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Psychologist: This is how parents create closeness to their children in conversations

Ulrike Doepfner

Ulrike Döpfner is a child psychologist with practice in Potsdam, mother of three sons and has written a book about communication with children (“The magic of good conversations”)

In an interview with, the expert talks about opportunities from unwanted family time in the lockdown and explains how parents can start the conversation with children who are monosyllabic or closed

The most important ideas for parents: Send less, receive more, practice active listening or ask one of the 100 questions from the book that open up children’s worlds.

BI: Families have never had so much time together as in previous weeks. Children played with their parents in the forest, climbed trees and went cycling. Fathers and mothers in the home office had time for football or table tennis., On the other hand, most adults were annoyed by endless zoom and telephone conferences, by fear of jobs or short-time work. There was more opportunity to talk than ever. How has the crisis changed communication in families?

Ulrike Döpfner: Before the crisis, many parents said that they had too little time with their children. Suddenly she was there, but with little variety from the outside and no way to get out of the way. This is of course a stress factor, but also an opportunity. Conflicts occur in the lockdown, which nobody can avoid now, because nobody can dive into their appointments. Getting out of the way is good so as not to escalate acute conflicts, but bad for closeness. And even if you avoided a problem in the short term, it is better to face it and solve the problem. This is the chance that has now arisen from unwanted family time.

In your book Talking to Children, you write that it is about creating closeness to the children. How does it work?

We parents think that our educational mission is to give our children certain things: what is right, what we consider important, how we think. We often forget to listen, to look. Active listening is crucial for closeness. We parents should suppress the quick impulse to immediately give advice or a recommendation. Instead, we should first listen carefully to what the child is saying and use our words to express what we understand without evaluating. We should also express the feeling of what is behind a description, for example, “I understood that you are sad.

Why is that important?

When we respond to our child’s feeling, they feel understood. Even if we have not properly grasped his feeling, he can respond and say, for example: “No, I am not sad, I am angry.” We help him to describe his own feelings more clearly. Intensive conversations can arise from such situations.

So should parents keep their assessment to themselves?

If we initially hold back on our assessment, more can arise. Of course, we can give advice when we have listened to and responded to our child. However, this is often no longer necessary because if we initially hold back, it has the opportunity to develop our own solution. The same phenomenon also applies to conversations among adults. It is often the case that conversation partners mainly want to send, not receive. They are literally just waiting for the moment when they can hook up and then send their text. So there is no closeness.

How do such opportunities arise for a conversation?

You have to do this, for example when sharing meals without a smartphone. Unless otherwise possible, 15 concentrated minutes a day are enough, but you cannot schedule them, the child has to be open. Everyone is sitting together at dinner, so you could take the opportunity. We have to isolate ourselves from the news flow for these conversations, otherwise we will be interrupted and the moment is gone. No mails, no calls, no look at the cell phone. If we or the child looks at the cell phone, this signals that this is more important than the person I am talking to. Then the trust that someone really cares about my concerns, my worries and about me has evaporated.

How do you get children who have been closing for a long time to open. Parents keep reporting that they cannot reach their children, especially when there are problems, at school or in the family.

I hear that a lot. Then parents say they try so much, but nothing happens. Here is an example: If a parent asks a question, for example: “Did you get on with Anna again?” And the child says: “Yes”, blocks it with a one-word sentence. Then the question is asked: “What did she say?” And the child continues to wall: “Nothing”. To insist further – “Like nothing? What do you mean by that? ”, More of the same, does nothing here. It would be better to pick up the mood that you can feel and to try: “Oh, you’re really sad about Anna, aren’t you?” The child is probably more likely to respond. It feels understood, not asked. Approximately. “Anna has been so difficult lately.” “I’m sorry Anna is no longer there for you. She is such a good friend. ”If parents act rather than insist, they are closer to the child. It is important to speak in a benevolent tone, not accusingly. We must not feel rejected when the child blocks the conversation. Obviously, it feels uncomfortable and has unpleasant feelings like sadness or shame, which even adults have a hard time talking about. It is difficult when parents give up annoyed. It is about staying loving and understanding, even if you are rejected in your need for information and closeness. Then the child feels: Mom and Dad are there for me, even if I don’t do what they want.

What if speech does not continue?

Then parents can offer a joint activity, a game, a bike tour, handicrafts or baking. Something can then arise in the river that does not succeed in the conversation. The positive shared experience increases the child’s confidence that it is assumed that someone understands it. So it feels the closeness and can then extend this mood to the conversation. Then it hopes that it will not be criticized or criticized.

You recommend non-violent communication with children, how does it work?

The advantage of this form of communication is that you talk about yourself, not about the other. It is not about reproaches, but rather that parents express their feelings and needs in concrete terms. This is done in four steps. Step one is watching. Parents objectively describe what they are observing. For example: “I see your room is messy, the dirty dishes are lying around and the garbage is overflowing.

When it comes to the wording, you have the surprise on your side.

Exactly, because instead of neutral observations, the children know sentences like: “Your room is always messy, here it looks like a pigsty. If you don’t put that away immediately, you have to hand in your cell phone. ”In this case, we are not talking about ourselves, but reproaching the other. The argument is programmed. Then step two follows. This is about formulating the feeling you perceive in yourself. “I’m upset.” Not the sentence, “I’m upset because you made a mess here.”

So no reference to the child, only to your own feeling.

Exactly. Then follows step three, describing the need: “I feel disturbed in my need for order.” Every child understands this. It knows that there are many universal basic needs, such as hunger, harmony, love, meaning in life and also order, for example. The needs of people have a different priority.

Parents want order, children tolerate chaos.

Probably. The last step is step four, formulate a request. “I ask you to clean up your room by tonight, put the dishes in the dishwasher and empty the trash.” The request should be worded as specifically as possible, so avoid sentences such as: “Please clean up your room and put the mess in order . “Now comes the crucial point. A child can accept or reject a request. The child has a need for harmony, so it may voluntarily respond.

It sounds like you have to practice this longer.

Non-violent communication is complex and must be practiced. It feels strange at first. But when we feel the effect, when the children realize that they are being treated with respect, they respond. Behind this is also the question, what attitude do we have in education? Do we want an obedient child who works, who behaves properly in the company of others, who may do what we say for fear of punishment? That would have a short-term and externally controlled effect that fizzles out. Or do we want a child who acts independently, also contradicts and cooperates on his own? If the latter is true, it is very worthwhile to try non-violent communication with the children. It shows them how to resolve conflicts without escalating them. If you learn this skill, you will benefit from it for a lifetime.

They describe that parents often label them. What does that mean?

Parents tend to attribute positive and negative characteristics to their children as fixed “labeling” and to transfer corresponding expectations to them: “Florian is extremely fluent and will one day become a brilliant lawyer”. Or: “Anna is shy and doesn’t dare to do that anyway”.

The danger here is not to perceive your own child as it really is, but as you think and wish, and thus possibly not to react to children’s developments. The danger on the child side is that they try to live up to these expectations. Some adults spend a lifetime working to live up to these expectations placed on them in childhood or, in protest, to do the opposite and to oppose them.

Ulrike Döpfner “The magic of good conversations. Communication with children that creates closeness ”(Beltz)


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