There are two things that I think the TV series The Simpsons got spot on when it comes to communication between parents and kids. One is that kids can truly call their parent on repeat for as long as it takes. Many of my days involve a soundtrack of “Mom" call-outs. (Lately, there has been a space of actual minutes between each “Mom" called out in my home, so maybe it doesn't last forever.)
The other lesson is that parents often don't know how to talk to kids. Parents frequently resort to long lectures in which they completely lose their kids' attention. Like Bart and the other kids in The Simpsons, it can sound like blah, blah, blah. This is unfortunate and frustrating for parents.
Most parents excel at giving instructions or providing facts to their kids. For example, “Please get ready for school," or, “You need to watch for cars when you cross the road," are things parents generally have down pat. Struggles with communication often happen when big feelings are involved. This might be your child's feelings, your feelings, or both.
Along with getting kids to listen, some parents tell me they struggle to get their child to communicate with them other than in one-word answers. They want to know how better to connect with their child so that their child can share thoughts, feelings, and experiences with them.
When you communicate well with your child, it leads to a strong relationship, greater cooperation, and feelings of worth. When communication is a struggle, it can lead to your child switching off, conflict and feelings of worthlessness.
How can parents talk to kids when kids (or parents) are wrestling with big feelings? How can we talk so kids will listen? How can we encourage our kids to talk to us?
Below are my top tips that I've gleaned from the experts over the years. I use them in my clinic and as a parent.
1. Use “door opener" statements
These statements encourage your child to say more, and to share ideas and feelings. They tell your child that you're really listening and interested. They also communicate that you think her ideas are important, and that you accept her and respect what she's saying.
Examples of “door opener" statements:
- “I see."
- “How about that!"
- “Tell me more."
- “That's interesting."
When you use these statements, your child will get the sense that you're truly interested. Children are more likely to share when they think you're engaged with what they're saying. It goes without saying that you must also look up from what you're doing and focus on them. The words alone won't count.
2. Use more “dos" than “don'ts"
Some kids hear a lot of “don'ts." Often parents know what they don't want to happen, so they lead in with a “don't" statement. The downside of “don't" statements is that they fail to promote the positive behavior you want to see. If anything, they reinforce the behavior you don't want.
Imagining talking to your child as you talk to your friends can help break the “don't" habit. We would rarely say “don't do this, don't do that" to our friends when they come to visit. We instead use more open and respectful suggestions. Swapping our “don'ts" for “dos" can look like this:
- “Don't go outside, it's cold," becomes ,“Stay inside please. It's too cold to play outside."
- “Don't hit your brother," becomes, “Play gently with your brother."
- “Don't color on the carpet," becomes, “Please do your coloring on the table."
3. Talk with your child, not at your child
Instead of only giving instructions, engage your child in a two-sided conversation. This means both talking and listening to what your child has to say. This can be challenging when your child has a limited vocabulary or interests, but it's important to practice if you want a healthy relationship now and in the future.
This is a good habit to get into because, when your child is more skilled verbally, they'll want to talk with you. When we talk “at" a child, we give the message that their thoughts and feelings are not important or interesting, and that the parenting relationship is about the child doing what you want.
4. Use “I" statements to communicate
Parents often speak to their children with “you" statements: “You're so messy," “You're a pest," or “You're silly." Using “I" statements can help us more clearly communicate how our child's behavior is impacting us. It also gives your child more of an idea of what's expected of him and puts greater responsibility on him to change.
Here are some examples:
- “You're a pest" becomes “I don't feel like playing because I'm tired."
- “Your bedroom is a disgrace" becomes “I need you to pick up your things."
- “You don't make any sense" becomes “I don't understand. Can you explain it again?"
5. Make requests important
Asking if a child would like to do something but being vague in your request is a recipe for your kid ignoring you. In order to make sure your requests are heeded, you must first ensure you have your child's attention. Then speak with firmness to show that you mean what you say, and give the child a reason why he must do this thing at this particular time.
If your child is engaged in play, it can be hard to shift his attention to you, so either pick a different time or know that you'll have to put in the work to engage your child's attention first in order for your request to be successful.
A successful request would look like this: “James, I need you to pack away your toys on the table now please. It's important because there is no space to eat on the table." It will work better than, “Can you pack away your toys? I've already asked you twice!"
6. No unkind words and labels
Some common but unhelpful ways of communicating with kids is to use ridiculing, shaming, and name-calling. This communication styles can lead to problems in the parent-child relationship. Avoid using statements like, “You're acting like a two-year-old," “You're embarrassing me," or, “You're being bad."
Parents sometimes use these types of statements to get their child to behave. These statements only leave your child feeling disliked, and negatively affects her view of herself.
7. Use kind words
Kind words create a good relationship and better communication with your child. Children who are spoken to with appreciation and respect also have better self-worth, which allows them to thrive. Instead of, “You idiot, I told you that would break if you played with it in the bathroom," say “Let's get the dustpan and clean it up. Accidents happen."
Other examples of kind words:
- “Thank you for helping me with the dishes."
- “You did a good job of getting your room clean."
- “That really makes me feel good."
- “I like seeing you play nicely with your sister."
- “I love you."
8. Show your child you accept them
When your child knows that you accept her as she is and not how you want her to be, everything changes. It allows your child to change and feel good about herself. When your child feels good about herself, she is more likely to get along with other people. She also feels safe to share her thoughts and feelings.
When you threaten, command or lecture your child, it makes her feel like she is bad, that you don't like her, and that she can't do anything right. For example, if your child says, “I don't like those vegetables," and you respond, “Eat your vegetables. You are always trying to get out of it," your child will be left feeling disconnected from you and believe that you think she is bad.
Instead, try a winning way of talking with your child. Substitute something like this for the previous statement, “It's hard for you to eat food that you're unsure of or didn't like the taste of last time. I'd like you to try to eat at least some so you can see how you find the taste today." This statement acknowledges your child's struggle and provides a suggestion of how she can handle the situation.
Accepting your child does not mean accepting all behaviors, it means communicating in a way that doesn't shame her.
Good communication is the heart of more harmonious homes and is the key to a healthy relationship with your child. It provides a place your child can thrive and grow from. Good communication with you forms the basis of good communication with other people as your child grows into an adult.
Keep working on these communication skills. It can be hard at first, especially if you were parented by an authoritarian parent. Like all skills, practicing helps. When you slip up, repair it with your child and start fresh.