The Right Way to Communicate with Kids

“A parent understands what a child does not say.” — Jewish proverb

As adults we well know that talking and communicating aren’t always the same thing. We may find ourselves talking “at” our children all day long — “Put your shoes on.” “Do your homework.” “Time for bed.” — but it takes more effort to be sure that they are really hearing us and, most importantly, we are really hearing them.

Tips for parents with children under the age of 5

  • Tired? Hungry? Frustrated? Kids this age are likely to communicate all of these feelings the only way they know how: with whining and tantrums. Make sure your child’s needs are met before you enter a spiral of bad communication.
  • It’s never too early to help kids use their words. Help your child learn to use language to name their feelings, but don’t force the issue. After all, it’s developmentally appropriate for kids this age to act out when feeling tired, hungry, or frustrated.
  • Model good communication with your child by having “conversations” with her even before she can speak: talk, ask questions, pause where you would naturally. As she gets older and joins in, remember to make eye contact, listen, and ask questions. Sit down to “chat” every day.

Tips for parents with children ages 6–9

  • Sooner or later we all hear it: “I don’t want to talk about it.” If you know something serious is bothering your child but they don’t want to open up, give her some time, but don’t let that be the last word. Set a time to talk about it later to let them know that in your family you can talk about anything.

[Related:Taking Time to Talk]

  • Some (but not all) kids this age are ready to give up their nightly bedtime story. Consider replacing it with a nightly one-on-one conversation about their day. Let this be a safe place for your child to talk to you, without lectures or discipline.
  • When sass and backtalk enter your child’s repertoire (and they will!) calmly but firmly let him know, “In our family we don’t talk to each other that way.” Then be sure to follow that rule yourself!

Tips for parents with children ages 10–14

  • Some kids this age are ready to start communicating with their parents electronically. Some parents find the short, no-pressure medium of text messaging to be good way to keep the lines of communication open. Let this be a way to feed and encourage face-to-face conversations, rather than a replacement.
  • Find a natural place for regular, pressure-free check-ins with your child. Some families find that conversation flows smoothly while traveling in the car. Others find it easy to chat while on a walk or a run, while washing dishes, or even during commercial breaks.
  • It’s hard for some parents to accept that they will not know absolutely everything about their tween’s inner and social lives. But, resist the urge to snoop. Instead, set clear rules about what is private and what is not, from email to Facebook pages and other online activity. Many parents insist on knowing their children’s passwords, but only use them as a last resort. Talking with kids directly should always be the first step.

Tips for parents with children ages 15 and up

  • Communication is as much about how we listen as what we say. Listening nonjudgmentally to our children as they mature and have more complicated things to say to us can be difficult. But, the better we listen, the more likely our children will be to open up.
  • As teens start gaining independence, communicating about their plans and whereabouts becomes especially important. Make it clear that you need to know where your child is and with whom at all times. And reciprocate by communicating about your schedule.
  • Sometimes teens and young adults need to talk through problems and seek advice from people other than Mom or Dad. While you don’t want to encourage secretiveness, try to make sure that your child has other caring, responsible adults in her life to talk to.

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Taking Time to Talk