The do’s and don’ts of parent-child communication

Science and Health

Growing up in a home with screaming or overly punitive parents is more common than many people would want to believe. On the other hand, there are parents who know how to speak to their kids in a way that shows respect while still laying out the expectations and rules of acceptable behavior in the family.

Over the years, I have seen many parents who complain that their child is bullying a younger sibling or acting aggressively in school. Some parents tell me that their child is depressed.

Oftentimes, there appears to be a serious communication problem between the parent and the child. There are many possible reasons for this problem. Perhaps the parents themselves have never learned effective communication skills.

Sometimes there is a serious marital relationship problem, and the marital tension takes a toll on the kids. In another instance, a child may be biologically prone to hyperactive behavior, and this triggers a parent’s limit to being patient. There are many things that can trigger anger in a parent, which may result in a parent acting more verbally and/or physically aggressive to a child.

Nevertheless, research on the topic of effective parent-child communication is abundant, and there are many lessons to be learned from this body of knowledge. Below, I highlight some of the major points I have found helpful in my work with parents.

Mother and child (credit: INGIMAGE)

Connect before you express

Parent-child communication is more effective when a parent tries first to get the child to make eye contact. Before talking, the parent should ask the child to look at him/her in the eyes, and only then begin speaking to the child. Eye contact is the critical factor.

Don’t use physical punishment 

The parent who regularly resorts to physical punishment can be sure that the child will most likely use the same approach with others in his environment. It may express itself in physical aggression toward siblings, peers, or possibly toward the parents. Invariably, the child who is hit regularly by a parent will suffer from low self-esteem, and this can last a lifetime.

Instead, teach children, by talking to them, what they did wrong. Start talking to children from the time they are young, make sure they understand the rules, repeat them regularly, and explain why they are important to you.

Granted, some kids are more challenging, and they may make you very angry. But, clearly, physical punishment will not be effective, neither in the short run nor in the long run. Parents who have anger management problems may need to seek out therapy to learn how to manage their anger.

Be aware of your tone of voice 

It’s not usually what people say but how they say it that makes the difference in being heard correctly. Like adults, children are more likely to be attentive if spoken to in a respectful way. Don’t underestimate your kids’ sensitivities to your verbal delivery.

Don’t embarrass your children

No one likes to be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. In the heat of the moment, many parents have been guilty of calling their kids out in front of relatives or friends.

The parent’s anger may be expressed by the use of name-calling or cursing designed to sting and get the child’s attention.

As a result of the parent’s behavior, the child will feel resentment and embarrassment. This is especially true for a teenager, who may feel downright humiliated when an angry parent calls him/her out in front of friends. It is always a good idea to pull the child aside, go to a private space away from others, and then say what you want to say.

Keep it simple and clear

Whenever possible, don’t beat around the bush when you have something important to convey to your child. Be clear and concise. Both young children and teenagers appreciate their parents being frank and asking direct questions, such as “Where are you going?” and agreeing on a time to be home.

Ask the child to repeat what you stated 

Too often, parent-child disputes occur because of misunderstandings. “Oh, I thought you said I can come home at 11 p.m.” A simple, helpful rule in communicating is to say what you have to say, and then immediately ask your child to repeat what he/she heard you say. This way, you can check whether the child actually and accurately understood what you communicated.

Begin your directives with ‘I want.’

Instead of “Get down,” say “I want you to get down.” Instead of “Let Rivka have a turn,” say “I want you to let Rivka have a turn now.” This works well with children who want to please but don’t like being ordered. By saying “I want,” you give a reason for compliance rather than just an order.

‘When… then….’

“When you get your teeth brushed, then we’ll begin the story.” “When your work is finished, then you can watch TV.” “When,” which implies that you expect obedience, works better than “if,” which suggests that the child has a choice when you don’t mean to give him/her one.

Give choices 

As a general rule, everyone likes some control, even your kids. So give choices whenever possible, such as “Do you want to put your pajamas on first or brush your teeth first?”

Write down reminders

Children, especially preteens and teenagers, don’t like to be constantly reminded. They feel that they are being nagged. Studies have shown that parents leaving humorous notes – such as “Don’t forget to put the dishes in the dish washer, Spider-Man is coming over this evening” – can put a humorous spin on parental directives. Try it and sit back and enjoy the results.

Talk the child down

The louder your child yells, the softer you respond. Let your child ventilate while you interject timely comments: “I understand” or “Can I help?” Sometimes, just having a caring listener available will wind down the tantrum. If you come in at your child’s level, you have two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for him/her.

Give advance notice

“We are leaving soon. Say bye-bye to the toys, bye-bye to the girls….”

Let your child know that you are interested in his/her day

One of the ways a parent can show a child that he/she really cares is to ask how his/her day was. You’d be surprised how much good communication can come out when we ask this question. Too often, busy parents, struggling with their own stress, overlook the mood status of their children.

Kids are never too old to be reminded that you love them and are proud of their accomplishments. In my view, this is critical in helping a child to build positive self-esteem. 

While parenting is tough business, it can also be the most enjoyable work you’ll ever do in your life. No parent is perfect, but all parents can improve their communication skills with their children. The rewards are endless. Our children learn so much about communication from how we act as parents. 

The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist, practicing in Jerusalem and Ra’anana, and also provides online video conferencing psychotherapy globally. [email protected]