Communicating effectively with your child is one of the great challenges of being a parent. You have a child. You love them very much. But they are very different than you and hard to understand sometimes. They find you equally hard to understand sometimes. You want to show them that you care, but you also don’t want to lower the expectations you believe in. You want to communicate effectively in a way your child hears and understands.
Here are 14 tips to help you increase mutual understanding and establish a relationship of trustful communication between you and your child.
1. Connect with your child before communicating your message. You need to make sure that you have their full attention. This might be as simple as making eye contact, or might require spending a little together before having an important conversation
2. Say the most important part of your message first, and keep it concise. Your child can only digest so much information at a time. Young children don’t have a long attention span. They don’t mean to be disrespectful, but they are going to get distracted. You want them to have heard the essence of your message BEFORE their mind wanders off.
3. Use your child’s name. This is a small detail, but can mean a lot in communication. It can both indicate that you care about them and make whatever you have to say more personal.
4. Validate your child’s emotions. Sometimes you have to say things that your child won’t like; that’s part of being a parent and teaching them. One way to maintain a relationship of trust and understanding in these cases is by showing your child that you understand their emotions and it’s OK or normal to feel the way they do. That doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to act on those feelings or disrespect you, but a child can’t help the emotions they feel. Being told not to have them doesn’t help; they need to learn 1) difficult emotions are normal and 2) how to handle them.
5. Validate their ideas. It is also important for your child to know that their ideas are valuable, even if they can’t be acted on. If you can implement your child’s idea, make sure they know that you appreciate it and are going to use it. If you are discouraging them from an idea, make sure you still point out the good parts of the idea. If your child asks to go to the park, for example, and you don’t have time, you might say, for example, “That’s a really great idea for a day when we have more time, but right now we just have 20 minutes, so let’s stay here and read a book.” In this way, you’ve said no to the idea, but haven’t made your child feel that their idea isn’t appreciated.
6. Model proper behavior and practice it with your child. If your child doesn’t know how to behave in a situation, simply saying “Behave” or “Be polite” probably isn’t enough. Give them specific examples of what they could do or say. Then ask them to practice with you. This is also a technique you can use to address behavioral issues in public. If your child cries in the store when you say no to buying a new toy, for example, you could practice the situation before leaving the house. Tell them that you’re going to the store and they will see toys but they will not be allowed to buy a new toy. Tell them to practice with you how to respond in public when you tell them “no”. Then, after the incident, make sure you give lots of positive affirmation when they succeeded. If they didn’t succeed, remain patient, and make sure you help them practice again later.
7. Ask your child to repeat what they understood. If they can accurately tell you what your point was, they’ve got it. If they can’t explain it back to you right then, they aren’t going to remember it correctly later on.
8. Whenever possible, tell your child what they MAY do instead of what they MAY NOT do. For example, if your child is eating in their bedroom and you don’t allow that, instead of saying “Don’t eat in the bedroom”, you could say something like “The bedroom is just for playing and sleeping. If you want to eat, please go to the kitchen.” Phrasing your statement positively sends your child the message without turning it into a contest or challenge.
9. Model correct speech for all ages. Avoid “baby talk” with your toddlers. Yes, THEY use baby talk, but responding to them in full sentences with proper grammar has two benefits:
- Although little children can only speak using certain words and phrases, they can usually understand much more. They will often understand much more than you expect if you talk to them in full sentences.
- By modeling correct speech, you expose your child to new levels of communication as well as more vocabulary; this helps them increase their language skills more quickly.
10. Listen more than you speak. Remember: communication is two ways. It’s not just about your child hearing and understanding what YOU have to say. It’s also about you hearing and understanding what YOUR CHILD has to say. Not only does this help you know your child better; it also helps your child feel like you understand them and care about how they think and feel.
11. Be willing to repeat yourself patiently. Yes, maybe you’ve told your child to shut the door on the way out countless times before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re deliberately disrespecting you. Kids are constantly learning new things and reacting to new stimuli. Even children that have already reached the age of reason and are capable of remembering things, often forget them because they’re so distracted. They might not catch on the first time. Or the second. Or the third. But keep being patient and reminding them of your expectations (and implement reasonable consequences when needed), and they WILL eventually catch on.
12. Discuss how you feel with them. Sharing your feelings and ideas with them makes them feel appreciated, gives them greater insight into who you are, and often makes it easier for them to share their thoughts and feelings back.
13. Give them a choice whenever possible. When you are communicating a message, whether you are establishing a new expectation or asking your child to change a certain behavior, give them as much input as possible regarding their course of actions. You set the parameters and give certain guidelines, but let them exercise some freedom in HOW they meet those guidelines.
14. When you praise, be specific. If you praise your child in general (for example, saying “Oh, you’re such a good boy!”), your child will be proud and pleased, but won’t necessarily associate your praise with the action that caused it. They also then feel pressured to meet that general standard (being a “good boy”), and can get overly discouraged whenever they make a mistake, fearing that they aren’t a “good boy”. For your praise to be more effective, point out exactly what it is that you are happy about. You might say, for example, “Wow! I’m glad you put so much effort into your math study”, or “Thank you for being so thorough when you wiped the table!” When you praise the specific, the child knows exactly what they did that merited the praise; they also don’t feel like they risk falling out of favor if they make a mistake.
Does your child seem to be ignoring you? Having their attention is the first step to effective communication. For ideas on how to reconnect with your child and get their attention, read 14 Ways to Get Your Child’s Attention When They’re Ignoring You.