Parent/Child Communication

By — Center for Effective Parenting
Updated on May 1, 2014

Communication is the sending of information from one person to another. Communication can be verbal, for example, one person talking to another, or it can be non-verbal, for example, a scowl on a person's face that will probably let other people know he is angry. Communication can be positive or negative, effective or ineffective.

It is very important for parents to be able to communicate openly and effectively with their children. Open, effective communication benefits not only the children, but every member of the family. Relationships between parents and their children are greatly improved when there is effective communication taking place. In general, if communication between parents and their children is good, then their relationships are good as well. Children learn how to communicate by watching their parents. If parents communicate openly and effectively, chances are that their children will, too. Good communication skills will benefit children for their entire lives. Children begin to form ideas and beliefs about themselves based on how their parents communicate with them. When parents communicate effectively with their children, they are showing them respect. Children then begin to feel that they are heard and understood by their parents, which is a boost to self-esteem. On the other hand, communication between parents and children that is ineffective or negative can lead children to believe that they are unimportant, unheard, or misunderstood. Such children may also come to see their parents as unhelpful and untrustworthy.

Parents who communicate effectively with their children are more likely to have children who are willing to do what they are told. Such children know what to expect from their parents, and once children know what is expected of them, they are more likely to live up to these expectations. They are also more likely to feel secure in their position in the family, and are thus more likely to be cooperative.

Ways To Communicate Positively With Children

Start communicating effectively while children are young. Before parents and their children can communicate, both must feel comfortable enough to do so. While their children are very young, parents should begin setting the stage for open, effective communication. Parents can do this by making themselves available to their children when they have questions or just want to talk. Furthermore, parents who provide their children with plenty of love, understanding and acceptance are helping to create a climate for open communication. Children who feel loved and accepted by their parents are more likely to open up and share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with their parents.

Sometimes it's easier for parents to feel acceptance for their children than it is to actually show it. Parents must demonstrate to their children that they love and accept them. Parents can do this in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Verbally parents can let their children know they accept them through what they say. Parents should try to send positive messages to their children. For example, when a child picks up his toys after he or she is finished with them, parents can let him or her know that they appreciate it by saying something like, "I appreciate it when you pick up your toys without being told." When talking with their children, parents should be careful of what they say and how they say it. Everything parents say to their children sends a message about how they feel about them. For example, if a parent says something like "Don't bother me now. I'm busy," their children may wind up thinking that their wants and needs are not important.

Nonverbally, parents can show their children they accept them through gestures, facial expressions, and other nonverbal behaviors. Parents should try to eliminate behaviors like yelling and not paying attention to their children. Such behaviors get in the way of effective communication. Practice makes perfect: Parents must learn to show acceptance in ways their children will pick up on.

Communicate at your children's level. When parents communicate with their children, it is important for them to come down to their children's level both verbally and physically. Verbally, parents should try to use age-appropriate language that their children can easily understand. With younger children, this can be done by using simple words. For example, young children are much more likely to understand a direction such as, "No hitting your sister," as opposed to "It is not acceptable to hit your sister." Parents should try to know what their children are able to understand and they should try not to communicate in ways that their children are not able to understand. Physically, parents should not, for example, tower over their children when talking or communicating with them. Instead, they should try to come down to their children's level by lowering themselves, either by kneeling, sitting, stooping, etc. This will make eye contact much easier to maintain, and children are much less likely to feel intimidated by parents when they are eye to eye.

Learn how to really listen. Listening is a skill that must be learned and practiced. Listening is an important part of effective communication. When parents listen to their children they are showing them that they are interested and they care about what their children have to say. Here are some important steps to becoming a good listener:

Make and maintain eye contact. Parents who do this are showing their children that they are involved and interested. Children might get just the opposite message that their parents are not interested in what they're saying if minimal eye contact is made.

Eliminate distractions. When children express a desire to talk, parents should give them their undivided attention. They should put aside what they were doing, face their children, and give them their undivided attention. If parents, for example, continue to read the paper or to watch television while their children are trying to communicate with them, children may get the message that their parents aren't interested in what they have to say, or that what they have to say is not important. If children express a desire to talk at a time that the parent is unable to, parents can schedule a time later on to talk with their children.

Listen with a closed mouth. Parents should try to keep the interruptions to a minimum while their children are speaking. They can offer encouragement, for example through a smile or a touch, without interrupting. Interruptions often break the speaker's train of thought, and this can be very frustrating.

Let your children know they have been heard. After children are finished speaking, parents can show them that they have been listening by restating what was said, only in slightly different words. For example, "Boy, it sounds like you really had a good day in preschool." Not only will this let children know that their parents have been listening. This will also offer an opportunity for clarification if the parents are misinterpreting the message their children are trying to get across.

Keep conversations brief. The younger children are, the more difficult it is for them to sit through long speeches. One good rule for parents is to speak to young children for no longer than 30 seconds, then ask them to comment on what was said. The goal is for parents to pass on information a little at a time while checking that their children are paying attention to and understanding what is being said at regular intervals. Parents should let their children decide when enough is enough. Parents can look for clues that their children have had enough. Some clues include fidgeting, lack of eye contact, distractibility, etc. Parents need to know when to communicate with their children, but they also need to know when to back off, too.

Ask the right questions. Some questions help conversations along, while some can stop conversations dead in their tracks. Parents should try to ask open-ended questions in their conversations with their children. Such questions often require an in-depth response that will keep a conversation going. Open-ended questions that begin with the words "what," "where," "whom," or "how" are often very useful in getting children to open up. Parents should try to avoid asking questions that require only a yes or no answer. While asking the right questions can help a conversation along, parents need to be careful not to ask too many questions while conversing with their children. When this happens, conversations can quickly turn into interrogations, and children will be much less likely to open up.

Express your own feelings and ideas when communicating with children. For communication to be effective, it must be a two way street. Not only must parents be available to and listen to their children for effective communication to take place; they must also be willing to share their own thoughts and feelings with their children. Parents can teach their children many things, for example, morals and values, by expressing their thoughts and feelings. When expressing their ideas and feelings, however, parents must be careful to do so in a non-judgmental way. It seems logical that the more parents open up to their children, the more their children will open up to them.

Regularly schedule family meetings or times to talk. One very useful communication tool for families with older children is the regularly scheduled time to talk. This can be done in a number of ways. First of all, there is the family meeting. Family meetings can be scheduled, for example, once a week, and/or whenever there is something that the family needs to discuss. Families can use family meeting time to iron out the details of daily living, for example chores, curfews and bedtimes. Family meeting time can also be used to air grievances and to talk about problems. These times can also be used to talk about positive things that have occurred during the last week. What's important is that each family member be given time to talk to and be heard by other family members.

Regularly scheduled times to talk and communicate don't have to be as formal as the family meeting. For example, families can use the dinner hour each night as a time to catch up with each other. Or, parents can set aside time to play communication games, such as picking specific topics of discussion and giving everyone in the family a chance to express their opinions. What's important is that families set aside time at regular intervals to communicate with one another.

Admit it when you don't know something. When children ask questions that their parents can't answer, they should admit that they don't know. Parents can use such instances as learning experiences. For example, parents can teach their children how to get the information they're looking for by taking them to the library, using the encyclopedia, etc. It's far better for parents to show their children that they're human and thus don't know everything than it is to make up some answer that might not be true.

Try to make explanations complete. When answering their children's questions, parents should try to give them as much information as they need, even if the topic is something parents don't feel comfortable discussing. This doesn't mean that parents must go into great detail. It's just important that parents know how much information their children need and then give it to them. Parents should make sure that the information they give their children is age-appropriate. Parents should also encourage their children to ask questions. This will help parents figure out just what information their children are looking for. Not giving enough information can lead children to draw conclusions that aren't necessarily true.

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