Bill and Rachael (names have been changed) sat at the dinner table with their 14-year-old son, Seth. Though Seth was within touching distance, Bill and Rachael had never felt so distant from him. Over the past few months, he had been spending more and more of his time with friends. School grades were declining, as was his interest in family activities. Seth did his chores at home and attended church, but he seemed aloof and removed from his parents and siblings. Bill and Rachael were concerned. They had tried to reach out to him, but he invariably pulled away. Questions seemed to irritate him, and he offered no explanations for his actions. Tonight, Bill and Rachael were determined to try again. Rachael began: “Seth, what’s troubling you? Please talk to us. We see you headed in the wrong direction. We’re worried about you.” Taking offense, Seth stated that nothing was wrong, told his parents to leave him alone, and left the room.
Ironically, the time when children can benefit most from their parents’ wisdom is often the time when they are least likely to accept it. Adolescent children, in particular, strive to become independent, and the urgency of that drive, heightened by the pull of peers and worldly influence, sometimes draws them away from those who could help them the most. Sadly, their parents, wanting desperately to help, sometimes watch helplessly as they make unfortunate mistakes. Headstrong children, bent on doing things their own way, rebuff the most loving of fathers and mothers. Seth’s parents found themselves in that position.
As parents, how can we keep the doors of communication open? How can we remove barriers that prevent us from talking about things that are important? While there are no easy answers, there are principles and practices that can guide us. The following recommendations helped Seth’s parents strengthen their relationship with their son.
Communication includes every thought, feeling, act, or desire that is shared verbally and nonverbally between parents and children. It is impossible not to communicate. With no real effort, people effectively communicate who they are and how they feel about things. As President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) observed, “Our expressions, our voice tones, our movements, our thoughts betray us.”1 The greatest influence we can exert on our children occurs when our words and actions flow untainted from the purity of our hearts.
As parents we sometimes need to re-evaluate the way we relate to our children. Sometimes a change of heart is needed before good communication is possible. Some parents drive their children away through lecturing, moralizing, interrogating, judging, condemning, threatening, blaming, criticizing, and ridiculing. Seth’s parents struggled with his emerging independence and tended to judge and criticize his every move. While their intent was to be helpful, Seth often felt he was a disappointment to them.
Jesus taught that the inner vessel should be cleansed first, “and then shall the outer vessel be cleansed also” (Alma 60:23; see also Matt. 23:26). Changes of the heart are reflected in the countenance and in the way we talk and listen to each other. As we turn our hearts to the Savior, we become more Christlike, charitable, and tender toward others. Our ability to listen, understand, and to empathize increases. Our response to parenting challenges becomes more Christlike.
As parents, the single most important thing we can do for our children is to love them as the Savior loves each one of us (see John 13:34–35). When our children know that we truly love them, they are more likely to listen to our counsel, follow our example, and accept our discipline.
Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the Seventy poignantly recalls the great influence of his mother’s love: “When I was a little boy, my widowed mother gave me the most severe discipline possible. She said, with tears in her eyes, ‘My son, I am so disappointed in you.’ The pain in my heart was more than I could bear. A thousand lashes could not have cut me so deeply. I knew that such a rebuke could only have been made to me out of her pure love, for if there was one thing that I was certain of, it was that my mother loved me. I resolved never again to be subject to the disappointment and the broken heart of an angel mother. I believe that I have succeeded in that resolve.”2
Love should motivate and guide all our involvement with our children. Without love, a parent’s expression of disappointment can be perceived as rejection and, oft repeated, can damage the child’s sense of worth. Teaching without love may fail to touch the hearts and lives of our children. Listening without love may be perceived as disinterest. Discipline without love will be looked upon as unrighteous dominion. Family life without love is empty and unhappy.
Elder Waldo P. Call, formerly of the Seventy, shared this personal experience regarding the power of his mother’s love: “There was one time in my life … when the love I knew she had for me saved me. I knelt down one night to pray, as she had taught me. I was about to throw away everything that I had. As I started praying, I started thinking of her and of the love that she had for me. As I cried and prayed—and it took most of the night—I was so grateful that I knew she loved me.”3
Like the prodigal son, many lost and wayward children return to the arms of their parents when they feel genuinely loved and valued. Love should be the governing force in all of our interactions with our children.
During the last three decades, parenting books, articles, and courses have taught communication skills to thousands of mothers and fathers, enhancing their ability to listen and talk with their children. Communication techniques are simple to learn but need to be practiced before they can be used effectively. They are particularly useful in helping children who are upset. A few of these skills include:
Showing nonverbal interest in what your child has to say by paying attention, maintaining eye contact without staring, and appearing interested instead of distant or bothered.
Asking questions that invite your child to talk, such as, “It looks like something is troubling you. Want to tell me about it?”
Selectively rephrasing what you hear, such as, “You’re worried that others don’t like you.” Rephrasing conveys interest in and understanding of your child’s message. If you didn’t hear it accurately, your child can clarify the message.
Listening is particularly challenging when your child is upset with you. Most parents want their children’s approval and feel threatened, defensive, or rejected when criticized. However, a listening ear has healed many troubled relationships. Instead of reacting to your child’s anger, try listening, instead, without defending yourself. If your child is critical of you, acknowledge if there is truth in what he or she says. A child’s angry feelings often subside when listening occurs.
A parent may need to give up the need to be right and to be superior. By honestly admitting an error, you will take a major step toward rebuilding a trusting relationship with your child.
Some parents have been reared in homes where feelings are discounted, ignored, or even punished. Having learned to fear, dislike, or deny the way they feel, they have difficulty recognizing, accepting, or tuning in to the feelings of their children.
We can greatly help our children by recognizing and responding to the difficult feelings they sometimes experience. Emotional moments provide opportunities to reach out, listen, comfort, and guide. As mothers and fathers, we will have few experiences that offer us greater joy and satisfaction than helping our sons and daughters through difficult times. As we acknowledge their feelings and guide them in resolving underlying problems, we are helping them develop coping skills to address life’s many challenges.
Start responding to your children’s feelings when they are very young. If you wait until they are older, they, like Seth, may not share their feelings with you. However, it is never too late to enhance your communication skills. You can make improvements at any time, although the process will be more challenging if emotional barriers are solidly in place.
When communication problems exist, parents frequently bear some of the responsibility. Problems are best resolved when parents adopt a “change first” philosophy, taking care of personal issues before expecting change in their children.
First, identify your contribution to the problem and stop making it. A mother shared how important this can be:
“Several years ago, I engaged in almost daily shouting matches with my teenage son. I couldn’t get through to him, and much to my dismay the problem seemed to get worse. I prayed that I might know what to do. One day I read an Ensign article that condemned anger as an inappropriate response to the provocations of others.4 The Spirit touched me as I read. I had the profound impression that I would lose Derek unless I overcame my angry feelings toward him.
“The experience was life changing. I vowed that I would never again yell at my children. It wasn’t easy, but I kept my promise, and in time my relationship with Derek dramatically improved. In the years that followed, Derek successfully completed high school, served a mission, graduated from college, and married in the temple. He is now successfully rearing a family of his own. I will be forever grateful that I learned to respond to my children without anger.”
Sometimes the things we do to remedy a problem make it worse. And when we see that our efforts aren’t working, we tend to do even more of the same thing, unwittingly escalating the problem. Derek’s mother did this but discovered the solution came when she took a different approach, following the Savior’s example of returning good for ill (see 3 Ne. 12:39–45).
As we strive to relate to our children in a Christlike way—with love, kindness, and a willingness to listen and understand—most children eventually respond in a positive way. Sometimes behavioral changes do not come until the child is convinced that our course corrections are more than fleeting bursts of energy. Consequently, we must persist in our efforts, even when our children do not respond immediately. Such was the case with Seth, the young man described in the opening vignette. As Seth’s parents became more Christlike, loving, and skillful in their interactions with him, Seth began to rejoin his family socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
It is helpful to realize that we are accountable only for how we carry out our responsibilities as parents, not for how our children turn out. President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, declared that good parents are “those who have lovingly, prayerfully, and earnestly tried to teach their children by example and precept ‘to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord’ (D&C 68:28). This is true even though some of their children are disobedient or worldly. … Successful parents are those who have sacrificed and struggled to do the best they can in their own family circumstances.”5
As we strive to become Christlike in our actions and incorporate good skills and principles in our parenting practices, we will enhance the chances that our children will respond positively, even though some may choose to take a difficult path.
Parents, you may be interested to know that this month’s New Era contains a companion article to “Talking with Teens.”
Invite family members to act out in a fun way various situations that demonstrate how they tend to communicate with each other. Read the first story and ask what they would do if they were Seth’s parents. Use the suggestions in this article to teach your family principles and skills of good communication. Act out the same situations again using what you have learned.
Ask your family the two questions in the third paragraph. Use the six sections of the article to discuss how family communication can improve. Choose one idea to work on as a family.