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Holding a Conversation

What you can do to raise a confident communicator

“How old are you?” Corretta Turner asks a young boy.

“He’s 12,” interjects his mother.

Sound familiar? Turner, a Dallas-based speech communications coach, says this refrain is all too common: A well-meaning parent answers for a child who is clearly capable of responding on his own, and then wonders why the child is not a more confident speaker.

Add to that a hyper-scheduled, “text and tweet” lifestyle, and suddenly we have a generation of kids who don’t have opportunities to flex their verbal prowess — a modern-age dilemma that Turner has dubbed as “muting.”

Emerging services, such as Turner’s 3D Discovery, a company that helps children and teens develop effective communication skills, are cropping up to teach kids how to reclaim their voices in a world that enables them to hide in plain sight. But what can parents do to raise savvy conversationalists before it’s too late (or costly) to reverse the trend?

Start ’em young

The most effective way to tackle this issue is the easiest: Talk to them. According to Dixie Pennington, lead speech pathologist at Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, this is a critical part of developing interpersonal skills in kids. “Typically, children develop listening, speaking and language skills through everyday interaction,” Pennington reports. “It’s the day-to-day routines and activities, including reading to a child, that build a child’s communication skills.”

Vicky Nicolle of Nicolle Counseling in Arlington recommends parents stop barking orders at their kids and just to talk to them. “I think we get so emotionally connected to the outcome — what our child will become — that we get tripped up in the day-to-day stuff,” observes the child therapist and mother of four.

Instead, parents would be better served to “engage your children often and early,” advises Nicolle. In the process, you create a lifelong foundation. “A good analogy for communication is a bridge. You are building a bridge between you and your child, and you can’t build a strong bridge in a flood or an earthquake. You have to do it before that,” she implores.

Young children, however, have not yet learned the ebb and flow of conversation, so it will be difficult to pin them down and ask them about their day. Instead, we need to rethink the way we socialize with them. “Join them in their playtime,” she says. “Do things with them and don’t plan or direct the conversation.”

A lot of their dialogue is going to be fantasy — but that’s OK. “Instead of saying, ‘That’s silly,’ try ‘Tell me more,’” she explains. This will lead to deeper conversations as rapport builds.

As your child nears school age, Turner urges parents to take the reins a bit more; be clear about what you expect in terms of how to communicate. “It doesn’t take a lot as long as you set the expectation,” Turner states.

This can vary from child to child depending on their comfort level, but it’s a good time to gently encourage eye contact. Nicolle says a great way to do this is to make it a family goal.

All three experts underscore that fostering good communication skills requires patience. “Take the time to listen to your children. When you ask a question, give the child time to respond,” stresses Pennington. “Don’t rush the child.”

Also, Pennington says the way you listen will show your children how to do it. “Kids learn about appropriate eye contact, facial expressions and gestures through the modeling of those around them,” she explains.

Parents need to be careful not to hover, however, says Turner. Rather, they should allow their children to answer for themselves, starting at an early age. She feels that children often become muted by something as innocuous as a parent ordering a meal for them at a restaurant or answering questions directed to the child, such as their age.

It can be tough to hold your tongue, though, especially if their opinion differs from yours; but children deserve a chance to express themselves.

Local attorney Shane Lewis finds that even if he and his wife disagree with what their children are saying, it’s beneficial to allow them to feel like they are being heard. “Our boys are always given the chance to say their piece or share their thoughts about a situation in which they are involved … doesn’t mean they are given their way or allowed to be right each and every time they have an opinion, but they at least know their thoughts are valued and heard,” says Lewis.

But, April Gorman, like many other moms, finds that giving time to each child is not always easy. “Balance is hard,” the Lake Highlands mother of three admits. “Paying attention to each child’s needs and giving them each that special time can be difficult.”

One way to approach this is to assign each child a day for extra time. “Of course you are still paying attention to each child’s needs, but you might say, ‘It’s Tuesday, so it’s Tucker’s day,’ and spend extra time reading or playing with him,” Nicolle advises.

Avoid labels 

Around the elementary school age, some parents also notice their children may be slow to warm up to conversation with their peers. Gorman’s son John, 7, has a craniofacial condition called Crouzon syndrome, which causes him to look different from other children his age. This presents John with some hesitation when entering social situations, “He will usually send his sister in first to check it out and test the waters before he is willing to jump in a group,” Gorman reports. “Even before he knew he looked different, he was hesitant to get into the mix.”

When a child isn’t quick to jump into a social situation, “It might be because they haven’t found their voice yet,” says Nicolle. “Some kids find that right away. For those who need a little time, the best thing parents can do is encourage and to acknowledge what they are saying is important.”

For Gorman, this type of encouragement came in creating an opportunity for an icebreaker in John’s lunchbox. “I would put an extra treat in his lunchbox,” she explains. “And I would tell him he couldn’t eat it; he had to share it. And he loved it and the kids loved it … that has been our greatest success in helping him branch out.”

Another solution is to stop assigning labels. Turner suggests parents remove the word “shy” from their vocabularies when talking about their children, arguing that shy is not a choice — it’s a label. And once it’s given to a child, it becomes ingrained as a part of his or her identify.

“It gives you permission to be socially invisible,” she reasons. “So we use ‘socially selective,’ which lets the child know they have the power to choose how they act” — but it doesn’t mean they don’t have to try.

Turner says that once her students see there are better words available, they turn toward those and away from words that can tear them down. From there, they are better able to understand the hesitancy they may be feeling toward speaking.

“I had a student in my class who was giving a speech, and she started by saying, ‘When I was in kindergarten, I was shy.’ She stopped herself and said, ‘I was scared’ instead,” says Turner. By replacing “shy” with “scared,” she was able to see that what she was feeling was temporary instead of part of her personality.

“It starts with parents putting positive words in their child’s mind,” Turner emphasizes.

As children transition into the teens, their communication needs change. As Nicolle puts it: “Babies and little children are like puppies: eager for your attention. But teenagers can be more like cats. They want your attention, but in a more complicated way.” Texting becomes prevalent, and teens rely more on their phones to communicate, causing a rift in the development of conversational skills.

This is when all the skills come into play as you work together to find a common ground between boundaries, expectations and independence. “Teens want to be heard, but at the same time they will be rebelling,” says Nicolle. “Hear them, but also say, ‘It’s my job to give you boundaries.’”

If the situation permits, she says it’s always better to take the long route: Reflect the problem back, offer empathy, offer praise and then, finally, offer instruction.

Nicolle cautions that in the overscheduled world of teens, if you don’t set aside time to talk, that window can easily slip away as you rush to the next event.

During these moments of intentional conversation, again parents must model how they expect their children to interact in a world where their devices are vying for attention. Pennington instructs parents to put their phones down whenever they speak to their children. “When parents are continually texting or searching for something on their smartphones, they’re not looking at their children or truly paying attention. How will the child learn that you need to pay attention to your conversation partner?” she poses.

Jamie McCarty, who’s taught communications and theater arts at The Colony High School for more than 10 years, has seen a difference in how teens communicate. “They haven’t learned what it’s like to have awkward silence and formulate a thought without being able to revise and delete before they hit send,” she notes. “They also don’t tend to recognize the nonverbal communication that’s used in conversations. These are skills that are very important and I would love to see more people using.”

Building these skills can be taught both through modeling and by making your home a refuge for old-fashioned conversation. Many families use a cellphone basket and ask their teens and visiting friends to leave their phones in the basket, so that they can be more present in the moment.

Accept, acknowledge, affirm 

As with developing any skill, there will be pitfalls. But parents should take heart that even imperfect progress is progress nonetheless. Nicolle says in her 24 years as a child therapist, the most important advice she has for parents is to go back to that foundation of accepting what your child is saying, acknowledging it and affirming them.

“Every parent has the intention of doing these things,” she says, “but life gets in the way. Being intentional and consistently present translates into kids knowing you are there, and that is where the confidence can grow.”

Turner adds that as long as we strive toward “unmuting” and not giving up, our children will find their voice. “Just keep empowering them, building their confidence. However long it takes, it’s worth it. Your child is worth it.”