Is simple conversation, or the lack of it, at the root of our mental health? We all need someone to talk with, but the quality of the conversation and the dynamics that occur during the interaction can yield a variety of outcomes. Simple, unstructured conversation, even with strangers in the checkout line or at sporting events can send a warm feeling of connectedness through our bones. Conversations with those closer to us may tend to be more probing, manipulative or judgmental, and can create many of the chilling impacts at the root of some of our most common social dysfunctions. The intent of this article is to explore the impact that simply talking with our children can have on mental health, both theirs and yours.

Psychotherapy techniques explored by Carl Rogers in his book “On Becoming a Person”, show a distinct connection between the quality of the conversation and the success in moving the patient closer to what he terms as self actualization. In self actualization a person moves toward what they would like to be, or more toward the person they truly or naturally are. His work, in part, emphasizes the quality of the relationship, built off the nature of simple conversation, as a key factor in the effectiveness of his approach. Further work by Edward L. Deci in his book “Why We Do What We Do”, explores in part, how the nature of a conversation effects motivation.

We have all read, or at least heard of books on negotiation, selling techniques and parenting that instruct us to look for and respond to reactions and in general how to have a conversation. Unfortunately, the very structure of this coaching may degrade the overall outcome as it is often viewed by the receiving party for what it typically is, manipulation and control. However well masked, when we were on the receiving end, we perceive the conversation as manipulative or coercive, or that we are some how being told what to do. It makes us feel foolish when our thoughts and concerns are simply cast off by the other with a simple statement to make our problems seem so trivial. “Well, be happy you don’t live in Biafra” or “You don’t appreciate how good you have it!” or “When I was growing up we had to eat worms!” We may not be able to define what we are feeling, but we know it is there, and we shut down, rebel, or worse look for a potentially undesirable resource to explore our issue with.

As parents we think we need to control the situation, be the strong one or be the one with all the answers, but this causes us to be shielded and less authentic. Once we admit that we may not be, the conversation becomes more real. Many times an issue will be beyond our ability to cope, we do not have to have all the answers, but we do need to listen and work to become a part of the situation, and hopefully the solution, at its root. Realize that we can all learn, and we can all grow. This learning and growth occurs when each is open, and non judgmental. This is a scary place for many, the world is a scary place but we can not hide from it. It is OK to speak of our feelings, and listen to others feelings, we are not all the same, we are all individuals, no matter the age.

I have two sons, raised in the same house, I have a sister, raised in the same house as I, my wife has two brothers, raised in the same house, and each is wonderfully different and unique. Even in the same house our experiences, our feelings and our views are different, and that is OK.

As parents, my wife and I have found few right answers but we have found many best answers, and the best answers are born from both sides opening up, listening, absorbing and exploring. We have worked to become less judgmental, less reactionary and more focused on just talking. We are coming to realize that the issues one may be facing are indeed issues facing us all. Our child’s exploration of their particular issues may in fact provide a mirror reflecting our issues, the discussion of which makes us all stronger.

We have also become better at listening for a conversation. Conversations do not start at a set time nor do they always start when they are convenient. If you have to make a schedule to talk, you may have lost the moment, the intimacy, and now made it a more bureaucratic schedule. You have now diverted the need for your children to talk with someone, to someone else. The ones they turn to for these conversations may in fact be manipulative or incomplete in the conclusions that are reached void of our knowledge and experience. While some may scorn the texting craze and the so called web 2.0, it has given our children someone to talk with, almost immediately. Some of us do not have big families or many friends, often that makes the idea of finding someone to talk with a little more difficult, but no less important to our well being. This technology may indeed prove beneficial at some level, but we should be cautious not to let these sources replace us. If you are beginning to feel as though they have, you need to examine your current style of communication.

If your past discussions have been strained you need to find an ice breaker. Start by striking up a conversation related to an issue you may be having and ask for their advice. If you don’t have one already, schedule a family night to play a game or watch a movie. I strongly recommend Good Will Hunting but I am sure there are many other mutually engaging ones. Conversations should be a sharing event, both learning and reaching for who we are, no one is in control, both are open, neither is judgmental or controlling. I am talking about the need for a simple exploration of what is going through our minds. Be in the moment, there does not have to be a topic, no direction, no starting or ending, but the end result will be a deeper communication. Someone to talk with is a process, not just one chat. We do not always solve things in a single conversation, sometimes a sounding board may be all that is needed. How fantastic it would be to have some one to just talk to about things, openly, without judgment, without expectations, without argument, without repercussions, without fear. How big a bonus would it be if it were our parents?

If all else fails, don’t be stymied by getting outside help, or one day you may awake to a scene you do not want to imagine. For parents the question is not “where did I go wrong?” It is “where do we go from here?”

© James D. Tippett.