How To Talk With Your Kids

By: James P. Krehbiel

Often, counseling children and adults can be a very gratifying experience. A while back, I had a father who joined the counseling process with his teenage son. I had been seeing the son for individual sessions. The father requested being involved, with his son's agreement, so that the two of them could learn more effective ways of communicating about significant issues.

The two of them had been "locking horns" over the son's school performance. Although the son's school progress was above average, Dad felt that his child was somewhat unmotivated, particularly with homework. The teenage boy was an athlete with scholarship potential, and his father was annoyed and frustrated that his son might be throwing away a golden opportunity.

After the first joint session, I wasn't sure how meaningful the counseling process had been for father and son. In fact, I had a hunch that I might never see either one of them again! However, a week later, the son's mother telephoned me stating, "Can I get a follow-up appointment set up for my two guys? I don't know what happened, but they have been like buddies since they met with you." I was encouraged to hear that and progress continued to be made during our sessions.

There was no magic bullet. The process of effectively communicating, I call promoting understanding. Promoting understanding is characterized by unconditional involvement and a process of non-evaluative exploration of mutual concerns.

Many parents have learned, through their own childhood history that talking to your children is better than talking with them. How many times have you told your child that he is capable and smart? Is he listening anymore? Parent's who lecture, moralize, give advice and pressure their children in an effort to facilitate change, eventually find their children tuning out. As their children pretend to be listening and give the right answers, parents may continue their verbal assault with more intensity. In response, the child may become passive-aggressive and react with verbal and behavioral paybacks.

I always tell parents, it's not a matter of what's right or wrong in communicating, it's about what works. Advising and reminding your children regarding what they "ought" to be doing to improve their lives is generally self-defeating. For children who demonstrate irresponsible behavior, non-evaluative exploration coupled with reasonable consequences (if necessary) is a more effective strategy for reaching meaningful goals.

Telling your children what they ought to be doing to improve their life actually lets them off the hook. When the parent does all the talking, pressuring, coercing, and scolding, the child learns to conveniently avoid his problems. A child may give lip service to what is said by his parents and then continue down the same self-defeating path.

Non-evaluative exploration is a technique designed to box a child in, to hold the child responsible for making personal value judgments about behavior. Rather than the parent making the behavioral evaluations, the child is asked to make those judgments. For example, rather than telling your child what you expect him to accomplish at school, pose some questions that makes your child think about the quality of what he is doing rather than focusing exclusively on grades. A parent's line of inquiry might include, "What is it about school that troubles you? What do you think you can do to change your feelings about school? What are your school or career goals? If you don't know, how would you go about finding out? Is your performance in school currently in line with your plans? How would you define quality work? What would it take for you to begin to demonstrating that quality? The objective of this exploration is to assist a child in taking responsibility for making value judgments about behavior. This process builds confidence and accountability, and removes the parent from engaging in power-struggles with their child.

Be cautious about the use of non-evaluative exploration when you are enforcing household rules and boundaries. Often, kids will try to hook adults into a discussion about the value of a particular rule. If you are open to negotiating your child's curfew, by all means explore the issue. However, some rules may be non-negotiable and require nothing more than a simple reiteration of the reasons and purposes for enforcement.

Non-evaluative exploration helps a parent to get out of the "eye of the storm" with their child. It helps parents and children to promote understanding, reduce tensions, and foster a more solid, respectful connection with each other.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S, LPC is an author, freelance writer, and a nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at

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