I have three young children. They are each wonderful, special, sovereign beings and I try to respect that when I talk to them. I believe in the power of positive ways to talk to your child. But that’s easier said than done when you’re moving to a new country and one is on the floor screaming that ‘it’s not the green cup!’ while child number two is decorating the passports with crayons.
So I reached out to Denise Suarez. Denise is a bilingual English / Spanish speaking parenting coach specialised in positive parental communication. Her mantra is ‘con cariño’ – with love. She helps parents spark their inner confidence and identify their own unique core parenting values so they can be the parent they truly want to be.
In this post Denise shares how I can communicate better with my kids. She explains the real importance of parent-child communication and includes some age appropriate communication strategies for how to talk to kids so they will listen. Here is her guide to building a respectful relationship with your child.
How to talk to a toddler, a 4 year-old and a 6 year-old?
We have to speak to our children according to where they are in their lives and how we think they will best understand our message. However there’s no need to “dumb down” our language. Babies too can benefit from us speaking to them using a wide range of vocabulary.
Similarly, all people, including children, deserve to be spoken with a sense of mutual respect. Just because we are the parent or adult and they are the child doesn’t make us more superior than them. A child’s thoughts and feelings are just as valid. Just because a child is younger doesn’t mean that they are incapable of making decisions for themselves.
Of course, the types of decisions they make will vary. We might ask a 2-year-old to choose between the color of two glasses, a 4 year-old to choose what they’ll wear, etc. What we say to them may vary, but how we say it shouldn’t.
All children, deserve to be spoken with a sense of mutual respect. What we say to them may vary, but how we say it shouldn’t.
How do you talk to a toddler that doesn’t listen?
When it comes to toddlers, I think it’s important to remember that their brain still hasn’t developed to the extent that they can stop themselves from doing certain actions. At this age, they might actually be listening to us, yet they may continue to do what we asked them not to anyway.
It’s much more helpful to them if we can set up their environment in a way that allows them to succeed (e.g. not putting things they can’t touch within their reach), while also giving them the close, and sometimes physical, support they may need (e.g. gently stopping them from hitting a sibling).
Remember, even though there are times when it feels like it, they are not not listening to us on purpose! Try not to take it personally. Sometimes just reminding ourselves that they need our support can help stop yelling and threats.
How do you discipline a child that won’t listen?
When a child isn’t listening, I prefer to come from a place of curiosity instead of discipline. I truly believe that our children want to please us, they want to listen to us. When they don’t, it’s because there’s something that’s keeping them from doing so and they need our help.
If we were to imagine our children as icebergs, their behaviour, in this case them not listening to us, is the only part that we can see. There is so much more going on underneath. Maybe they actually physically couldn’t hear us in the moment, or what we’re asking them to do isn’t developmentally appropriate, or they have feelings that are in the way.
Only when we’re able to address what’s going underneath the surface, the listening will follow.
How do you fix a relationship with a child after yelling?
When it comes to many moms, there are actually two relationships that need to be “fixed” after yelling.
The first one is your relationship with yourself. So many of us speak to ourselves negatively and beat ourselves up for things we have done. Instead, I recommend giving yourself love, compassion and empathy. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m a terrible mom. I shouldn’t have yelled;” try saying, “I’m having a hard time right now.”
When it comes to fixing the relationship with your child, it’s okay to apologize and share that in that moment you were feeling angry and said things that you didn’t mean.
It’s important not to blame your emotions and/or actions on your child. “What you did made me so angry!” does not help fix the relationship. We are always responsible for how we express our emotions and we can own this by saying something like, “When I saw you hitting your brother, I felt angry because I don’t want either of you to get hurt. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
Instead of saying, “I’m a terrible mom. I shouldn’t have yelled” say, “I’m having a hard time right now.”
How do I stop yelling at my kids?
We all have our own window of tolerance. When we’re inside that window, we can handle pretty much anything that comes our way without getting too stressed.
Unfortunately, lack of sleep is one of the ways we narrow our window of tolerance. As so many of us parents have experienced first-hand, when we’re tired, we’re more likely to yell or snap at our children.
Aside from getting more sleep, which isn’t always as an option, other ways we can widen our window of tolerance are by practicing mindfulness, doing physical activity, and challenging our thoughts. Soothing ourselves through senses is also beneficial – do what works for you, for example playing music, looking at old pictures, lighting a scented candle etc.
Challenging our thoughts is about noticing what we’re thinking and asking ourselves, “Is this really true?” This can be so hard to do in the moment, but it gets easier with practice.
Guiding my clients in challenging their thoughts is one of the main things I work on as a parenting coach.
As parents, a lot of our thoughts and opinions might seem like facts to us (“My child is manipulating me” is one example). It can be really helpful to have a neutral third party show you when you are believing things that you don’t have to.
From here, you are able to choose thoughts that allow you to see yourself and your children in a more loving light. In turn this can widen your window of tolerance.
How can you make a child listen?
First, make sure that what you’re asking your child to do is developmentally appropriate. A lot of times we feel frustrated that our children aren’t following our directions, when really they’re not doing it because they don’t want to; they’re not doing it because they simply can’t.
Then, before giving any directions, connect with your child. Enter their world. Ask them about what they’re doing, or show that you see them through your observation.
Depending on what you’re asking for, you can also use the steps of a problem-solving conversation:
- Describe the child’s feelings and needs. “You want to go to your room and play.”
- Describe the problem briefly. “It’s important that we wash our hands as soon as we get home.”
- Look for solutions together. “What can we do?”
How can I get my child to talk about their feelings?
Talking about our own emotions is really important. It shows them that it’s good to share their emotions and guides them in the language to express themselves.
Also, books help a lot. They don’t even have to be books about emotions, although those are useful. As you read with them or watch shows with them or even when walking on the street, you can stop and ask them to look at the person or picture. Say, “Look at their facial expression and body language. How do you think they’re feeling? Do you ever feel that way too? I sometimes feel that way when…”
When it comes to talking about emotions, it’s also useful to ask how these emotions feel in their body. They might not be able to name their emotion, but they can point and/or share where in their body they feel it.
What are some of the most positive ways to talk to your child?
When it comes to speaking to our children, I teach four core communication skills.
One of the skills is to describe, instead of evaluate. You’d be surprised at how many of the things we say to our children are evaluations, judgements or opinions. Even saying something like, “Good job!” is an evaluation.
When speaking with our child, especially about their behavior, I recommend describing their behavior, not evaluating it. This can work with behavior we like and don’t like. Here are two examples.
Behavior: Child grabs a toy from younger sibling
Evaluation: That’s a bad thing to do! You’re a bad sibling.
Description: You have the toy your sibling was using, and now your sibling is crying and asking for it back.
In this situation, you give your child the opportunity to correct his behavior, without adding on guilt or shame.
Behavior: Child helps you with the laundry
Evaluation: You’re such a good child! Good job helping.
Description: You are keeping the clothes in the closet. I feel happy when I see you doing chores.
Here, you are describing your child’s behavior in such a way that they are then able to praise themselves. You allow them to see themselves in a positive light.
How important is tone of voice when talking to a child?
The tone of voice when talking with a child is very important, but I think it runs deeper. It’s not about using a voice that is always calm or loving, but that the tone of voice is authentic and appropriate.
Authentic – because if we pretend we’re feeling calm when we’re actually furious, our children will pick up on that. They will know when what we’re saying and how we’re saying aren’t aligned with how we actually feel.
Appropriate – because feeling angry doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable for us to shout at our children all the time. I underline this all the time because shouting at our children happens to everyone. We need to give ourselves some grace and compassion as well.
Shouting at our children happens to everyone and we need to give ourselves some grace and compassion
How can I talk to my child about difficult issues, such as death or divorce?
Ask them what they know and only give them the information you think is necessary. Do not assume you know what they know.
Understand that this is a conversation which will happen more than once and do not force it to happen. Instead, create a loving and open space so that your child feels safe enough to talk to you about it.
You can bring it up if necessary, but be prepared to let it go if they don’t want to talk about it.
Do you have any age appropriate communication strategies for serial expat or multilingual children? What are some positive ways to talk to your child when living overseas?
When it comes to expat families and families with multiple languages, or as I call them intercultural families, I suggest making the implicit, explicit.
Assume nothing and define everything. Sometimes, even though we’re speaking the same language, what we’re saying might not mean the same. Add in more languages and cultures and that can make things more confusing – and fun! “What do you mean by that?” can be a useful question and the answer can be illuminating.
How much of these ‘rules’ apply to every child?
There are always certain norms that apply in general, but how and when you apply them may differ according to your child.
A core communication skill I teach is express empathy. This is something we should be doing in all our relationships, but the way we do it may differ from child to child.
For example, there are some children who find it useful when parents ask them to draw how they’re feeling, others like to be hugged and others prefer for you to stay with them without physical contact. The theory of expressing empathy stays the same, but how you apply it with each child is adapted to them.
My mantra is to focus on the relationship. Remember that effective communication can look different in every relationship and that’s okay. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to communication and parenting.
Denise’s top 10 positive ways to talk to your child
- Don’t dumb down your language. What you say to your kids may vary, but how you say it shouldn’t.
- Try to be empathetic. Remember that a child’s brain still hasn’t developed to the extent that they can stop themselves from doing certain actions. Don’t take it personally if they can’t do what you want them to do.
- When a child isn’t listening, come from a place of curiosity instead of discipline.
- Focus on the individual relationship. Effective communication can look different in every relationship. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to communication and parenting.
- Don’t force a child to talk about issues sensitive to them. Instead, create a loving and open space so that your child feels safe enough to talk to you about it. Be prepared to let it go if they don’t want to talk about it.
- Embrace authenticity. Aim to make what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it, align with how you actually feel.
- Try to observe instead of evaluate. Describe your child’s behavior in such a way that they are then able to praise themselves or correct their behavior, depending on the situation.
- Assume nothing and define everything. Make the implicit explicit.
- If you do lose your temper, apologize and share that in that moment you were feeling angry and said things that you didn’t mean. Try not to blame your emotions and/or actions on your child – we are responsible for how we express our emotions.
- Be kind to yourself as a parent. Feeling angry doesn’t make it acceptable for us to shout at our children all the time. However, shouting at your children happens to everyone and we need to give ourselves some grace and compassion.