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How to talk with kids -- even if you think you can't

Published on: April 01, 2007

Editor's note:
If you're a parent, you probably know this feeling: A conversation that
starts well suddenly goes off the rails. Sometimes it seems like you
and your child aren't even speaking the same language! Enter our newest
column, TALK. We asked expert talker and parent educator Josh Daniel to
give us some tips on connecting with kids.

Your preschooler runs under the table when you say it's time to go.

Your second-grader answers in one-word sentences when you ask, "How was school?"

Your middle-schooler rolls her eyes when you ask, "Will there be a parent at that party?

And let's not even go there for how your high-schooler reacts.

Why is talking with kids so hard? How can communication between parents
(good parents, mind you, who love their kids even when they may not
always like them) and kids (good kids!) break down? And what can we do
about it? Is there anyway to stop the battle and begin again?

Fortunately, yes, but there are no perfect words, questions or tricks.
Here are some strategies you might try to get the conversation going
and flowing.

Start by listening

No matter how busy you are, take the time to listen to what your child
has to say. If you can, get down to your child's level so she doesn't
have to look up. Keep in mind that listening carefully doesn't mean
giving up being in charge.

Acknowledge your child's feelings

All kids need to know that their feelings matter, whether it's over a
fight with a friend or sibling, a problem with a teacher, or a problem
with you. It can be useful to help a younger child put the feeling into
words. For example, "You really wanted a turn, didn't you?" If your
child says, "You spend more time with my sister than me," you could
respond by saying "Does it feel that way?" This may help you work
through the feeling, rather than saying "No, I don't," because your
child feels you do.

Consider the situation through your child's eyes

If your child says, "That's not fair," you might simply ask, "What do
you think would be fair?" (But this question doesn't mean you are
necessarily going to do what your child says.) If your child says, "I'm
not going to school!" you might ask, "What's the worst thing that will
happen today?"

Pause and think out loud

As parents, we are not required to have the answer, or even answer
right away. Your knee-jerk reply can set off a battle even before the
conversation has begun. Even in the heat of a moment, it can work
wonders to simply say, "I need to think about this." And a question
like "Can tell you me again exactly what happened?" gives you both time
to reason it out.

Ask specific questions

General questions, such as "How was school?" often produce general
one-word answers. Specific questions, such as "What kind of work did
you do on your history project?" may lead to specific answers.

Play it -- don't say it

Chasing your toddler out the door (instead of yelling to get going) may
save hours of aggravation and tears. Having a race over who brushes
teeth fastest can be a lot more fun (and more effective) than fussing
over bedtime. Keep your child's age in mind. Talk is not the only (or
always the best) way to achieve these kinds of transitions.

Allow negative feelings to come out

Giving a child the space to express the negative may simply be what he
needs, as long as he's not hurting anyone in the process. A simple
acknowledgement such as "I know you're mad at me" might open the door
for communication. But if the moment is really heated, it may not be
the time for talking it out. Leave an opening for reconnecting and
healing later, when you both calm down.

Express your own feelings

Don't leave yourself out of this communication equation, because your
child probably can tell how you feel, anyway. If he makes you mad, tell
him so. Avoid attacking his character with statements like "You're a
bad boy," but do tell him how his behavior makes you feel.

Come up with solutions together

Whenever possible (and it's not always easy), enlist your child in
coming up with an answer to a problem or a resolution to a conflict.
Whether it's coming up with a list of rules about computer use together
or asking siblings to work out a way to not fight over setting the
table, enlisting kids in building solutions helps them become good
communicators and pro-active problem solvers.

Don't talk too much

Sometimes there's not much to talk about. If your answer was "No," then
that's that. Change the subject, walk away, because if you stay, you're
likely to discuss it again (and again and again). Try writing (or even
sending an instant message to an older child) instead. A note on the
door stating "Room Needs to be Cleaned by 6 P.M." might be much more
effective than a long talk.

Josh Daniel
is a parenting writer and editor, educator, husband, and father of two
girls. He has created award-winning parenting materials for Sesame
Workshop, PBS Parents, and Nick Jr. Visit

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