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Communicating with Your Child


Nothing builds your child's self-esteem more than when you truly listen and respond to your child's thoughts and feelings. At the same time, good communication between you and your child in the early years sets the stage for good communication between you and your teenager later on.

While parenting communication should never become studied and self-conscious, consider the following:

Listen to your child without interrupting.

Quiet, attentive listening takes patience and concentration. Too often it is easy to react quickly and jump to conclusions before your child has finished speaking. "Stay with" your child as the problem or story unfolds. Be sure and give your child your undivided attention. Look them in the eye on their level and don’t do other things while you listen. This gives the child the message that you really care and are truly listening. If your child knows she can express her point of view to you, she will be more likely to talk to you about important things as she grows up.

Accept your child's full range of emotions.

Your child knows what is going on inside. Do not disregard your child's true feelings with such statements as, "Why are you so disappointed? We'll go another time," or, "Be brave and stop crying." Instead, acknowledge your child's feelings, painful though they may be. This lets children know that you accept and understand them.

Hear what your child is not saying.

What your child leaves out of a conversation is often more important than what is included. Pay attention to your child's body language—gestures, tone of voice, facial expression. Read between the lines to grasp the true meaning of your child's statements. Simple, nonjudgmental remarks like, "You look upset," or, "You sound unhappy," will let your child know that you understand and are willing to listen.

Remember that your nonverbal messages are powerful too. A smile or a frown, speaking with a loud, scolding voice or a gentle, easy one communicates as much to your child as your words.

Help your child clarify feelings, ideas, and opinions.

Help explore thoughts and feelings further by using statements such as:

  • "Tell me more about it."
  • "Can you give me an example?"
  • "Wow! Sounds as if you'd really like that!"
  • "You got pretty scared when that happened?"
  • "You seem embarrassed by . . . "
  • "Are you saying you're uncomfortable with . . . "
  • "That's really important to you, isn't it?"
  • "It really hurt when . . . "

Help your child learn the difference between thoughts and actions.

Accepting your child's full range of feelings does not mean accepting all behaviors. Help your child understand that feelings are not bad or good but that behaviors can be OK or not OK. For example, point out to your child that it is OK to feel angry at a brother or sister but not OK to hurt him or her in any way.

Use "I" statements.

By communicating in terms of "I", your child is more likely to understand and thus accept your message. "I" messages describe the upsetting (or pleasing) behavior and the effect it has on you. For example, say "I'm upset over the noisy stereo because I have a headache. Please turn it down and close the door". This is better than saying, "Why do you always have to make such a racket? Can't you see I have a headache!", which embarrasses your child and makes him defensive.

Give feedback.

  • Talk to your child in a calm, soft voice and use words they can understand. It is best if you can be eye to eye with them so get down on their level.
  • Comment as soon after an event or observation as possible.
  • Do not overload your child by talking too much.
  • Use specific examples whenever possible.
  • Help your child solve a problem by asking, "What have you tried? What are the possibilities?", rather than resolving it yourself.

Help your child develop effective communication skills.

  • Ask open-ended questions that invite children to answer with more than one word. For example, "Look at all the doggies in the park today. What different ones do you see?"
  • Present new words to children to expand their vocabularies.
  • Respond to their questions and let children take the conversational lead.

Encourage communication through creative expression.

Children have many thoughts and feelings, yet may not be able to put them into words. Art, music, dance, and drama provide other ways to express their thoughts and emotions.

Do not correct grammatical errors while your child is talking.

Your child will likely become self-conscious if you constantly point out mistakes in how he or she talks. Instead, use an indirect approach. For example, if your child says, "I just seen a big dog across the street", repeat, "You just SAW a big dog? I just SAW one, too. What did he look like?"

Communicate the positive.

Remember to praise your child when you like or appreciate something. This generally has better results than communicating most often when your child misbehaves.


Written by Donna Warner Manczak, PhD, MPH.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-08-26
Last reviewed: 2010-07-01

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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