After I’ve dished out a bit of first-class Speech, Language or Communication advice, parents often say to me ‘that’s great, but I’ve got 2/3/4 (+) children at home!’ It’s a very good point – balancing the demands of a busy family can leave little time for extra work on communication skills.
Furthermore, children with any kind of additional needs can take up more of a parents’ time (not to mention emotional energy). Their siblings can feel sidelined or resent the focus on a brother or sister, who gets taken to special appointments, time with you to do speech and language homework, praise for their achievements in their therapy sessions...
So how to make sure you’re all playing ‘happy families’? What are the priorities to make sure every child feels like an important part of the family?
Everyone is special here
Your time is the most precious gift you can give your children. Safe guarding some ‘special time’ in the week, which you spend with each child on their own, is so important to make each child in a busy family feel loved and valued. You may need to be creative when looking for your ‘special time’. Can you find ten minutes: Try a few options, find what works for you, then try to stick to it – put it in your diary as an unmoveable appointment. Tell the rest of the family not to disturb you, put your phone out of reach, and make sure there are no other distractions for you or your child. Then spend your special time doing something your child wants to do with you – read a story they choose, talk together about their current obsession, play that game they love for the millionth time... they will thank you for it. Having your full attention will give them so many communication development opportunities without either of you even realising it.
- In the car when waiting to pick up a sibling from a club? Instead of giving your child your phone to play on, they could choose a book or a travel game to bring with them to play with you
- Could a grandparent stay ten minutes later at the end of a day shift with your children to entertain the others whilst you have special time with one?
- Could it be the bedtime story you make sure you read to your child instead of putting on a book on tape?
- Use screen time to your advantage – children will ask for it anyway, can you have your special time with one child whilst the other(s) is/are watching TV or on the tablet?
- There might be household jobs you do anyway your child would actually like to join you doing – cooking or baking, even cleaning the car, have been surprise hits – it may take longer but is great ‘special time’ if your child wants to do it with you!
We are family
As well as feeling valued as individuals, you also want your children to feel like an important part of your family unit. Spending time all together can be inexpensive and doesn’t need to take all day:
- A walk around the local park can become a scavenger hunt
- A trip to the corner could be a quest to find one item each, or a challenge to find something yellow, something prickly, something round...
- Playing a board game on a rainy afternoon
- Working on a join craft project such as painting a poster or junk modelling
- Building a Lego model together or doing a puzzle
- Making a den
- Decorate cakes or top pizzas
Think beforehand which jobs might be suitable for different ages and abilities of children, so that everyone feels included. For example, if you’re building a den or a lego model, younger children can be in charge of finding sticks or bricks, then older children can help add them on to the structure. Younger children can be in charge of painting big areas of canvas, older children with more detailed work. Having set 'jobs' can help children who find playing together hard enjoy spending time together. At the end, take time to chat about what everyone did to help, appreciate your finished work and how much you enjoyed it! Also, try to stop whilst it’s still fun ☺ Leave them wanting more!
Everyone in the family can be encouraged to focus on what a child with communication difficulties says, rather than how they say it. Older siblings who are prone to go into ‘teacher’ mode may try to correct their brother or sister, or teach them how to say a sound or word properly. Even if this is well meaning it won’t help! Acknowledge that they’re trying to help, but ask them to help by being a good example instead.
Things may not always go to plan, and there may be days when you feel your family is more like the Simpsons than the Waltons! But be assured, by spending some quality time together, you will be giving your children opportunities to learn about themselves, helping them to become confident individuals who can also work as part of a team – go team family!
Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist