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10 factors that make communication and relationship building with children harder

Being a caregiver and a teacher is a path of constant self-improvement and self-development. One that makes us pose the questions of who we are, who we want to be ourselves as well as who we want the children under our wings to become. The route to building a good relationship leads via empathic communication. So what factors can disrupt it?

1. Confusing needs with strategies

Empathy towards needs is a basic tool to form a bond with children. The awareness that every behaviour is an expression of their need, satisfied or not, helps to understand many situations (which in turn supports the process of relationship building). Marshall Rosenberg, the man behind the idea of nonviolent communication, distinguished a few categories of needs:

  • physical: sleep, air, food, rest
  • love and connection: intimacy, acceptance, contact, being seen, belonging
  • positive impact on other people
  • autonomy, making independent decisions about self, impact on the world around
  • growth, exploration, discovery, play, celebration

Satisfying those needs does not mean succumbing to children’s every demand or idea. A child eager to walk on the roof is probably trying to satisfy their need for movement, exploration, independence, perhaps even belonging (if they’re trying to emulate their friends). We can offer them a different strategy – for instance, an outdoor game that will address the same needs that walking on the roof would have (but also satisfy our own need for safety).

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2. The belief that children should do what we tell them

Contemporary adults focus more and more on cooperation rather than commands (‘I want my child to work with me’). But in fact, the two are exactly the same. They both represent a belief that children must be obedient and do what we want them to do. Instead of expecting obedience, we should rather think about why we need them to behave in a particular way. Once we find the answer to that, it will be a lot easier to look for other strategies to solve the conflict. Your child doesn’t want to learn the multiplication table? Maybe what we’re really after is that they know how to use basic maths, regardless of how they absorb it. That doesn’t necessarily mean boning up the multiplication table mindlessly. We can find a more attractive way of showing them how to multiply (even without calling it that) – for instance, through using Montessori materials.

3. All those ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘everybody does it’ statements

These are basically messages sent from the level of control that take away freedom. Perhaps it’s worth taking a closer look at your own vernacular and replacing ‘you should’ with ‘I need’, ‘I must’ with ‘I care about that I/you…’ and get rid of ‘everybody does it’ once and for all? Changes in your mind and in the way you perceive situations start at the level of linguistics. It’s important to look after your words on a daily basis.

4. Lack of empathy

Empathy is always a good choice. I employ it in order to build relationships and communicate with other humans. If I care about my relationship with my child, I show empathy, which means:

  • I am present, I devote my time and attention to my child
  • I let myself forget what I know in order to be with that person as they are
  • I consciously co-experience emotions and needs, without judgment or desire to change them

At the same time, it’s important to remember that empathy only makes sense when you want it to, when you have the strength and the space for it. In order to be able to offer empathy to others, you should make sure you offer it to yourself first.

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5. Denying and ignoring children’s emotions (as well as your own)

The classic example is ‘Don’t cry, it’s not a big deal’. Denying emotions is a longstanding tradition in our culture. As children, we are trained not to feel pain, fear but also too much joy (‘What are you smiling at?’). However, being in touch with your emotions is crucial for our development. So that we are able to look into ourselves and read emotions, states and, consequently, also needs. We must learn how to label our emotions in order to identify the need that caused a particular state of mind. That is why it’s important to remember that all of us, regardless of age, have the right to feel and to express our emotions. Our job as adults is to accompany children in this process. 

6. Lack of respect for (your child’s and your own) boundaries 

It’s important to communicate boundaries almost from the very beginning. You should call out your own but also look after the ones of your child. If you see that your child doesn’t put away their toys, saying ‘I can see that you are not putting away your toys and that frustrates me because I need our common room to be tidy’ will serve as a way of communicating your own needs. On the other hand, it also sends a message to the child – it’s important to look after your own boundaries and say ‘no’ when you disagree with something.  Each ‘no’ means ‘yes’ for some of our needs. It’s a crucial life lesson.

At the same time, let’s show respect for the needs that children satisfy through particular action (for instance, leaving their toys wherever). Perhaps this behaviour demonstrates a strong need for self-expression and autonomy. If we can identify the needs on both sides – ours as well as the child’s – we will be able to look for strategies to satisfy all of them in the best way possible.

7. No permission to say ‘no’

This point strongly relates to boundaries. Jesper Juul in his book NO! – The art of saying NO! With a clear conscience talks about the fact that it’s important to make sure that children practice saying ‘no’, regardless of whether it is directed at their parents, teachers or counterparts. He points out that children say ‘no’ much more seldom than they ought to. Their behaviour is always dominated by the will of working with adults and adapting. This is why it’s crucial to assure children that they have the right to say ‘no’ to us and that it won’t threaten our relationship.

Let’s take their ‘no’ into consideration and notice the beauty of it. It’s children’s way of protecting their boundaries, their attempt to satisfy their own needs – for instance, the fundamental need to have influence on their own life.

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8. Judgement and praise

Judgement increases rivalry and ignores our subjectivity. Lack of judgement, on the other hand, promotes self-esteem (it doesn’t cause any fear about one’s own meaning), the sense of acceptance regardless of skills, cooperation and respect for diversity. Instead of judging children, let’s make them feel seen. Instead of praising, let’s express our recognition and gratitude.

9. Conditional relationship

This type of relationship assumes that children need to earn their spurs through acting in a way that according to us, adults, is appropriate. Unconditional relationships, on the other hand, rely on giving without the expectation of anything in return. This ‘return’ may come in the form of good behaviour, accomplishments or success. Why do unconditional relationships impact children’s development and wellbeing in a more positive way? Because they don’t trigger any fear of losing them. In a conditional relationship, fear is almost omnipresent – ‘The teacher likes me but will they still like me if I don’t win a gold medal in a swimming competition?’

10. Rewards (the reverse of punishment)

Rewards send a message that it’s worth doing what others expect of us. They also teach external motivation (‘I’m doing something because it will pay off’), consequently killing the internal one (‘I’m doing something because I enjoy it and I want to do it’). On top of that, rewards take away the joy from the act of doing and they are the main tool behind forming a conditional relationship founded on the fear of rejection.

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