Ways To Communicate With Your Child

The purpose of communication is to coordinate action and build trust in the process. When we apply this to the child, unless our communication accomplishes both (communicating the action clearly and building trust with the child), its purpose is incomplete and outcomes may be unintended.

Studies have reported that the average one-year-old child hears the word “no” more than 400 times a day! One study estimates that the average child hears the word “no” or “don’t” over 148,000 times while growing up, compared with just a few thousand yes messages.  It is very common for children to hear negative messages more frequently than positive messages, as many of us were raised with “no” messages ourselves.

The conflict that arises when using the word “no,” is that it fails to provide the information that children need.  Communication between parent and child is often geared towards helping a child make appropriate choices.  Telling a child what NOT TO do does not communicate what the child SHOULD do.  For example, saying “don’t run” tells the child they may not do the behavior that they have chosen, but we have not told them what behavior they should choose.  Do they skip?  Do they bounce?  What do we want from them?  “Please walk,” on the other hand, communicates to the child both the expected behavior and the unacceptable behavior.  Calmly taking them by the hand and showing them how to walk with can further demonstrate the desired behavior.  By conscientiously framing words in a solely positive manner, parents can avoid the frustrating scenario of endless tellingly children what not to do while children can learn what it is that they are allowed to be doing.

Positive communication focuses on respect for the child and involves both speaking and listening. Communication is what we say and how we say it.  Positive communication leads to nurturing relationships, cooperation, and feelings of worth.  It helps young children develop confidence and good relationships with others.  Poor communication can lead to kids who “turn off” adults, conflicts and bickering, and feelings of worthlessness.

Ways to develop positive communication include:

Get your child’s attention before speaking.  Most children can only concentrate on one thing at a time.  Looking directly at your child and calling their name, touching them gently, and giving your child time to look at you will ensure that contact is made and your child is hearing you.

Communicate on the same level as your child.  Stoop down to your child’s eye level, it is difficult for children to make eye contact with you when you stand tall above them.  A standing adult can be intimidating; an adult on his/her level is someone your child can communicate with.

Speak as if you mean it.  A firm, but gentle, tone works far better than an angry or pleading tone.  Tell your child what you want him/her to do and why.  Why is always important because if you have a good reason for the behavior, your child should know what it is (as well as you).  This will help him/her understand what the need for the behavior is.  Give clear, consistent instructions that do not involve emotion or judgment but rather tell the child what you expect.  Remember that body language is important, it will show that you are serious even more than your words.  Remember to be firm rather than angry.

Say “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “I’m sorry” to your child.  Modeling appropriate behavior is a far better way to achieve the desired behavior in children, and we all want our children to learn those words.  Hearing these words from you will attach far more meaning to them than just telling your children to say them.  Remember, children deserve the same courtesies that adults do.

Make requests simple.  The number of requests will affect your child’s ability to both understand and comply with your desires.  Often, your child only really hears the last thing you say, so if you are giving a string of commands, you may find that your child can only comply with the last one in your list.  Make sure requests are short, clear, and consistent.  If your child is still learning to follow multiple steps given at once, allow them to complete one task before you give them the next.  For example, asking your child to collect his/her shoes, jacket, and lunchbox, may be too many commands.  Allow your child to collect one, ask him to collect the next, wait again, and then ask him to collect the third.

Use “do’s” rather than “don’ts.”  Tell children what they should do rather than what they should not do.  Children respond more quickly to positive directions than negative ones.  It gives them a new task rather than place them in a situation where they have to guess at what they should (or could) do instead.

Allow children to make choices.  While a behavior may not be acceptable, give them options of other behaviors that are so they have some control over their actions.  For example, “you may not touch that, but you may touch this or this.”  Coming up with multiple options of appropriate behavior will help your child to want to change behaviors and feel more confident in doing so.

Talk with, not at, children.  Listen to your child and find out what might have prompted their behavior or what their desires are.  Your child will be far more interested in what you have to say if you are interested in what he has to say.  Never talk with your child when you are not able to be fully attentive.  If you are busy with something else, let your child know and that you will talk later.  Share your feelings and accept and validate your child’s.  Be careful, however, not to engage in too much conversation if your child is throwing a tantrum or screaming and crying.  Allow your child calm down before talking, and never negotiate unacceptable behaviors.  Children need to know that once a behavior enters the category of unacceptable, it is always unacceptable with no exceptions.  Instead, offer alternatives.

Use kind words and actions to support your child.  Kind, supportive, and nurturing words help children know they are loved no matter what actions they have chosen and lead to positive self-esteem.  Unkind words make children feel bad about themselves and insecure.  Affection is an effective part of communication and comforting your child is a powerful part of the process.

Be patient.  Children need time to be able to follow through with instructions or sort through their emotions and calm down.  They can only be successful if we are patient with them.

ACTIVITY:  Pick a day and record how many times you say “no,” “stop,” “don’t,” “quit,” or “you know better” (etc.).  Think about ways to replace these words with positive statements and write them down to remind yourself in the future.


INSTEAD OF,                                                    YOU CAN SAY

Don’t run                                                             Please walk

Don’t                                                                   Stop (then give replacement behavior options)

Don’t scream                                                       I understand you are upset and you may cry, but you
may not scream because it hurts my ears

Don’t jump on the bed                                        Please get off the bed and choose a game on the
floor….or… the bed is for sleeping, you may jump
on the ground

No hitting                                                            Your hands need to be gentle or you will hurt someone
and that is not allowed (demonstrate gentle hands)

No yelling                                                           You need to use a quiet inside voice, can you show me
your quiet voice?

No fighting with your sibling                              You may choose to play without fighting or you may
choose to play alone

Don’t cry                                                             I know that you are sad, and that’s okay, but I cannot
understand you when you are crying, let’s calm
down and talk (demonstrating deep breaths work
well here)

You know better                                                  Do you remember what the rule is? Tell me. I can see
that you remember so please follow the rule.

Look what you made your sister do.                   Your sister wants to do the things you do and we need
to keep her safe. Please show her the proper way to
do things and help us teach her.

Remember:  If you are not completely honest, children feel it.  If you try to smooth things over, children know it.  If you speak in hushed tones, children wonder what’s wrong.  If your words don’t match your facial expressions, children feel a lack on congruence and may become unsure of what you are trying to say.  Discipline is not about a battle, but rather helping children making appropriate choices.  Helping them make these choices can always be done in a positive and cooperative manner, making both of you feel more positive about each other.

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