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

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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