Last Updated: Jan 10th, 2011 - 11:11:15
| Communicating Effectively with Children
By Sara Gable, State Extension Specialist, Human Development
May 2, 2008, 16:23 PST
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State Extension Specialist, Human Development
Why take the time to communicate?
Children base their views of
themselves and the world on their daily experiences. One of the most important
experiences adults can provide for children is to talk with and listen to them.
Through these daily interactions, children and adults can develop relationships
that help children to learn about themselves and the world. Adults who care for
children have a responsibility to create and maintain positive and healthy relationships
with them. One of the most practical and mutually rewarding ways to achieve this
goal is through positive communication.
Research suggests that the best parent-child relationships are characterized
by lots of positive communication and interaction. Content parents and children
communicate on a regular basis about many different things. They don't communicate
only when there is a conflict. The researchers believe that when adults stay
in touch with children through attention and conversation, children may be less
likely to act out or behave in ways that create conflict or require discipline.
Effective communication with children requires communication styles and behavior
appropriate to the age of the child. Understanding how children of different
ages communicate and what they like to talk about is crucial for rewarding interaction
with them. Adults must communicate in a way that relates to the age and interests
of the child.
Communicating with children
of different ages
Infants: Birth to 12 months
Infants communicate with their
coos, gurgles, and grunts, facial expressions, cries, body movements like cuddling
or back arching, eye movements such as looking towards and looking away and arm
and leg movements.
Encourage infant communication
- Quickly respond to infant
communication (e.g., comfort a crying baby; smile at a smiling infant; relax
if a baby turns her head to the side)
- Provide meaning to infants'
communicative efforts (e.g., "You are crying, I know it is time for your bottle;"
"You are smiling, you like it when I tickle your feet!")
- Use a sing-song, high-pitched
tone of voice, exaggerated facial expressions and wide-opened eyes when interacting
with young infants. These types of behavior capture infants' attention and
help them to keep focused on interacting.
- Make the most of the
times when you and an infant are facing each other (e.g., during diaper changes,
feedings, mealtimes) and talk, sing or gently tickle the infant. Infants are
fascinated by adult faces and love to look at them when they are close.
- Pay attention to an infant's
style of expressing emotions, preferred level of activity and tendency to
be social. Some infants are quiet and observant and prefer infrequent adult
interaction. Other infants are emotional, active and seek continuous adult
attention and interaction. Recognizing the unique personality of each infant
will make effective communication easier.
Toddlers: 12 to 36 months
Toddlers communicate with a
combination of gestures and grunts, one word sentences, two word sentences, positive
and negative emotional expressions and body movements.
Encourage toddler communication
- Respond quickly and predictably
to toddlers' communicative efforts (e.g., "You are pointing at the fridge,
is it time for some juice?" "Bah-bah, that means you want your blanket, doesn't
- Expand on toddlers' one
and two word communications and build sentences around their words (e.g.,
"Hot, that's right, the pizza is hot." "Blue, your pants are blue with white
stripes, aren't they?" "Do again? Okay, I'll push you some more on the swing.")
- Keep a word diary where
you record toddlers' new words. The diary can be shared with other adults
and the words can be used in conversation.
- Give toddlers one direction
at a time and provide warnings before transitions (e.g., "We're going to leave
for grandma's house in five minutes." Five minutes pass. "Okay, time to get
ready, go get your coat from the bedroom." "Oh good, you got your coat, I'll
help you put it on.")
- Label toddlers' emotions
(e.g., "When you fall and get hurt, you feel sad." "Playing with your cousin
Mary makes you happy!")
- Make the most of daily
routines and talk toddlers through routines in the sequence in which they
happen (e.g., "First we put warm water in the bathtub... then you take off
your clothes and get in! Time to get the washrag soapy and clean you up...
first I'll wash your little toes...")
- During play with toddlers,
follow their lead and let them create the play. Describe for toddlers what
they are doing during play and let them have control (e.g., "Oh, you are driving
the car up the sofa, now it is falling to the floor! Here comes the truck
to take the car to the garage.")
- When telling older toddlers
what you want, provide an explanation and tell the toddler WHY you want something
to happen (e.g., "Janey, I told you to please pick up your blocks and put
them away. I don't want anyone tripping and falling over them.")
Preschoolers: 3 to 6 years
Preschoolers begin to talk
in full sentences that are grammatically correct. Young preschoolers may struggle
with telling stories in the correct order, but by age 6, sequencing the events
of a story comes much more easily.
Preschoolers like to talk about their past experiences. They experiment with
pretend and fantasy play; sometimes preschoolers talk about imaginary experiences.
Children of this age begin to recognize the connection between the spoken
word and the written word. They often recognize traffic signs (e.g., stop) and
restaurant signs (e.g., McDonald's) without being told what they literally say.
Preschoolers often talk to themselves when playing and working on tasks such
as puzzles or art activities.
Encourage preschoolers' communication
- Ask preschoolers questions
about past events; probe for details and provide new words to enhance description
of experiences (e.g., "Tell me who you played with at child care today? What
did you do together?")
- Encourage preschoolers
to talk about their feelings, both positive and negative, and discuss the
possible causes for the emotions.
- Create opportunities
for preschoolers to engage in fantasy and pretend play, either alone or with
friends (e.g., pretend baby bathing, pretend housekeeping, pretend astronaut
- Provide opportunities
for preschoolers to experience the connection between the spoken word and
the written word (e.g., label familiar parts of the physical environment;
have children tell you stories and write them down; allow children to 'write'
their own stories or thank you notes; have children collect items from the
environment which include words that they can read, such as toothpaste tubes
or cereal boxes)
- When preschoolers are
talking to themselves, let them be. Self-talk helps preschoolers focus on
what they are doing.
School-age: 6 to 12 years
School-age children talk much
like adults in full sentences. They ask more questions, can relate past experiences
in vivid detail and seek more information and justification for the way things
They can understand and talk about the perspective of another person and are
beginning to recognize the influence their behavior can have on others.
School-age children can handle more pieces of information at the same time
and with assistance from adults can effectively engage in goal setting and problem
At this age, children spend more time talking and playing with peers and friends.
Encourage school-age communication
- Use conversation as a
way to keep up with school-age children's activities, likes, dislikes and
peer relationships. Peers are important at this stage and by talking with
children regularly, adults can keep informed about school-age children's relationships
with their agemates.
- Use conversation to help
school-age children set goals and solve problems ("If you have to go to Girl
Scouts this afternoon, let's talk about when you can do your homework.").
Take the time to discuss strategies and solutions and have the school-age
child talk about possible outcomes.
- When correcting the school
age child's behavior, provide a calm explanation for your preferences. By
giving a reason, you help the school-age child understand the implications
of his or her behavior for others (e.g., if your child teases another child
because he or she wears glasses, explain that wearing glasses helps the child
to see better and remind the child that teasing can hurt another's feelings.
- Encourage school-age
children to talk about their feelings and the possible reasons for their emotions.
- Use conversation to help
school-age children learn conflict management skills. Because peer relationships
are becoming more important at this age, conflicts between children will likely
arise. Help children learn how to manage conflicts effectively while preserving
the peer relationship. Act out pretend peer interactions with children and
show how conflicts can be resolved, depending on how children handle the situation.
Adolescents: 12 to 18 years
Adolescents are interested
in talking in depth about themselves and about their relationships with others.
They want to understand who they are becoming and what others think and feel about
Adolescents want to talk about how they are different from their parents and
the rest of the world. They are beginning to recognize that their parents are
Adolescence is a time when children typically act more negative and have more
conflicts with their parents.
Adolescents spend more time alone and with their friends and less time with
Encourage adolescent communication
- Be actively sensitive
and responsive to the adolescent experience. Remember, each adolescent is
going through major social and physical changes; practice putting yourself
in the adolescent's place when you find yourself disagreeing or growing impatient.
- Use conversation as an
opportunity to keep up with adolescent activities and relationships. Stay
interested in the adolescent and gently ask questions and seek explanations
for adolescent behavior.
- Although adolescents
strive for independence and separation from the family, you can best maintain
the relationship by providing a balance between expecting personal responsibility
from the adolescent and offering consistent support.
- Be flexible. Seek to
understand the adolescent perspective first before trying to be understood
yourself. Maintaining the adult-child relationship is perhaps the most helpful
thing that one can do for supporting the adolescent through these years.
- Recognize that the adolescent
is developing ideas that may be different from your own. Unless these ideas
place the adolescent in danger of harm to self or others, accept the adolescent's
beliefs as an example of their developing individuality.
Encourage family stories
All children love to hear and
to tell stories. Adults can encourage children and parents to share their family
stories. Storytelling is a universal way for families to pass down important history
from generation to generation. From hearing family stories, children learn about
their family identity and about the beliefs and expectations that make their family
unique. These experiences encourage children to use their imagination and create
visual images of relatives from long ago and far away. Storytelling also brings
adults and children closer and creates a wonderful opportunity for intimacy and
relationship building. Ask the children and families that you care about to share
with you some of their stories.
(Taken from: Stone, E. 1988. Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our family
stories shape us. NY: Penguin Books.)
Be an emotion coach
It is important to help children
understand their feelings. In doing so, adults can develop an emotional closeness
with children that is important for establishing and maintaining mutual respect.
Effective emotion coaching helps children to understand the emotional ups and
downs of life. Research finds that children who grow up in families that spend
time talking about emotions are more academically successful, have better friendships,
fewer infectious diseases and can handle difficult social situations, such as
getting teased, more effectively than children whose families do not talk about
feelings (Gottman and DeClaire, 1997).
How can adults help children to better understand their emotions? Here are
- Be a sharp observer of
- Recognize that children's
emotional expressions provide an opportunity to get close. Make the most of
these teachable moments.
- Empathetically listen
and respond to children's emotions; tell them that you understand their feelings.
- Help children to verbally
label their different emotions.
- Set limits while helping
children problem solve the emotional experience.
When you pick up your 8-year-old
daughter from after-school care, she has a bright smile on her facwhat can
you say and do?
Parent: Honey, you have
a huge smile on your face! Tell me why.
Child: Today when we were
jumping rope, I did the whole thing without messing up!
Parent: You must feel so
happy and proud of yourself! I know how much you like to jump rope and how hard
you work at it.
Child: Yeah, and today
I tried extra hard to do it without messing up and it worked!
Parent: That's great, sweetheart...
Your 7-year-old son comes
home from playing next door and looks sullen and glum. In fact, when he gets
in the door, he throws his coat on the floor without hanging it up. What can
you say and do?
Parent: Nate, what's going
on? You always remember to hang up your coat. Did something happen at Stuart's?
Child: I hate him! I'm
not playing over there anymore.
Parent: You sound really
angry. What happened?
Child: Stuart never lets
me play with his new train.
Parent: Why do you think
Child: I don't knohe
says I'll break it.
Parent: Well, I can understand
why you are mad, but you know Stuart just got the train for his birthday last
month. He's probably scared to let anybody else use it. What do you think you
can do to let him know you'll be careful with it?
Child: I don't know...
Parent: Well, instead of
getting angry, maybe you could tell him that you understand why he is being
careful and ask him to show you exactly what he wants you to do. Let him know
that you'll be careful. If he says no, you might just have to wait longer, but
at least you tried.
Child: Yeah, I know.
The power of the written
Sometimes we get so busy with
everyday life that we forget the simpler ways to communicate. In "Put Your Heart
on Paper" (1995), Henriette Klauser encourages us to use the written word as a
way of staying in touch. She says that writing can start communications that may
be too difficult for the spoken word and can heal conflicts between adults and
children. Most important is that these writings become part of the relationship's
Here are some ideas for how to use the written word in your relationships:
- On a small piece of paper,
state a simple request such as "I'd like to take a walk with you," and leave
the note in a visible place.
- If you are having trouble
understanding a child, or making yourself understood, use writing as an opportunity
- Journals can be used
to document a relationship's history. Use the journal to record special events
and time spent together.
- Leave small greetings
for each other in unlikely places such as on the bathroom mirror or in a backpack.
- Share a journal with
someone. Keep the journal in a place where each person can easily get to it
and record feelings and experiences.
Make the most of a priceless
Few activities in life come
with so great a reward as communicating effectively with one another. The ideas
in this guide can help you develop healthy and mutually rewarding adult-child
relationships. There is little doubt that the world can be overwhelming for children.
By paying attention to and communicating regularly with children, you can help
children create a view of themselves and the world that is positive and healthy.
Bates, E., B. O'Connell and
C. Shore. 1987. Language and communication in infancy. In Handbook of Infant
Development. ed. J. D. Osofsky. NY: Wiley.
Bornstein, M. H., ed. 1995. Handbook of Parenting: Volume 1, Children and
Parenting. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gottman, J., and J. DeClaire. 1997. The heart of parenting. New York,
NY: Simon and Schuster.
Klauser, H. A. 1995. Put your heart on paper. New York, NY: Bantam.
Pettit, G. S., and J. E. Bates, 1989. Family interaction patterns and children's
behavior problems from infancy to 4 years. Developmental Psychology,
Stone, E. 1988. Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our family stories
shape us. Penguin Books: NY.
1999 University of Missouri. Published by University
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