When Anna was little, her mom quelled every child-initiated attempt at a squabble with the adage, "And if a little frog had wings, its butt wouldn't hit the ground!" Anna is now the parent of two toddlers, and she still doesn't have a clue what a wingless frog had to do with wanting to go on an evening bike ride or to the prom with an older boy. What she does know is that that dreaded phrase often kept family dynamics from escalating into yelling matches -- no one knew how to respond to it!
1. It Begins with Respect
Improving family dynamics by strengthening communications begins by understanding how basic and vital the role of respect plays. When you consider communications strategies for your family, evaluate how each member interacts with the others. Red flag any child who bullies or verbally berates a sibling. Your challenge as a parent is to have zero tolerance for those behaviors. Employ strategies to replace disrespectful behaviors with acceptable ones. For instance, 5-year-old Tamara regularly pushes 3-year-old Todd over and grabs toys from him. Initiate a token economy system; every time Tamara is nice to Todd, she gets a happy face on the fridge. When she gets five, she can play a video game she really likes.
2. Turn-taking Games
Now you can begin to build on this budding sense of respect by creating fun turn-taking games with family members. Investing a few minutes daily in playing these games can result in big dividends. Children's board games, marble games, and lawn games all require turn-taking and verbal communication. As a parent, you can model courteous and caring interactions, and require the same of all other family members. One homemade turn-taking game that strengthens family dynamics is to place a laminated 2-by-2 inch picture of each family member in a bag. Each child takes a turn drawing a picture out of the bag. They then think of something nice to say about that person. Think small steps for long-term growth.
3. Dinner Time
Another ideal time for strengthening family communications is dinner time. With all family members gathered, question children on their day. Keep the questions specific so you get more than single word answers. For instance, instead of asking, "How was your day?" ask your toddler, "What was the funnest thing you did today?" Also ask questions about any interactions -- positive or negative -- with other family members. Did Tamara push Todd around in a wagon? Ask Tamara how it felt; what did Todd do when she was helping him? How does she think Todd felt? Helping your little ones articulate how showing respect to other family members helps them -- Tamara got double-time on the video game -- are external elements that will be internalized by family members.
A strategy that builds self-esteem and the ability to show respect is to take time weekly for one-on-one talks with them. This one-on-one can be as simple as five minutes on the front porch swing with Tamara while Todd naps. If family finances and parenting schedules allow, take one child at a time out to their favorite park or eatery, and talk with them in-depth about their week. Whether simple or special, this is a private time to give your children corrective feedback, as needed, without an audience of siblings. Again, investing in these regular "interviews" is another tool in the parenting arsenal of strengthening communications to improve family dynamics.
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