Good communication with children: the basics
Good communication with children is about:
- encouraging them to talk to you so they can tell you what they’re feeling and thinking
- being able to really listen and respond in a sensitive way to all kinds of things – not just nice things or good news, but also anger, embarrassment, sadness and fear
- focusing on body language and tone as well as words so you can really understand what children are saying
- taking into account what children of different ages can understand and how long they can pay attention in a conversation.
Communicating well with children improves your bond with them, and encourages them to listen to you.
Some children need a lot of encouragement and positive feedback to get talking. Others will be desperate to talk with you when you’re busy doing something else. This might mean stopping what you’re doing to listen.
Top tips to improve communication with your child
You can improve your communication with your child by showing her you value her thoughts and feelings, and helping her to express them. For example:
Set aside time for talking and listening to each other. Family meals can be a great time to do this.
- Talk about everyday things as you go through your day. If you and your child are used to having lots of communication, it can make it easier to talk when big or tricky issues come up.
- Be open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety. This helps your child develop a ‘feelings vocabulary’. Talking about feeling angry is different from getting angry, though. Learning the difference is an important step for a child learning to communicate.
- Tune in to what your child’s body language is telling you, and try to respond to non-verbal messages too – for example, ‘You’re very quiet this afternoon. Did something happen at school?’.
- Work together to solve problems. For example, if your child likes to change his clothes several times a day, you could agree that he puts away the clothes he’s no longer wearing. And remember that you might not always be able to resolve an issue straight away, but you can come back to it later.
- Emphasise the importance of honesty by encouraging and supporting your child to tell the truth – and praising her when she does. And by being honest yourself!
Be available and willing to listen. Often you can’t predict when your child will start talking about something important to him.
How to listen when talking with your child
When your child has something important to say, or has strong feelings or a problem, it’s important for her to feel that you’re really listening. Try these tips for active listening:
- Build on what your child is telling you and show your interest by saying things like ‘Tell me more about ...’, ‘Really!’ and ‘Go on ...’. This sends your child the message that what he has to say is important to you.
- Watch your child’s facial expressions and body language. Listening isn’t just about hearing words, but also about trying to understand what’s behind those words.
- To let your child know you’re listening, and to make sure you’ve really understood the important messages she’s telling you, repeat back what your child has said and make lots of eye contact.
- Try not to jump in, cut your child off, or put words in his mouth – even when he says something that sounds ridiculous or wrong or is having trouble finding the words.
- Don’t rush into problem-solving. Your child might just want you to listen, and to feel that her feelings and point of view matter to someone.
- Prompt your child to tell you how he feels about things – for example, ‘It sounds like you felt left out when Felix wanted to play with those other kids at lunch’. Be prepared to get this wrong, and ask him to help you understand.
When you show your child how to be a good listener, you help her develop her listening skills too.
How to encourage your child to listen
Children often need some help learning to listen, as well as some gentle reminders about letting other people talk. Here are some ideas to help with your child’s listening skills:
- Let your child finish talking and then respond. This sets a good example of listening for your child.
- Use language and ideas that your child will understand. It can be hard for your child to keep paying attention if he doesn’t understand what you’re talking about.
- Make any instructions and requests simple and clear to match your child’s age and ability.
- Avoid criticism and blame. If you’re angry about something your child has done, try to explain why you want her not to do it again. Appeal to her sense of empathy.
Be a good role model. Your child learns how to communicate by watching you carefully. When you talk with your child (and others) in a respectful way, this gives a powerful message about positive communication.