Positive Communication with Kids
By Len lantz, md
ABOVE ALL, KEEP COMMUNICATION WITH KIDS SIMPLE
If there is one habit I’ve seen backfire most often for parents, it is trying to do too much in a single conversation with their child. I’m not blaming parents. It seems like all parents are faced with more to do and less time to do it, so they multitask. Parents may combine routine communication with a compliment and then follow that up with feedback about a problem —all in less than 60 seconds. Kids of all ages get overwhelmed with this and might erupt in tears, leaving their parents wondering what went wrong.
KNOW WHAT HAT YOU ARE WEARING WHEN COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR CHILD
One of the easiest ways to avoid pitfalls in communicating with kids is not to multitask. That means not yelling at them from another room or trying to communicate with them while you are doing three other things. While this recommendation might be challenging to implement, if you find that you are dealing with frequent meltdowns from your child during routine communication, it is the best place to start.
It’s best to only wear one hat at a time, right? If you wore two hats at the same time, it would probably be uncomfortable and look silly. The same is true when you are communicating with your child. When you want to communicate with your child, be clear with yourself about what hat you are wearing and try not to do too much at once. Decide whether you are wearing the:
- Routine communication hat
- Parental feedback hat (dealing with a recurring problem)
- Parental praise hat (giving an effective compliment)
- Disciplinarian hat (see Len’s articles at The Psychiatry Resource, psychiatryresource.com, “How to Help Your Child Learn from Their Mistake” and “Creatively Stopping Your Kids’ Disrespectful Behavior”)
If you have a lot to communicate with your child, remember to wear just one hat at a time and give them a little break between your ideas and concerns so that what you share with them really sinks in.
ROUTINE COMMUNICATION SHOULD BE SHORT AND MATTER-OF-FACT
Why do we talk to kids? One of the common reasons parents talk with their kids is to check in with them to see how they are doing. The majority of this communication involves questions about how the child is feeling, what they have been up to, and whether or not they are taking care of their responsibilities.
This type of communication is important. In fact, most parents are constantly and unconsciously studying their kids. A lot of this type of communication is driven by the parent’s love and responsibility for their child. They have an obligation to make sure their child is okay.
Another common way that parents communicate with kids is through instructions to start positive behavior or stop negative behavior.
- “Sam, please pick up your shoes and put them by the front door.”
- “Sarah, dinner is in one hour. I need you to get started on your homework.”
- “Timmy, put the chips back in the pantry. We are sitting down to dinner in five minutes.”
PITFALLS IN ROUTINE COMMUNICATION
Parents often already have effective communication skills that they utilize at work and with other adults. They can be clear, succinct, and respectful while avoiding displaying intense emotions. I see parents struggle in communicating with their kids when they do not use these same skills. Parents often run into difficulties when their seemingly routine questions or instructions are tinged with something that triggers a negative response in their kids. Common examples include:
Giving verbal multi-step instructions
- Why it’s a problem: It’s common for kids to feel overwhelmed by multi-step instructions and say, “I got it,” when they don’t and just want to escape from the situation.
- The solution: Have your child write down all your instructions so they don’t miss something.
Having an angry or exasperated expression
- Why it’s a problem: Having an angry or exasperated expression on your face when you communicate with your kids is likely to trigger them emotionally and disrupt their listening.
- The solution: Control your emotions before you communicate with your kids. Please keep in mind that if your kids routinely push your buttons until you lose emotional control, they lose respect for you, which is something no parent wants.
Yelling from the other room or intimidating
- Why it’s a problem: If you yell from another room, you have no way of knowing if your message was truly received. Hearing your child yell back, “Okay!” often does not mean the message was received. Alternately, physically intimidating kids can trigger negative emotional responses and interfere with their listening.
- The solution: Ensure that your child hears and understands you by finding them or asking them to come to you. If you find that you are physically intimidating a child to get their attention and response, then you likely need the help of a skilled family therapist.
Having a negative tone of voice
- Why it’s a problem: If you use a negative tone of voice, it probably does not matter what you are saying, because all your child will hear is your disapproval.
- The solution: It’s helpful to understand your goal for communicating with children. What are you trying to say in the first place? Once you are clear about your goal, talk to your child in a calm and relaxed manner.
- Why it’s a problem: I realize that many people use sarcasm as their way of trying to lighten the mood or show that they have a humorous side, but sarcasm literally means “to tear flesh,” and your kids might not think you are as funny as you think you are. They might interpret your sarcasm as mocking or criticism.
- The solution: Avoid sarcasm with your kids. You will both be happier because of it.
Implying in your word selection that your child is bad, lazy, or stupid
- Why it’s a problem: In general, kids experience this through repetitive why questions (“Why can’t you ______ ?”) or through their parent’s use of absolutist phrases such as “you always” or “you never” tied to the child’s behavior. Using absolutist phrases may limit your child’s readiness for positive change.
- The solution: Avoid negative absolutist phrases and repetitive why questions.
Negative labeling or name-calling
- Why it’s a problem: This is one step worse than implying that a child is lazy, bad, or stupid. It is actually calling kids those things. Sometimes parents will defend themselves by saying, “I didn’t call you stupid, I just said your behavior and choices were stupid.” This too is harmful.
- The solution: Avoid the use of negative labeling or name calling (both might fall under the categories of verbal and emotional abuse).
- Why it’s a problem: Many parents want to communicate something to their children immediately and feel that kids should stop whatever they are doing and leap into action.
- The solution: Find a good time or tell your child you will need to communicate with them at a specific time if they are in the middle of an activity. If you must interrupt a child to communicate something, give them a moment or two to pause their activity and give you their attention and eye contact so that you know that they are hearing the message.
YOU CAN TAKE STEPS TO ENHANCE POSITIVE COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR CHILD
There are many strategies for positive communication with kids. Imagine no longer feeling like you are walking on eggshells when talking to your children. Following some of the approaches above and avoiding the pitfalls will prime both you and your kids for positive interactions with each other. Having less conflict builds momentum for positive change and enhances relationships. As you improve your communication skills with your child, they will listen better, be more responsive, and be less likely to react negatively each time you need to talk to them.
FOR FURTHER READING, CHECK OUT:
“The Creative Parenting Mindset – Having Fun Raising Your Kids” by Len Lantz
“Is Yelling at a Child the Equivalent of Spanking Their Brain?” by Len Lantz
“Changing Your Force Point by Eliminating Bad Habits in Parenting” by Len Lantz
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting by Dr. Gottman
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Ginott
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish
See Len Lantz’s book reviews here: