Because of COVID-19, schools all over the world are currently closed and parents are working from home – and suddenly, many families have more time to talk to one another. Ulrike Döpfner, a psychotherapist for children and adolescents, offers some tips for communicating successfully in a time of crisis.
Laura Millmann: What are some typical mistakes parents make when communicating with their children, mistakes that they should especially avoid right now?
Ulrike Döpfner: When talking with your children, it’s extremely important to give them your undivided attention. I’ve seen how difficult that is for many parents, as we’re constantly online, sending and receiving messages – particularly when we’re working from home. I’m sure we are all familiar with situations like this: Your child starts to tell you something, and then you get a phone call and take “just a second” to answer it. But no matter how brief the interruption, it keeps us from creating the kind of atmosphere that encourages children to open up and share what they’re thinking about.
LM: So what’s your advice in this situation?
UD: More than in the past, we parents need to make a point of really talking with our children, concentrating on what they are saying and giving them our full attention, at least at some point during the day. Family dinners are a good opportunity for such conversations. That’s why it’s not a bad idea, in my view, to put away smartphones while we’re at the dinner table.
LM: What else makes for a good conversation, other than giving each other our undivided attention?
UD: When talking with children, it’s important for parents to be open-minded and treat their children as equals. Adults often have a tendency to tell children what they think is right – reflexively offering advice. But it’s much more important to first hear what our children have to say and to listen carefully listen to them.
“No matter how brief the interruption, it keeps us from creating the kind of atmosphere that encourages children to open up and share what they’re thinking about.”
LM: How can families keep the lines of communication open at a time when the coronavirus is overshadowing every other topic?
UD: Despite the extraordinary situation we currently find ourselves in, it’s crucial to take time to have conversations that are just fun, and to fantasize together. I regularly hear from parents that they’re not really talking with their children any more – communication isn’t happening.
In this situation it may be helpful to think of some interesting questions to ask that might encourage new kinds of discussions and help you learn more about your children – their aspirations, their likes and dislikes, their feelings. You should ask questions that have no concrete practical purpose. It’s really about sharing ideas and dreams with each other. That can be fun and inspiring.
“More than in the past, we parents need to make a point of really talking with our children, concentrating on what they are saying and giving them our full attention, at least at some point during the day.”
LM: Could you give some examples?
UD: For instance, you and your children might ask each other questions like “What character in a movie would you like to be?” or “What adventure would you like to experience?” or “If you could teleport yourself to some other time or place, what would it be?” But you could also ask questions that relate to your children’s values, such as “What do you think it means to be a good friend?” or “What aspects of the world seem to you to be especially unfair?”
LM: How can these ideas be integrated into a family’s everyday life?
UD: I often suggest starting what I call a “ritual of superlatives.” Once a day, perhaps while you’re having dinner, one member of the family might pose a question such as “What’s the best superpower?” or “What’s the funniest thing you heard today?” It’s quite different from simply asking children how they’re doing, or how school was today.
Ulrike Döpfner is an author and psychotherapist for children and adolescents, and she also provides coaching for parents. After studying psychology in the Belgian city of Louvain-la-Neuve, she first worked as a communication coach. Her book “Der Zauber guter Gespräche – Kommunikation mit Kindern, die Nähe schafft” (The Magic of Good Conversation – How to Connect with Children Through Communication) was recently published in Germany.