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Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin

Published 10:06 am, Monday, March 3, 2014
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"It doesn't have to be like this, all we need to do is make sure we keep talking" -- Pink Floyd, "Keep Talking"

"God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak" -- Irish proverb

Growing up in Parkchester in the Bronx, I loved to visit my grandmother who lived only two blocks away; there was nothing better than a Saturday morning neighborhood pickup softball game in the east quadrant, followed by lunch at Nana's. I would make my way down the hallway to her apartment and be hit with the familiar smells of pot roast, roast chicken, meat loaf or a noodle casserole and know that there was an incredible meal waiting for me.

What I loved even more than her cooking was the chance to sit around the kitchen table and catch up on what was happening in our lives. As we ate, we would share our stories, talk about the family and have a good laugh.

What was once a family ritual, family members sitting around a table sharing food, events of the day and stories, has disappeared for the most part from the American landscape.

We seem to be moving at such a fast pace, just trying to keep up, or in manic pursuit of something better than what we have, that a lot of the time we communicate in monosyllabic utterances. We ask our children, "How was your day," they respond with, "Fine" -- end of conversation. Friends ask, "How you doing?" and we respond with, "OK," and we move on. It's hard to find time to chitchat.

Time is at a premium and to compensate we engage in a multi-tasking cha-cha where accomplishing as many things as possible simultaneously is our No. 1 priority. We're driving, listening to a tape of a book that we don't have the time to read and talking on our cellular phone, oftentimes scheduling more things to do; we're eating takeout, watching television and texting friends or family members who couldn't make it home for dinner.

Unfortunately, in the process, we have sacrificed what should be our number one priority: taking the time to communicate with our children in more than a perfunctory manner.

As every parent knows, listening and talking to teenagers can be a very frustrating experience. Parents often tell me how difficult it is trying to have a conversation with their preteen or teen, when for every question asked they get nothing back but looks and unintelligible grunts.

It's not a comfortable feeling to have to talk to someone else on demand, so we really shouldn't expect that when we want to talk with our children they'll reciprocate. At these times it is critical to back off, give them some space and avoid getting upset at all cost. Their social world is very important to them and they should not be made to feel that it is mandatory to share or be grilled about what is going on in their lives.

The key to successful communication and staying connected with your child is to have an open environment and talk often. Be an active listener and "hear" what your child is saying; it will give you insight into what your teen is experiencing. It's also helpful to let your child decide when to talk, what to talk about, and for how long. Be aware of your tone and body language; they will either open or shut the door to communication.

When they decide to share their thoughts and feelings it's important to take the time to listen and be empathetic and non-judgmental. Fear of a parent's reaction is the main reason children don't open up and share what's going on in their life. Lectures and unsolicited advice are to be avoided; your child knows the lectures by heart.

Parents should never underestimate the stresses in their children's lives or think that it's only a short-lived phase. This is when validation of the adolescent's point of view is critical; it helps to try and look at the world as they do. Resist comparing your teenage experience to what your child is going through; saying "When I was your age" will stop conversation in its tracks. A child's feelings about the stress and pressures in his life decrease when he feels his parents simply understand him, even if they cannot change the situation.

My grandmother was always willing to take the time to let me talk about what was going on in my life and as I look back I realize that she taught me a lot about listening and empathy, which I've always tried to put to use when talking with my daughters.

She truly understood how powerful listening, talking, and sharing feelings can be. In a text-mad world, it's vital mental medicine.

Barry Halpin can be reached at barryhalpin@aol.com