Talking to Your Kids: Helpful Tips for All Ages and Stages

Everyone likes to tell you that communication is the key to a good relationship with your kids.

While you may agree with this, you may not know exactly how to build and foster that kind of relationship. How do you get started communicating with your kids? Is communication really all that important?

Why Communication with Kids is Vital
Communication is the primary way parents can show their kids that they love them. All sorts of studies have been conducted on the consequences of not communicating with your children.

All close relationships are dependent on good communication, and the parent-child relationship is no exception. For example, children who do not have close relationships with their parents are more likely to suffer from a poor self image and emotional problems.

Without open dialogue, children are left to figure things out on their own, often getting advice and guidance from their peers who do not necessarily share your parents' values. Children who enjoy good communication with their parents also do better academically and socially.

Parents who are disengaged from their kids may find their children slipping into negative behaviors and attitudes and be at a loss as to how to get through to them. This is why laying a foundational groundwork of good communication is so important - when you really need to talk to your kids, the rapport is already there.

However, if you were not able to lay the groundwork for good communication when your kids were young, it's still not too late. In fact, it's never too early or too late to get the communication started.

Whether you are the parent of a newborn or a child in his or her 30s, there are things you can do to open the channels of dialogue.

Newborns
How in the world can you communicate with a newborn? Actually, you are already doing so if you respond to your baby's cries. Mothers especially develop a sort of "6th sense" with regard to their babies, often knowing what their baby is about to do right before he does it. So, one of the first things you can do to start building that communicative foundation is to respond to your baby.

*Don't ignore crying. It's become popular today for parents to ignore the cries of their babies in order to teach the baby independence. But crying is the only way your baby has to communicate with you. It is not "bad" behavior. When you ignore her cries, you are closing down the first line of communication between you before it even has a chance to get established. So respond to your little one promptly, assuring her that you do hear her. This will prove valuable later.

*Interact with your newborn. Hold, cuddle, and talk to him. It's your face and tone of voice that will introduce your baby to the world of human interaction. Caregivers should also do this.

Toddlers
Some toddlers will talk to anyone anytime about anything. Other toddlers are quiet, not expressing themselves with words. Regardless of what kind of toddler you have, communication is still important.

*Teach new words. It is especially helpful to apply words to a toddler's feelings. Children this age can feel very overwhelmed by the enormity of their emotions. Giving them some words for those feelings helps put them in perspective and makes them much less scary.

*Teach sign language to your toddler. This is especially helpful if you have one of those little ones who gets frustrated with her inability to speak. Sign language opens up lines of communication between you even without speaking.

*Speak your toddler's language. Remember how young they are - really just babies - and that sometimes they just need to be heard and validated. Instead of curtailing behavior right away, learn to interpret it and anticipate it. If the underlying cause of the behavior can be discovered and addressed, the behavior will diminish, and you will have established communication channels that will prove invaluable later.

Preschool through Kindergarten
This is a transitional time for children. If you are going to send your child to public or private school, it is important for him to learn different styles of communication and interaction. The upcoming transition into kindergarten can open up opportunities to prepare for this. For example:

*If you are going to be sending your child to school, find out what the teacher will be expecting and incorporate these things into your everyday speech and activities. If the kindergarten class will involve a lot of counting games, for example, play some of these with your young child. Then you can prepare her for school while also opening communication between the both of you.

*Don't downplay your child's fears about school. Negative feelings still need to be heard, and listening to his concerns will validate his feelings. Listen and help him find solutions, such as visiting the school and teacher ahead of time.

*If you homeschool your child, the entire experience can enhance communication. As you teach, be willing to adjust your teaching style to fit your child. If you are open, homeschooling will be an educational experience for you, too. If you need for your child to conform to your schedule and teaching style (and some of that is inevitable, and can be a good life lesson), discuss it with your child and explain why things have to be that way. Good communication is respectful, even if you are need for your child to have a more disciplined attitude.

Gradeschool
The gradeschool years span about 5 years, which, when you are a child, is practically eternity! When you're a parent, it's a small but important window in your child's life that you can fill with good communication. The gradeschool years also tend to involve a lot of activities - sports, after-school programs, band, Girl or Boy Scouts, church activities, and so forth. This brings us to the first tip for communicating with gradeschool kids:

*Limit outside activities. This doesn't mean that you can't do anything extracurricular; it just means you need to make sure there's time for talk. Good communication does indeed take time.

*Help with homework. Children can really benefit from a parent who spends some time helping with schoolwork. This will also give you, the parent, insight into what your children are learning and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Middle School
During this time, it's common for the amount of time children spend with their families to decrease. It's also common (and normal) for children to start questioning and challenging their parents at this time. This means good communication, though more difficult, is more important than ever. For these older children, here are some ideas.

*Make use of kids' love of technology. It's no substitute for face-to-face interaction, but it is an important line of communication. Don't be a "hovering" parent, of course, but use the electronic communication that kids are so fond of engaging in. Email, text message, and twitter with your kids. Don't do so excessively, but see that you are occasionally included in your children's electronic communications.

*Start small. You don't have to have enormous discussions about weighty issues all the time or right away. Talk about some of your child's interests and activities, for example.

*Don't be threatening or interrogative. This is good communication advice in general, but for this age it's especially crucial. Middle school kids are sensitive and often feel confused, and being berated will only make them clam up. Try initiating conversations when you are engaged in something that doesn't require a lot of concentration, like while you're washing dishes or out fishing together.

High School
As pointed out above, it's normal for kids to begin spending less time with their families as they grow older. While family time is important to communication (and you still need to set aside time as a family even with high school kids), this is a good time to get your kids involved in constructive activities. Just make sure you strike a balance between active and hectic.

As children get later into their teen years, they have to make choices, especially choices about how they are going to spend their time. If they have activities they love and are good at, it will help divert them from more destructive life choices. As you guide your kids into constructive things to do, support them and, of course, talk about these activities and what they mean to your child.

Adult Children
Do you know an adult who dreads getting phone calls from her mother, or someone who wishes his dad wouldn't visit so often? Maybe you are that adult! While adult children are out living on their own, they still have to communicate with Mom and Dad, so good communication skills are as vital as ever.

*Respect your adult child's space. This can be difficult, but the best communication occurs when both parties are comfortable. Remember that your child is an independent adult now. Even if she still has some dependencies on you (such as needing financial help on occasion), don't hold this over her head. If your adult child feels like his space is being invaded, he may shut down and not communicate. Giving space actually opens things up for communicating - it creates a "safe" environment.

*Develop a thick skin. When your kids are adults, old patterns - some of them negative - have become deeply established and it takes some tough self-examination to forge new patterns. Be willing to listen, as in any good communication - but be willing to take constructive criticism, too. If you will really listen to your adult children and accept their comfort level, you can both be respectful and enjoy a more communicative relationship.

More Than Just Talking
Communication with children involves more than just a conversation. You may think you are communicating just fine with your kids. After all, you listen to your child, right? You ask how his day went and he answers, right? When she speaks, you respond - what more is there? Actually, there's a lot more. Here are some things you can do to facilitate communication beyond just talking.

*Take an interest in your kids' hobbies, activities, and interests. Anyone, children included, are more likely to listen if they feel accepted and valued. When you take an interest in what they enjoy, do so without instructing them on how they could be better or what they need to do. Sort of turn off the parent voice, if you will, and for a moment just observe and show interest.

This exercise can also help you find common ground with your child. If you and your child both like to write poetry, for example, read some of your poems and ask your child to do the same. If she likes nature, go on a nature walk or hike together. The same goes for any other interests, from music to engineering to science.

*Listen. Really listen. Good communication is not you lecturing while your child listens silently. Good communication is a two-way conversation, and as the adult, your job is to paraphrase what your child says and say it back to him. This shows that you really do comprehend what he just said. As you practice this communication style, your child will begin to do so on his own. After all, you modeled the behavior!

*Read between the lines. Sometimes, what your kids are not saying is of vital importance. Learn to read your kids. Note behavioral responses and body language. And never ignore red flags such as social withdrawal or depression.

Get Over Your Fears
It's not easy to talk about things like pornography, sex, and drugs. You may be afraid of looking foolish in front of your children. But if you don't talk about these things, someone else will, and that person may not share your values. Worse, your children may learn everything about these subjects from the media. So before you can teach your kids healthy confrontation with difficult issues, you need to face them yourself. Here are some things you can do.

*Define your own stance on these issues. Make sure you are clear and level-headed about where you stand with regard to pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol, and so forth. If your opinions are wishy-washy, you can't communicate effectively with your kids. Make sure you have a clear idea about what you believe and what kind of rules you are going to have in your own home about these activities. In other words, you can teach your children your values only if you know what they are.

*Resist the temptation to have someone else have "the talk" with your kids. It's certainly okay to solicit the opinions and advice of pastors, teachers, counselors, and so forth; but the communication needs to be open between you and your kids. Surveys and studies indicate that children look to their parents first and foremost to discuss tough topics. So in addition to the input of others, make sure you are not "copping out" of tough conversations by soliciting the help of others.

Don't Be Afraid of Arguments
Some parents hold back communicating with their kids because of the arguments that may ensue. Interestingly, though, arguments can enhance a relationship. What is damaging is sugar-coating your relationship with your kids so that you "never argue" - but never arguing is not necessarily healthy! Arguing respectfully and pointedly is actually a valuable life skill. Have you ever met anyone who is afraid of confrontation? Or maybe you are afraid of it. It's likely that people with such fears grew up in homes where "controversial" issues were just never discussed for fear of starting a dreaded argument.

Be Informed
Know what your kids are facing. How can you communicate about the problems young people face unless you are aware of current youth culture, with its societal pressures, expectations, and so forth? Read what they read, watch the television programs and movies that they watch, and look into what they are doing on the internet. Your children will be more likely to listen to you if you know what's going on and have some kind of idea as to what they are dealing with. Also, when you are informed, you will be better able to listen and form appropriate responses in your conversation.

Watch Your Own Words
One of the mistakes parents can make is over- or under-reacting to their children's words. Your child may say something that sounds shocking to you - say she tells you she has viewed porn on the internet - and you respond with a parental "hissy fit." In doing so, you shut down the potential for candid, important dialogue about pornography and sexuality. You may have missed an opportunity to discuss this uncomfortable but vital topic with your child. She will probably never bring it up again, fearing your reaction, and will keep such things to herself. Then you won't know what she else she is viewing, or how she is processing the porn she's already viewed.

Parents can also under-react. Say your son tells you he is experiencing bullying at school. If you downplay the problem, saying something like, "Oh, everyone has to deal with bullies now and then," and do not sit down and discuss the problem and potential solutions, your son may think you don't care about his struggles. He will be at a loss as to how to handle the situation. Good communication can provide children with important coping skills. Otherwise, your child may feel he has no choice but to resort to drastic means to deal with the bullying problem.

Try to strike a balance between the hissy fit and the dismissive attitude. Express genuine concern, but keep your own opinions to yourself until you have really heard what your child is saying. If you jump in too quickly, your child may feel misunderstood and unheard. It's important to leave some room for your child's own reasoning skills to develop.

Ask Why
Remember when your child was asking you "why?" all the time? Well, now it's your turn. You don't need to berate them, but ask your kids why they want to do things or why they hold certain opinions. It's vital that they learn to ask this of themselves as they go through life. Ask them why they are angry, for example, or if they think it's okay to pick on someone smaller than they are and why (or why not). Rather than condemning the behavior or opinion, help your child figure out why he or she thinks that way to begin with.

Also ask your children why they think their friends do what they do. "Why do you think those guys are looking at bachelor magazines in secret?" "Why do you think those girls smoke?" This will get your child thinking about why people do the things they do, and if your child does not share the same sentiments, he or she will not necessarily identify with the people who do those things.

Ask Opinions
This is another one that may scare parents. But it's very important to ask your child's opinion and respectfully listen to it. Remember, you're not ain a courtroom; you're a parent in your home, and listening without judgment is important. Your kids' opinions may seem shallow and unsupported to you, but don't demand proof and facts to back their opinions up. Listen, share your own opinion, and maybe ask your kids why they have the opinion they do. If they can't tell you right away, don't push. Instead, share the reasoning behind the opinion you hold. This will get your child thinking, and because you asked her opinion in a non-threatening way, you have set the stage for future conversations that may go deeper.

Don't Interrupt
Yes, it's tempting to interrupt, especially when your child is saying something you just can't believe you're hearing. As noted above, jumping in and cutting off your kids - even if it's done in a cheerful or nice way - cuts off communication. Listen first; react later, calmly and rationally.

Not interrupting is a good communication skill no matter what age you're dealing with, but the impression you make will be more lasting and significant with your kids. Don't jump in and finish their sentences or put words into their mouths. Suggesting words to young children to help them identify their feelings is not the same thing.

Emotions are Not Bad
Some emotions are so hard to deal with. Anger, fear, and other negative feelings are especially difficult. It's tempting for parents just not to address emotionally-charged issues and avoid dealing with feelings altogether. But that would not be good communication. Your kids need to know that you can "take it," that you are not afraid of their feelings and are able to handle them. This is true if your children are toddlers or teenagers.

Ask your kids how something makes them feel. If your child is having trouble verbalizing his emotions, gentle prompting with suggested feelings is okay as long as you are not putting words into his mouth. If your daughter seems sullen because she can't have a computer in her room, ask her how that rule makes her feel. Listen to her before explaining why she can't have one. Ask your son how it makes him feel when you do not allow him to play video games all night. Again, listen before explaining things from your viewpoint.

And of course, if your child is struggling with social relationships or other problems, ask him how he feels about that. Learning to identify our feelings is very important for self-awareness and self-esteem. It helps children to take control over their emotions rather than letting the emotions control them.

Identify With Your Kids
It's easy to be shocked and scandalized by the things our kids say or do. But take a moment and remember your own youth, and don't hesitate to share personal stories with your kids. This shows you identify with them and what they are going through. Don't try to look perfect. It's important to be a good role model, but it's also important to identify with your kids and let them know you have experienced similar struggles, or know someone who has.

Beyond the Facts
Parents can get frustrated when they get monosyllabic answers from their children. This may be because of the way in which parents ask their kids questions. For example, if you have an interrogative, insensitive and overly-direct approach, you may cause your child to clam up and want to end the communication before it even starts. Don't cross-examine your child; ask more than just "yes or no" kinds of questions. For example, instead of demanding, "Did you do such-and-such at that party last night?" ask your child if she enjoyed the party, what they did, if anything made her uncomfortable, and so forth. Remember, you want to encourage discussion, not just gather facts.

Play Board Games
The wonderful thing about board games is that they span so many age groups. Families with kids from preschool to high school can get together for board games. You can gain a lot of insight into your children and what makes them tick by how they play board games. Card games are good, too, and can be really fun. Consider a family game night that can spark conversation and encourage insightful communication.

Communicating effectively with your kids not only fosters a more harmonious family environment; it will help prepare your children for life. After all, good communication skills are often listed as a requirement by prospective employers.

Socially, your children will be much better off if they know how to handle disagreements with their colleagues, teachers, friends, and co-workers.

Do everyone a favor and foster good communication in your family.