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Positive Communication with Kids at Every Age

I’ve learned over the years that the way I communicate with my children determines how they respond to me. My sons often meet me with the same tone that I meet them with. They mirror my respect or my disrespect. In other words, what I give, I get, and this is particularly true now that they are teens. I decided long ago that if I want my children to learn that respectful and kind communication is a part of a loving relationship, I had to model what that looks like. 

Positive communication is one of the most practical ways to build healthy, strong relationships. This is important in both our verbal and nonverbal interactions - not just in what we say but also in how we say it, our tone of voice, and our nonverbal cues and behaviors. Therefore, it isn’t only the words that come out of our mouths that we can be mindful of but of all the ways in which we communicate. 

For example, if I make eye contact and give my full attention, I’m communicating, “You are important to me.” If I give my child the silent treatment because I’m frustrated with him, I’m communicating, “You do not deserve my attention or warmth right now.” Sometimes what we do not say hurts more.

Keep in mind that the method of communication we tend to carry out in our lives is learned in childhood. This means that, as parents, we are teaching our children how to communicate with every interaction. We can give our kids a head start on healthy relationships in life by teaching them positive communication skills now.

A Note On Respect

In our culture, we sometimes confuse respecting children with spoiling them.

There is an unfortunate but widely held misconception that we must speak harshly to children for them to listen. You’ve probably heard a parent say, “Well they won’t listen until I YELL!” Sadly, the more often we use yelling or harsh tones to “make them listen,” the more often we need to because this is what they become conditioned to. And because this becomes normalized, they will begin to communicate with others that way, speaking harshly to friends, siblings, or even parents. Think back to your childhood? Was this normal in your home? Did your parents often yell or use harsh tones with you? Is this a pattern that you are now unconsciously repeating?

As the adult, and the model, we can learn to get our point across without the booming authoritarian voice you may have been used to hearing growing up. Yelling and threats tend to shut kids down. It puts them on the defensive, activating their reactive lower brain. This makes it difficult for them to think clearly, problem-solve, and respond appropriately. 

Being respectful to children doesn’t give them the message that you aren’t in charge. It tells them that they are respectable, and this is an important thing to believe about oneself.

Once we believe that showing children respect and affording them the basic common courtesy that all human beings deserve is not going to spoil them, we can move past the fear that our kindness will turn them rotten. We are then liberated to treat children as valuable persons, and positive communication is a cornerstone of treating them with value, dignity, and respect.

Communication Styles

Obviously, infants communicate differently than preschoolers, and preschoolers differently from pre-teens. Each stage of childhood requires us to meet them where they are developmentally, and communicate in a way that is clear and concise to their developing brains. The following is an outline of communication styles through the stages of childhood, adapted from Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide.

Infants: 0-12 Months

Infants communicate with crying, sounds, and nonverbal cues. How we interpret these cues is important in the development of a secure attachment. Nonverbal cues include facial expressions like smiles and grimaces, body movements such as kicking, and gestures like nodding and pointing. Babies also laugh, squeal, and babble in an attempt to communicate with their caregivers. 

  • Introduce verbiage for emotions early. You can easily do this through reading books about emotions such as Heart’s Treasure Hunt.
  • Copy her sounds and gestures. Hold a “conversation” with her by imitating her verbalizations and pausing for her to “answer.”
  • Respond reliably and warmly to cries.
  • Mirror his facial expressions. 
  • Engage her listening skills by talking to her often throughout the day.

Toddlers: 12-36 months

In addition to the cries, sounds, and nonverbal cues of infants, toddlers are beginning to use language to communicate. 

  • Show interest and respond to attempts at communication. This shows that you value communicating with him.
  • Interpret your child’s gestures. If he’s pointing to his juice cup, you might say, “Oh, you want juice?”
  • Sportscast while your child plays. This develops grammar skills and helps with thought organization. “You’re driving the train around the track! Here comes the tunnel! You went through the tunnel.”
  • Give your child a good vocabulary of emotions by labeling and talking about emotions often. 
  • Show respect for his feelings. Acknowledge and respect his emotions even when you must correct behavior. Feelings are not unacceptable, though some behaviors are. This is a great time to introduce the Time-In ToolKit with its interactive feelings charts and fun time-in activities.

Preschoolers: 3-5 years

Preschoolers want to chat a lot! Establishing an atmosphere where your child is able to freely talk about her thoughts, feelings, and ideas is crucial. 

  • Ask questions about his day, past events, or how he is feeling. Offer descriptive terms when needed to help build vocabulary.
  • Give reasons for your rules. “We hold hands in the parking lot so you don’t get hit by a car.” “Wear your helmet when you ride your bike to protect your head in case you fall.”
  • Continue to talk through her emotions. Consider a SnuggleBuddies plush to help further teach emotional intelligence. 
  • Engage in active listening and summarize back to your child what you heard.
  • Make eye contact and show interest. I know they talk a lot, and it isn’t always possible to give your full attention, but nods and a conversational back and forth help him feel valuable.

School-Age Children: 5-12 years

They’re beginning to view the world in more complex ways. They think more logically and are capable of being more reflective. They also begin to ask challenging questions.

  • Ask more specific, rather than general questions, to encourage open dialogue.
  • Work together to solve conflicts. Ask your child for his input on how to solve a problem.
  • Keep encouraging emotional intelligence by introducing mind-body strategies such as in the MoveMindfully Card Deck.
  • Curb criticism and offer lots of encouragement and positive attention.
  • Take a stake in your child’s interests and be genuinely curious about the things he loves.

Positive Communication in Practice

  • Use “I” statements. Rather than “You never clean your room,” try, “I would appreciate it if you would clean your room today.”
  • Look for win-win solutions. Separate the problem from the person. Assess beliefs, emotions, and concerns. Explore and rethink options. Settle on a solution you’re both happy with. 
  • Listen objectively. Our tendency is to be thinking of the best response rather than truly listening to understand.
  • Take a break if you’re angry and don’t attempt to communicate until you feel calmer.
  • Speak respectfully. You get what you give.
  • Offer lots of encouragement and genuine praise.
  • Be mindful of your body language and nonverbal cues. 

These positive communication tips will create a family culture where children and adults alike are spoken to with respect and listened to with love. Children live what they learn at home, and all of their future relationships will benefit from having learned these important and positive skills early in life.

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