Express Yourself

Teaching communication skills to kids.

One of the most common challenges facing families today is how to communicate feelings in ways that help instead of hurt. Effective techniques are available, so it’s just a matter of learning these tools and putting them into practice. Whether it’s anger, hurt, fear, sadness, or guilt, research tells us that feelings want to come out.

Feelings held too long inside can result in withdrawal, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole rash of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, stomach aches, and difficulty sleeping. On the other hand, expressing feelings in hurtful ways such as with insults, meltdowns, sarcasm, withdrawal, or acting out can create great strains on relationships.

There are at least five main ways that children learn how to communicate. These include: watching adult family members as they interact, observing how adults communicate with them, engaging with their siblings, viewing examples on TV shows and in movies, and participating in peer interactions.

Since sibling relationships are one of the most important templates for how kids get along with their peers, it’s vital that parents teach social skills to their kids and encourage healthy sibling interactions. Think of life inside the family as a laboratory for learning how to get along with others.

Bickering between siblings is one of the most common symptoms that arises from not having the tools to work out feelings. During therapy sessions with families, one of our favorite, lead-in questions is, “Do you guys ever recycle, or do you throw everything in the trash?” We’ll get affirmative answers about recycling things like bottles, cans, and newspapers, and then follow up with, “That’s great, but do you know how to recycle your relationship when things get strained?” The point of the question becomes obvious.

One of the conflict-resolution tools that we teach parents and kids is called The Repair Kit. It can provide an effective path toward forgiveness, conflict resolution, and bringing out the best in one another. Once acquired, this method can be used as frequently as needed to help things run smoother.

The Repair Kit

In this scenario, person 1 starts as the speaker and person 2 as the listener. Both participants sit face to face so their knees are almost touching. Deep breaths are suggested to help the listener avoid becoming anxious or defensive. If everyone can agree, person 1 shares with person 2 each of the following:

  1. A genuine appreciation toward the other.
  2. Something that upsets him. Examples: “It made me mad when you teased me about my shirt today,” or “I don’t like it when…”
  3. A wish or a want that would help fix the upsetting issue. Example: “I want you to be nice to me and not tease me.”

After sharing one way, the flow reverses so that person 1 becomes the listener and person 2 becomes the speaker. Participants should also pause to take deep breaths when reversing roles. Conscious breathing is one of the fastest and most effective de-stressors available.

It also helps if parents introduce kids ages 5 and older to The Repair Kit as part of a family meeting when things are going well. Explain, “We know that broken things such as a flat tire need repair. We have also learned that when people aren’t acting in caring ways toward each other, something needs to be fixed.” The adults can first model The Repair Kit, and then have each family member practice by pretending to be upset with one another about something.

If you’re thinking that you and your partner may want to try a few couple’s tune-ups with The Repair Kit, don’t be embarrassed! That’s often the case, and you can use the exact same model. We’ve taught it to thousands of couples, too.

We can’t overemphasize the importance of healthy communication. In happy, loving families, everyone takes time to check in and learn how to talk and listen to one another. They know how to repair hurt feelings instead of withdrawing or becoming hurtful to each other. As hard as connecting can be in the hurried pace of our day-to-day lives, quality communication is more important than ever.