’s age and stage of development. Use language that is age appropriate, straightforward, and simple.
Avoid starting with “I” to couch a “you” statement, for example, “I feel that you are being rude” instead of “I feel hurt when you raise your voice at me.”
Taking responsibility or admitting when you are wrong is excellent modeling and demonstrates vulnerability and a willingness to grow. Being able to apologize sends the message that making mistakes is part of learning and getting better. It not only creates an environment where it is ok to “fail,” it establishes behavioral norms that we take responsibility for our actions.
Apologizing models for your child that it is okay to admit mistakes and helps to develop their social and emotional skills such as: perspective taking, emotion regulation, and responsibility. Parents also benefit from apologizing because it strengthens the relationship you have with your child and provides you with an opportunity for reflection.
Tips on how to apologize:
Be genuine – apologize for what you truly mean.
Start with “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” and be specific about what you are apologizing for.
Do not use “if”; use “that” instead. For example, rather than, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” say “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.”
Don’t make excuses or apologize in a way that blames the other person (e.g., This is not an apology: “I’m sorry for yelling, but when you behave so badly, I have to yell.”).
Keep it short and stop talking to let the other person respond.
Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to apologize for. For example, if your child says, “You are being so mean,” you don’t need to apologize for their interpretation. Instead, you can apologize for the impact – “I can see you are hurt right now, and I am sorry. That was not my intention at all.”
Avoid not paying attention to your own emotional regulation. You are always modeling. Kids develop the skills to deal with situations and regulate their own behaviors and emotions through what they see. When dealing with difficult situations, disappointment, and conflict, you are continually modeling to your child.
Intentional communication is a style of communicating where both parties get their needs met. It means communicating in a way that increases the likelihood that both parties truly hear each other. It has wide application and can be used in every interaction. When parents deliberately use intentional communication, they build their child’s social and emotional skills. Engaging in intentional communication builds your skills as a parent and strengthens your relationship with your child.