How To Talk To Your Child

We all want to get on well with our kids, and the way we communicate is crucial to this. When our children feel criticised or blamed, they become defensive or withdrawn. On the other hand, when they feel valued and respected they are more likely to talk to us and to listen to what we have to say. So if things go wrong between us and our children, it is often because of the communication gap – the gap between what we say and how they understand it. If your conversations with your kids are more calamitous than calm, family therapist Miriam Chachamu may be able to help.

How to get your way without saying no
Kids don’t like hearing the word ‘no’. Hearing this makes them frustrated and angry as they feel that their opinion doesn’t matter to parents. One trick is to avoid using the word itself. Instead, ask questions that will make your child realise that he can’t have what he wants. For instance, it’s 8pm, and your child asks to bake a cake. Instead of turning him down, start by saying that it’s a great idea and you can make one tomorrow. If your child is persistent, say, “How long do you think we’ll need? What’s the time?”

Hopefully, he will realise that it’s a bit late to start cooking and will be happy to make sure you have the right ingredients to bake tomorrow. Try this with any unreasonable requests, and be prepared to be surprised.

How to communicate with a child who is sad or upset
When children are miserable, they need to feel heard and understood. Asking a child what is wrong doesn’t work because many kids, even older ones, don’t know how to explain their feelings To help your child, you need to avoid dismissing his misery as though it doesn’t matter – because of course, to him, it is very important. Instead, help your child calm down by trying to guess how he is feeling. Try, “I can see something is wrong” or “You look a bit sad right now.” The key is to not ask any questions but use open statements.

If your child tells you what is wrong, for example, that nobody wants to play with him and he hasn’t got any friends, you can also guess his feelings. He may calm down if you say, “I can see you had a tough day at school today” or “It can be hard when your best friend plays with someone else.”

How to correct mistakes without pointing them out
Most of us think that when we notice a problem in our children’s homework or behaviour, we need to point it out so that it can be fixed. But children rarely hear our good intentions – they tend to feel criticised instead. Another tactic is to praise something that your kid is doing right. For instance, if you want to correct his handwriting in his homework book, find one letter on the page that looks right. If you say, “I really like this ‘a’. It closes so that I can see clearly that it is not a ‘u’”, your child is likely to quietly correct all other appearances of the letter ‘a’ by himself. You can use the same idea for correcting a younger child’s table manners. Instead of reacting whenever he talks with his mouth full, catch him being good and congratulate him on how he is using his fork so nicely, and how his mouth is closed when he chews.

Your teenager is having a problem, not being a problem
Teenagers have a hard time. They are experiencing many changes to their bodies and to their brains, making them sensitive, moody, self-conscious and insecure. But they do care deeply about their relationships with their parents – even though their behaviour may not show it. And, thankfully, they do eventually grow up. It is very tempting to shout and punish when your teenager is being rude. Instead, stay calm – teenagers are extremely sensitive to tone of voice and body language. Try asking, “Did my comments upset you? I didn’t mean to do that. How can I talk to you without upsetting you?” Most teenagers will be glad to explain. But even if they don’t, they will see that you care.

At a quiet time, tell your teenager that you like him but that you are unhappy with the way you all argue with each other. Come up with ideas together for how you can communicate better as a family. One idea for better communication is to start your sentences with ‘I’, rather than ‘you’ as it is less critical. So try, “I would like you to tidy up” and not “You always leave a mess.”

Words: Miriam Chachamu. Miriam Chachamu is the author of How to Calm a Challenging Child (Foulsham, £9.99).

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