There’s a scene from the classic film Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character complains that Annie’s mind is elsewhere while they’re having sex. “But you have my body,” says Annie. Many people believe that modern parenthood is going the same way. Smartphones, emails and mobiles mean that, “Mom, are you listening?” is an increasingly common phrase.

This is not an invitation for parents that don’t own smartphones or have busy jobs to feel smug. They too may be at risk of becoming disconnected with their own children due to the growing demands on family life. Children have never done so many extra-curricular activities – gym club, drama, ballet, maths tuition, music lessons, to name a few – while mom and dad are trying to fit in more than ever into their own lives, too. Then there’s the growing technology aimed at kids – DVD players in cars mean car journeys are increasingly lost as family time, while iPods and computer games mean many parents don’t even get to talk to their kids much at home.

Recently, a major study found that children in the UK feel trapped in a materialistic culture and don’t have enough time with their families. “Parents in the UK want to be good parents, but aren’t sure how,” the research suggests. “They feel they don’t have the time or sometimes the knowledge, and often try to compensate for this by buying the children gadgets and clothes.”

“I always pick my kids up from school and we often go to the park afterwards, but even I am guilty of lack of communication because I’m either on the phone or have work on my mind,” says Laura Watson, a parent of two boys from Winchester.

“By her own admission, my best friend – who doesn’t work and is super-organised – can be just as bad. She’s often been on her own with her baby all day so by the time she gets her older child from nursery or gets to the park, she’s so desperate for adult company that she winds up chatting to the other moms, leaving her kids to be entertained solely by the other children. Even when I’m at home, I often find myself doing an online shop or a work email at times when I know I should be engaging with them – for example, when they’re having tea.”

There are consequences. Many official school inspections express concern about children arriving at school lacking basic communication skills – and if you start school without being able to understand fairly basic language, it affects your ability to learn and can lead to behavioural problems.

There are vast numbers of studies showing that early language development is critical to success in later life,” adds speech and language therapist Clare Gerald, who is director of operations at children’s communication charity I Can. “Success in this case is measured by educational attainment, self esteem, future job prospects, confidence, the ability to make friends – all the things that make life enjoyable and fun.”

Children whose parents only communicate on their terms are also much less likely to confide in them if, for example they’re being bullied at school. Meanwhile, teenagers – renowned for lack of communication anyway – are even less likely to connect with you. Before you know it, you’ve laid down relationship patterns for life.Research shows brain changes in children that are not securely attached to their parents,” adds Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at the Institute of Psychiatry. “**So this isn’t just a bad habit that can be brushed off – it affects children’s very biology.**”

Nobody expects parents to suddenly magic up oodles of quality time, says Doreen Jones, family support worker at Family Lives. “We know that the recession has brought job insecurity and money worries for many families. This in turn increases debt and stress, which research shows impacts on parents’ abilities to spend quality time with their children.”

But, she adds, plenty of small things can go a long way.

Making an effort to actively listen to children is a good first step. So when you catch yourself saying, “Oh don’t worry” when they tell you a particular friend won’t play with them anymore or that they’re upset because they got a bad mark in their homework, stop and think of it from their perspective and find solutions together – even if it means dropping your agenda to do so.

If you find they don’t bring up their concerns and joys proactively, open up communication over time by asking more questions and taking more of an interest. Think about how you talk to your children too – if you find yourself reeling off instructions, that’s not engaging with them. Don’t think that the occasional, “You’re very special” comment makes up for it either – that’s a compliment, not communication. If you are conscious something is amiss in the way you engage with your kids, don’t beat yourself up, though – awareness will make the pattern much easier to break.

Finding short bursts of time for play is also key, adds Jones. Indeed, play has been proven to develop the nerve cells in the brain and improve communication, social, numerical and linguistic skills. It has also been found to help bonding and boost positive relationships.

Yet one recent study, entitled The State of Play, Back to Basics, found that a fifth of parents said they’d forgotten how to play with their kids. Half said it was because they didn’t have time. Nearly a third said they thought playing with their kids was boring. Most striking of all was the finding that although many people assume kids would rather play a computer game than, say, junior scrabble, 90 percent of children aged between five and 15 said that while they really enjoyed electronic games, it wasn’t what they wanted to do with their parents. Three-quarters wanted to do traditional things like board games, card games and playing outdoors.

Come down to their level during play, advises Jones. “Sit on the floor and ensure you can make eye contact.” If they love messy play but you don’t, allow certain times when it’s okay and involve children in clearing up afterwards, she says. If your child doesn’t want to play, don’t force it, she adds. It’s easy to focus on the educational benefit, choosing games of your choice at a time that suits you, but actually it’s important that children lead and to let play be creative and spontaneous.

Cutting down on television time is obvious advice, but not for the reasons you might think. One study showed that it wasn’t so much the children who were watching it, but the adults around them who had an eye on the screen all the time and who weren’t paying attention to the children. Other advice is to read bedtime stories and prioritise family mealtimes – but the reality is many families don’t. “For some, it’s about busy lives, but for many it’s about the noise, including sibling rows. It just becomes easier to opt for the television trance,” says psychologist Jennifer Leonard. “But even that sibling rivalry is an important part of communication.”

Back-facing prams are a good way to interact with babies and young children. Research shows they can feel distressed at not seeing their parent and these prams provide regular opportunities to interact. Never assume babies are too young to talk to. Most parents do it automatically, say experts, but some need encouragement. Others know they should be doing it, but somehow the mobile phone or daily chores win over.

The National Literacy Trust was so worried in the early noughties that it launched a campaign called Talk to Your Baby. Today, its Words For Life campaign ( offers hints and tips for making communication time, not just with babies but with older children too, a fun activity rather than a chore. Louise Lloyd, who runs Baby Signing Mummy, says baby signing can help. “People often think babies can’t communicate back, but they can and with baby signing, it means they can essentially ‘talk’ when they are pre-verbal. I’ve found it enables moms to connect with their babies more easily and it means that when they do speak, their sentence structure is above their peers.”

It’s never too late though – Fran Pearce from Edinburgh, says: “My daughter is 11 and complained that I don’t have enough time for her, as my busy job means I’m often checking my phone and emails. We now have a little weekly girly date night where we go out for dinner, with absolutely no phones or distractions allowed, and just sit and talk. I make sure she understands no subject is banned and it’s meant we have some really great conversations and heart-to-hearts about boys and stuff that we might not usually get to chat about. It has brought us closer.”

Even teens need reminding that communication is important within families. “Keep an open mind and listen to their point of view,” advises Jones. “Think about the way you talk to them. If they only ever hear nagging, they will stop listening. Understand why they may be behaving badly or not communicating with you. They may be moody, aggressive or angry because they can’t put their worries into words. And don’t be nosey. Teenagers clam up if you insist on knowing every detail about their lives. Build up trust, show you respect their privacy and they’ll tell you more.”

Don’t take it personally if you seem to get nowhere, though. “Remember what it was like to be a teenager – it’s all part of developing a separate identity,” says Jones. “Also teenagers often hit out at the people they most love and trust – not because they hate you, but because they feel confused, stressed and uncertain.”

Regardless of your child’s age, don’t pack every weekday or weekend with planned activities. “I find it instinctive to give my children as many opportunities as possible,” says Maria Lord from Derby. “But when my nine-year-old daughter’s teacher told me about a major problem she was having at school that she hadn’t even mentioned to me, it was a rude awakening that we didn’t have enough family time. Now she just does the classes she loves, one of which I do with her, and I focus on us doing things like preparing the dinner together, walking the dog together, doing homework together and playing games together. She opens up a lot more now.”

It’s okay to have boundaries, points out Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist who specialises in play and parenting. “Adults have things they need to do in any given day and it’s okay to turn around to kids and say they may need to give you five minutes before you give them your undivided attention. I wouldn’t want parents to feel their kids should rule the household just because of the need for greater communication.”

In fact, not everyone agrees communication is on the decline. “Compared to 50 years ago, parents are much more aware of the need to communicate with their children. But where it is lacking, there’s no doubt it needs to be addressed,” says Professor Scott.


* Remember that communication is non-verbal as well as verbal.

* Think about how the adults in your home engage with each other – your interactions show children how communication should be.

* Families are unique – no manual can prescribe exactly how to communicate, so don’t compare yourself to other families.

* Always invite communication from your child – never demand it.

* Communicate meaningfully, never as a token gesture – they’ll soon tell the difference.

+ Quality time doesn’t have to mean going to a theme park every weekend – it’s doing fun things that bring you together.

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Source: Independent Online –