Speaking the Child’s Language

The vast majority of urgent questions we receive – often from desperate, at-wits’-end parents – are all to do with communication with the child. How do we make ourselves understood? And how do we understand what the child is, with equal urgency, trying to tell us?

From setting boundaries, resolving conflict, finding productive ways to motivate and encourage, or guiding and changing inappropriate and undesirable behaviours – the root of many parenting struggles lies in not knowing how to ‘get the message across’. “How can I explain it to him in a way that makes it stick?” “It’s like she’s just not listening.” Or, alternately, “what are they trying to tell us?”

From next week on, we will be starting a new series on communication: addressing specific, common issues topic by topic, sharing simple but transformative strategies for addressing and resolving the root of the issue. We will be speaking about:

  • Setting limits and boundaries (something we touched on previously with the article on Discipline)
  • Oppositional and “stubborn” behaviours
  • Helping children deal with strong emotions, including tantrums
  • Praise, rewards, and external motivation
  • Siblings conflict
  • Physical aggression in young children
  • Respectful communication (especially when saying “no”)
  • Temperamental differences between parents and children
  • Promoting reciprocation and empathy for the parents’ needs and feelings

Before we begin with these individual topics, however, I would like to take a moment to address parent-child communication in more general terms.

Communication is far more than just the what we say and the words we choose. Human beings – especially children! – communicate far more in non-verbal ways than through speaking and listening alone. Our posture, movements, tone, and facial expression are often far more important than the content of what we say, especially in social context. Chances are, your child is much more aware of this than you’d expect, and it’s very worthwhile to consider what you’re communicating not only with your words, but also with your body.

Furthermore, much of our communication is unintentional, and much of it takes place through deeds and actions. Just as you can communicate love and care by cooking a nice meal for your spouse, so you can communicate disregard through scrolling through your phone throughout dinner. But at the same time you might be just anxious about a text message you’re expecting, or distracted thinking about something you are reading.  And this ambiguity is the source of much misunderstanding and difficulties: we are conditioned to ascribe meaning and assume intent when it suits us, or disregard it when it doesn’t. This is especially true with the parent-child relationship. My challenge to you is to try and notice at least one moment each day when you make an automatic judgement about your child’s motivation (“he’s banging those dishes in the sink just to make me mad!”) and when your action towards them could be misinterpreted easily (“I was in a hurry, she might think I am upset with her because of how brusque I was”).

And last but not least, communication is never one directional. It is an endless exchange between us and others and, ideally, an equal one. Oftentimes, when we’re especially keen to communicate some specific idea or information to someone, the most productive first step is to first listen to the other party and find out what they are telling you. This is so important with children as they are learning from us what communication is and how to participate in it – in other words, we cannot expect children to listen if we do not show them how.

Now, is there a topic you’re missing in the upcoming series? Something else we should include? You can let us know in the comments.