Positive Communication with Children

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We hear about ineffective communication all the time, and many of us have experienced it directly at one point or another. Communication can make or break relationships. It can lead to failures or successes in the work place and can create or clear up misunderstandings. Communication is a skill that takes practice and is a work in progress for children and adults alike.

Successful communication between children and adults can be especially difficult. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain, explains, “The basic challenge is that parents very often speak without understanding how their children receive the message. We often make an assumption that our kids understand. But then we wonder, ‘Why didn’t they do what I said?’”

When communicating with children, oral communication is most commonly used. However, even oral communication involves much more than just spoken words. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, intentions, and emotions behind the spoken words all contribute toward the perception of the message conveyed.

Young children are still learning syntax and the meanings of words so they often rely more heavily on the emotional and non-verbal components of communication, rather than the words themselves. Unfortunately, when we communicate with children, our emotional message is not always the same as the words we speak. We end up unintentionally sending mixed messages to the child, which can be very confusing.

An effective way to engage in effective, productive communication with children is to use positive phrasing (this also works with other adults). Positive phrasing leads to communication that is clear, respectful, and invites cooperation. In order to effectively use positive phrasing, we must be honest and brief in our communication, saying the one true thing we want our children to do. The following page includes tips and techniques to try to incorporate into your daily communication with the children in your life.

Positive Phrasing Tips and Techniques

Make a commitment to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Children need clear, consistent limits. In order for our children to trust us, our communication and our actions must align; if they do not, our children will learn to ignore our words or will begin to lose trust in us. One common example is when you are getting ready to leave somewhere. We often say, “It’s time to go,” but then do not actually leave for several minutes. After this happens multiple times, it leads children to take future “It’s time to go” statements to mean, “we will be leaving in 10 minutes,” and then may be surprised the one time we do actually want them to be ready at that time.

Only use questions when there is truly a choice.

Adults often speak in question-mode or add in “okay?” to soften commands. (i.e. “It’s time for bed, okay?”) This is confusing for children because a question implies a choice, which gives the child the opportunity to respond with “no,” when truly, “no” is not an option. Choices must only be given when we will really be ok with any outcome. If there is only one outcome desired, only give that option.

Use “can,” “may,” and “let’s” statements.

Prevent power struggles and misbehavior by using statements that elicit collaboration instead of disobedience and defensiveness. Phrases that include the words “can” and “may” imply ability and permission. “Let’s” statements invite cooperation. For example, try incorporating phrases similar to these: “You may brush your teeth,” “you can finish your vegetables and then eat your fruit,” or “Let’s put all of your toys away now.”

Negative communication is difficult, if not impossible for children to follow

The idea of not doing something is very hard for people, especially children, to comprehend. When we say, “Don’t run,” we bring attention to the very behavior we are attempting to prevent or stop. Asking a child not to do something is ineffective because we neglect to tell the child what we would like them to do instead and, therefore, leave many other, possibly undesirable, behaviors available. When we would like a child to walk, we simply invite them to walk.

Avoid “No.”

For the child’s physical safety and psychological security, our “No” needs to be powerful. “No” needs to be saved for when it is really necessary. If we overuse “No” in minor situations, a child will learn not to trust it and may not respond appropriately to a meaningful “No” when he or she is in real danger.


By Maegan Ellis and the KHM Staff

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