Angel: Hi! My name is Angel and thank you for viewing the first Powerful Families Powerful Communities webinar. We’re excited to present this webinar on the topic of family communication as a key to a healthy family. As you know families go through a lot of challenges we believe that basic communication between family is essential to successfully get through those challenges.
For this webinar we have Dr. Jennifer Hodgson from East Carolina University. Jennifer will talk about the Languages of Love, the five different ways we experience and express love. Basic strategies for healthy communication. You will be able to use these strategies with your family. How family stress and poor communication lead to poor health and conditions like heart disease mental illness and other health problems. Our hope is that you learn something new about communication that you want to use with your family. We hope you see communication as a key to a powerful family. So take it away Jennifer!
Jennifer: Hi, my name is Jennifer Hodgson. I am a professor at East Carolina University. I direct the doctoral program in Medical Family Therapy. I’ve also been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for quite a while and I’ve worked with lots of individuals, couples, families, health care teams. So I’ve learned a little bit about some healthy communication strategies that I’d like to share with you today.
So the goal for the webinar today is to talk a little bit about healthy family communication what is it how do we get there and really looking at parents and children in the way that they communicate with each other. Children between the ages of 10 to 16 primarily but really a lot of the things we’ll talk about today can really work for all relationships. The main objectives for today are one to define what healthy communication is in a family; the second is the different ways that family members may show love and receive love. So these are two things that are really important to get in relationships. The third is to just discuss some strategies for how do we communicate in healthy ways.
So what are the things that make us a better listener, what are the things that help us to understand better, and what are the strategies we can use to develop a better connection? Then the last is to understand the connection between healthy family communication and healthy bodies and healthy minds. So why do this? What’s the point? So these are the things I’d like to go over today.
In his book The Science of Trust by John Gottman, who’s a well known researcher about relationships, he explains that people in relationships are really emotionally available only 9% of the time. That leaves us 91% of the time open for miscommunication. So that’s where a lot of the challenges come in for families. So if we’re going to make improvements in our communication, we’re gonna have to dip into that 91% and give some time. So I know that today I’m gonna be asking people to think about where can I borrow time from to make these improvements.
According to Donald Winnicott, it’s not the commission of errors in our communication but it’s what we do with those errors. So you’re going to hear me talk today about repairing in relationships. We’re gonna make mistakes. As parents we make them a lot but it’s what we do after we make those mistakes that really matters. So Gottman writes, no matter how careful you are, you will inevitably rupture the bond in your relationship. Even in a good relationship we’ll have ugly screaming matches, we’ll say mean things to each other, we’ll get critical and sometimes really defensive, and we’ll engage in what’s called stonewalling. And stonewalling is when we shut down emotionally and verbally. So if a child comes up to you to hug you because they feel badly about something they did, you just sort of stand there lifeless. You don’t say anything, you don’t hug back. That’s one of the most hurtful things that we can do to another human being is to shut down. But for some of us we do that because we’re afraid of what we’re going to say or do or we’re so hurt that we want to hurt back, even if it’s a ten-year-old. Because when we’re that stressed, we don’t know how to stop if we don’t have the skills for it. So stonewalling is something we really want to avoid. But it’s a self preservation technique that I think a lot of parents might use.
The second objective today is to really talk a little bit about the different ways that family members show love and hope to receive love and expressions of love. So there’s a person by the name of Chapman quite a little while ago, about in 1995, who came up with these these love languages. The evidence on it is is not as strong as some other things. But I think the idea behind it is really meaningful. What he says is that each of us has our own love language the language that we best want to receive communication from others and to know that we’re important in somebody else’s lives. So the first one is called words of affirmation. Words of affirmation are things like: you know I can tell that you’re really trying hard on your homework today. I’m really proud of you for putting in the effort. Or you know I really appreciate how gentle you were with your baby brother. That’s really awesome that you recognized he’s so little and being gentle is important. Or you are kind, you are smart, and you are important. So these affirmation words can go a long way with a child who needs to receive them to feel connection.
The other love language is gifts. So little things that we can do they let our child know that they’re important in our lives. Doesn’t have to be expensive things. It could be a homemade card. It could be their favorite bubble gum from the grocery store. It’s something that lets them know we’re stopping to think about them and through the gift that’s the symbol of that.
The third one is acts of service. So these are where we do things for somebody we care about. Maybe we put air in their bicycle tires. Maybe we take the time to put a little note in their lunch box to let them know we love them. Maybe we make their lunch for them because they were went to bed early that night and forgot. Maybe we go ahead and hang their coat up even though they dropped it on the floor behind them when they ran in the house. Little things that we can do that let the person know I care about you and I’m gonna do this for you because of that can make the person who needs that act of service feel loved.
The fourth one is quality time. This is hard for a lot of parents. Particularly single parents with multiple jobs. But it’s time where you break the routine. So where you might normally be on your phone checking Facebook or communicating with your friend, you break routine and sit next to your child. Or maybe in the nighttime if you usually just send them up to their room to go to bed, you go up with them, and you sit down on their bed, or in their room, and say tell me about your day, you know. Or anything new going on? Some of the most important time that parents have told me about is in the car. When they’re driving them to school or to activities, because you’re in this car together and you’re able to really sometimes have meaningful conversations.
Paul: Question for you.
P: Critics of the love languages are folks who may say, well you’re just trading soft kids, you’re just too touchy-feely they just need to buck up. What would you say to those kind of criticisms?
J: Well, I’d say is it working? You know if if this, you know, for some kids that might work. Being able to say just do it, you know, might work for them. But for other kids they don’t. I have three children, all uniquely different. If I even yelled at my oldest, she would be reduced to a puddle of tears. My second needs that a little bit. She’s one that responds to sort of that real direct feedback and needs that. If I tried to be very, you know, cloud soft with her, she’s not gonna get the message. So I think we have to sort of look at the child and say is it working? Are we getting the behavior that we want? Are we feeling the connection that we want? And if not, maybe we’re speaking the wrong language. So I say that’d be one way to evaluate it.
The last love language is physical touch. And for some people they need the hug, they need the hand on the shoulder, you know, they need the sitting next to them on the couch and just sitting beside them just to feel your presence. So for some people you’ll see when they’re upset they’ll say can I have a hug. Those are people whose love language is physical touch. Some other people you know that might say I don’t want anybody touching me when I’m upset or sad. That’s not their language. So learning that, you know, my husband and I whenever he’s done something that I’m not thrilled with, he’ll always try to hug me. And I’m like ahhh, you know? As much as I love to hug, when I’m upset that’s not what I need at that point in time. And usually I’d say your love language might vary to the times you’re really upset and the times when you’re maybe not. So there are wonderful resources online if you google love language test. They’re very quick tests you can take online to tell you what your love language is.
A: Wow! There’s a lot of powerful information in the languages of love. This makes me think about how my family and I communicate. Now let’s see what Jennifer has to say about basic communication strategies.
J: Okay, so the third objective that I wanted to talk about today is different strategies. Okay, so what do we do when it’s not working, and how can we begin to make improvements? So again we want to look towards better listening, better understanding, and then better connections. The first thing that I like to tell people is to do something that’s called reflexive listening. Very easy to do. All you’re doing is repeating back what you hear. So what we want is to slow down the communication. Make sure we’re catching all the important details, and it keeps us from thinking, and processing, and being defensive. Because if you’re talking and coming towards me with all kinds of frustration, if I’m slowing down saying okay, what I hear is you’re upset because I forgot to sign an important form for you at school, and now they’re saying you can’t go on the field trip. Is that right? Yes that’s right. You know, versus, do you know how many things I do for you all week long I’m signing things. I miss one thing and you’re all over me, right? All that’s gonna do is shut down the child or they’re gonna come back with that same level of intensity and that’s where we get spiraled out between parents and children.
So by repeating back what you’re hearing, even though you have real-world issues that may have prevented you from signing that form, it allows you to kind of lower the intensity of the conversation so it keeps you from adding another frustration on top of it. So not only do you now have a frustrating thing, you have a hurt relationship to deal with. So reflexive listening, repeating back what you’ve heard, and then asking the other person did I get it right? And if you didn’t, then say let me try again. Okay. Until they say you got it right. I promise you, you’re gonna find it’s gonna stop the arguing because all most people want is to know that you heard them, you know.
The second strategy that I think is really helpful, and it kind of goes with reflexive listening, is validating. So a lot of times when we’re in an exchange with somebody we struggle doing this because we think well if I validate you and your opinions then I’m agreeing. Validate does not mean we’re agreeing. It just means that we’re letting the person know I’ve heard you. And this must be really frustrating for you, that you wanted to go on this field trip, and didn’t have this form, and now it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to go. So you’re just validating the struggle that person is expressing on their side. It’s really important because once we feel validated we engage a different part of our brain in talking. We stop defending and being focused on being angry to get your attention. Now I know I have your attention, so now I can move towards problem solving. But until you validate me and let me know that you’ve heard me, I’m not interested in lowering your anxiety. As a matter of fact I want to continue to elevate it until I feel you get me. So validating is really important. It does a lot of times parents to struggle because they feel like they’re giving up their power. If I validate then I’m losing the parental you know hierarchy here and that makes me uncomfortable and the child’s running me over that’s not it at all. What you’re doing is you’re teaching your child how important it is to acknowledge that somebody else is in this relationship, and deserves to be heard. And that’s a life skill that they’re going to use at work, at school, in their own relationships with their own children. So very important to validate.
Another strategy is expressing empathy. It’s kind of similar, but different. So empathy is where we really acknowledge that somebody’s going through something difficult. But sometimes empathy is more than just I see that you’re having a tough time at school you know this must be very tough for you. Sometimes empathy is a physical touch. You know, I remember when my son was little and he was throwing temper tantrums, and I would look at him, and I would say do you need a hug? And he would say yes, and go running into my arms, and then we would hug. And I hugged him until he let go, and then he would run off. So he must have had some things happen that day. He had a lot of pent-up frustration. Had I engaged in debating with him over the spilt milk, or the messed-up tabletop because he, you know, eradicated his muffin all over it, I would have lost what he needed. So learning to maybe stop and express empathy instead of engaging in arguments, and going with the content that the child is giving you, but rather just saying, you know, do you need something to let me know that you’re safe, and let you know that you’re safe. Another way to express empathy is to be silent. Believe it or not, sometimes, and it can be very hard when emotions are riding high, very hard to just be silent with somebody and let them feel what they’re feeling. You know if a child has gotten a bad grade on a test, you know, a lot of times as parents we want to cheer them up, we want to just say get over it. But really what they need is to feel that emotion, to feel that disappointment. Or if their best friend just told them they weren’t allowed to come to their birthday party, something crushing, we want to give them advice and help them to move past it, but what they really need is to learn how to feel that feeling and know they can get through it. And that sometimes where our silence can be really important. Now it’s not a disconnected silence like, you just sit there and feel, and I’m gonna go do this and let me know when you’re done. But it’s I’m gonna sit here with you until you’re done crying, and you just let me know. So expressing empathy can be either verbally, through touch, or just by being silent.
Another one that I like to recommend is be eye-to-eye with your child. So try not to communicate through yelling up and down the stairs, or from one room to another that’s not a great way to resolve conflict. We can’t see that they’re crying, they can’t see that we’re being, you know, genuine and having an empathic response. So it’s really important if you’re gonna have a meaningful conversation, to get the practice of doing it face to face. I have changed that slightly this year though I’ll tell you. So I waited until my child was going to high school to give her a phone. And so this year she got her cell phone, and she started texting me. And it has really, we have a good relationship, but I would say it made good to great. Because now she’ll text me during the day when she needs encouragement, or she’ll just send me little messages, and I think it’s really even helped our communication by using the text feature on the phone. So, you know I don’t think text is a terrible way to go for kids. They’re used to communicating that way. Little gifts or things can really help them feel good if they’re nervous about a test, if they’ve just got their heart broken. It just, it can be a tool, as long as we also reconnect with them at the end of the day, but it can be a great way to keep up with our kids, and avoid miscommunication.
One thing I’ll tell a lot of parents, so I have parents that say okay that’s all great and fine, but when I’m really upset I can’t think of these things. And so I’ll say, okay, then let’s try this. When you start feeling yourself get upset: stop, breathe, listen, and repeat what you hear the child saying. So at the very least you can stop, take a timeout, go to your room, ask the child to go to their room. Take a walk, let them know what you’re doing. It’s not stonewalling. So it’s not like you’re just shutting down not saying anything. You’re saying I’ve had a really rough day, or I’m feeling like this isn’t going where we want it to. I want to put a pause on this. I want us both to take some breaths, and then let’s come back together. I want you to tell me again why you’re upset, or what’s going on, and I want to do a better job listening, but right now because of how we’ve been communicating I can’t. I’m just so frustrated. So stop, breathe, listen, and repeat, are the ways that often times help parents get out of that cycle of just letting it fly.
So the last strategy is one that I mentioned a little bit earlier but I really want to punctuate, which is repairing wounds. We can probably all remember things our parents said in anger that were really hurtful and they are scars they stay with us for a lifetime. And then when we have our own families, sometimes we’ll hear those words coming out of our own mouths in frustration. And I think the brain stores these phrases, these problem-solving strategies, and when it comes across a situation that’s similar it releases them. And then we feel guilt and shame and embarrassment, and not all the time can we go up to our five-year-old and say, mommy didn’t handle that very well. You know I really shouldn’t have ripped that toy from your hand like that. But I’m asking you to do that as a parent. I’m asking you to learn how to apologize to your child when you may have taken it in a direction that wasn’t the best. I’m not saying that your need to discipline wasn’t correct, but sometimes the way we do it can be counterproductive. It’s not gonna help the child to grow an emotionally safe way. I remember the first time I screamed at the top of my lungs about something at the house. My son was three, and he looked at me in a way that he was scared, and I was crushed. And so I know that it’s easy sometimes when you’re so frustrated, and sleep-deprived, and just wanting the program to go as it’s supposed to. It’s easy to make mistakes. And so I had to really think about that and the that I was imprinting on his brain something that I didn’t want him to think is the best way to handle stress. So we all make these kinds of mistakes. But going back and apologizing, even to a three-year-old, and saying mommy shouldn’t have gotten that upset. You know, I’d like for you to not color on the walls, but mommy’s shouldn’t have respect responded that way. And I do this with my kids. I have, you know, apologized to them on several occasions for things that you know I didn’t do that I needed to do. Even though I have reasons, it’s important that they see that when you have hurt in a relationship you repair it. You don’t just hide it, you don’t just hope that it goes away, you don’t bury your head in the sand like an ostrich and pretend that time will heal everything. Because that’s another expression we hear is “time will heal all wounds”, well, it really doesn’t. It really doesn’t heal all wounds. Time allows for us the privilege of an opportunity to make it right.
A: Thanks, Jennifer. These strategies make sense. They seem pretty easy to use. Finally Jennifer will talk about how family stress can lead to poor health. This information is a little scary, but it’s important to know.
J: Individuals who experience a lot of serious stressors as children live 20 or fewer (less) years then they could. So it could take off 20 years off your life if you’re raised in an environment you are having trouble being heard, there’s a lot of miscommunication, there’s a lot of arguing, there’s a lot of stress. So the reason to change our communication is it can actually add years to our life as well as our child’s. The more toxic stressors that children have, the more at risk they are for developing self-harming behaviors like substance misuse, or you know being thinking about hurting themselves through cutting behaviors, risk as far as sexual behaviors. So if they don’t think anybody values them then they’re more likely to try to find ways to numb that feeling, or recreate it. So it’s really important that communication happens very frequently and very honestly with your child, or else
something else might step in the way to relieve their pain and suffering.
They’re also at higher risk as adults for obesity, for cardiovascular disease, for cancer. So again, it impairs our immune system not only as children, but it’s overtime. Because children who grow up where there’s a lot of stress, they are risk for them choosing relationships that might have more stress in them, and then all of those cumulative effects over time can really make their chances of being healthy happy adults challenging. They’re more at risk for anxiety, depression, asthma, and learning how to manage their stress can actually help reduce those risks. So teaching our child the benefits of a caring relationship. Teaching them how to repair when they’ve made mistakes. Teaching them how to slow down, and breathe, and really make sure they’re hearing each other when they talk, and modeling those things as parents can benefit not only our lives but also theirs.
So I’m going to go over just a few simple things we can do after all of that. Just four little things that might help people get started as a reminder. The first one is to identify your love language and the love language of your child. And know that if you have multiple children they may be different. So how do they react, and respond, and what do they need when they’re feeling most stressed. It’s really an amazing conversation to sit down with your child, and to ask them, how do you know that you’re loved by me? And the examples that they pull will tell you their love language. When you hug me, when you make me feel better when I’m sick, when you come to my athletic events at school, when you help me with my homework. Those types of things tell you a lot of what your child needs from you. So those are important that you ask those questions. So how do you know when I love you the most, or how do you know when you’re most loved by me?
The second one to remember is to stop, breathe, listen, and repeat. To take that time. You don’t have to have the answer as a parent in that moment. You can take time to think it through. So sometimes the best thing for everybody is just to take a break, right? But the key with that is to go back to it when you’re calm not to just put it on a shelf, right?
The third thing is to remember to repair mistakes. And it’s never too late to do that. So if you’re sitting here thinking today that I need to fix something that happened last week, absolutely. If this triggered a thought for you to repair something, repair it. Even if the person looks at you like, oh I’ve long forgot that. It’s going to mean something. It’ll mean something.
And then the last is remember that more of the same brings more of the same. So if you have a family history of substance misuse, if you have family history of depression, of anxiety, of physical illnesses, there’s something that’s happening in the pattern of that family communication and problem-solving that might be getting in the way. And by stopping, and making a tiny change you could actually be changing the future health history of your family. So you know patterns exist for a reason but we’re creatures of habit. It’s very difficult making a change. So get a support system for it. Have an accountability partner, a friend, a spouse, you know somebody from your church, a therapist. Somebody who can help you to process when things went well and celebrate it, and fix when things didn’t go right. It’s very hard to do things on our own. So try to find somebody who knows you’re working on this, and who can help you make that one change.
So thank you so much for having me today.
A: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s no secret that being a teenager is stressful as we begin to face adult problems. Being a caregiver is stressful as you try to help us grow up. As you have seen family communication is a key to dealing with that stress. Thanks for watching. We hope you learn something that you plan to use with your family. Your family is probably the most important thing in your life. Like you we believe one power of family is love that is bonded with communication. Please keep an eye out for our next webinar on opioid misuse. Here are some links for more information from this webinar.