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Communication Skills Start at Home

​​​​​​​​​​​​How we communicate can affect our relationships with family, friends, teachers and other people. As a parent, you play an important part in teaching your child to communicate in a healthy way. With everything they see you do and hear you say, you're modeling verbal and nonverbal communication and listening skills.

How kids learn verbal & nonverbal communication

Children and parents communicate every day with verbal and nonverbal cues. Whether it's a verbal "Good job!" or a headshake, you let them know what you think.

By watching you, your children begin to use and understand language and nonverbal cues. Even toddlers can be taught to use their words. This approach can be as simple as reminding them to say "Please" and "Thank you."

Using words to express emotions

Young children may not know the words to express their emotions. It is up to you to give them the words to use. The best way to do so is to carefully use your words.

We often teach children to say "I'm sorry" without teaching them to acknowledge the issue. Instead, try "I am sorry I yelled at you. Mommy felt frustrated with the mess." It is important to let children know that emotions, such as frustration or anger, are normal. Giving children the right words helps them deal with their emotions in a positive way.

 "I" statements help frame discussions in a positive light. Instead of telling a child "You make me so angry!" or "Why are you so bad?" say "I need more quiet when I am trying to work." Focus on the behavior, not the child. Children naturally want to please others, so they respond better to a clear, behavior-focused direction.

"I" statements encourage positive dialogue instead of placing blame, which can stop a child from communicating. The goal should be to share and understand ideas.

Remember, the way you communicate with your child sets the foundation for their lifelong communication style. You want your child to be able to discuss problems in a calm way and with a focus on the solution, not the person.

Facial expressions & body language

Some children may need more clear-cut practice and explanation of nonverbal cues. Facial expressions and body language are important parts of communication. 

Specify that an eye roll, arms crossed or a door slammed says something negative. Be mindful to display positive body language in front of your child. Your example shows how to calmly handle strong emotions.

Children with strong communication skills can understand others and clearly express themselves. This behavior leads to positive peer and adult interactions, which build your child's self-confidence. Your time and effort early on will pay off in your child's future.

Tips to model healthy communication for your child

  • Model full apologies ("I am sorry for...").

  • Use a calm tone.

  • Be consistent in your responses.

  • Practice "I" statements.

  • Use kind words, like "Please" and "Thank you."

Active listening skills

Listening, particularly active listening, is a skill that requires practice. We naturally talk more than children listen. 

Active listening begins with giving someone your full attention. Put down your phone, book, or laptop. Maintain eye contact and focus on your child. Nod your head or say "Yes" or "I can see that...." The goal of active listening is understanding, not responding.

Actively listening to your child helps you understand what they are feeling, thinking, and concerned about. It helps bring the focus to your child and away from your own judgments. When a child learns to actively listen, they can follow directions, answer questions and complete tasks with fewer reminders.

Reflective listening

Listen attentively, summarize what your child says, and repeat the message you heard. This is an active listening technique called reflective listening. Using reflective listening shows your child that you value what they have to say. Pay attention to underlying feelings or concerns. This is the time for you to name and support those feelings. For example, "It sounds like that was pretty scary for you."

After you have modeled reflective listening, let your child practice it. Ask your child to relay to you what you have said. This approach is especially helpful after you have given directions for a task or a redirection for a behavior. You will be able to tell whether your child understood clearly.

Children have a desire to be heard. Actively listening to your child strengthens your bond. It helps you move from possibly being critical to acknowledging your child's perspective. Make active listening a part of your daily routine. Scheduling it during an after-school snack or at bedtime works well. It helps your child gain control over their actions and emotions.

Tips to model listening skills

  • Make eye contact. If your child isn't able to maintain eye contact, they may find it easier to focus on a chin, nose, or point on the wall just above the person's head.

  • Set daily times for listening.

  • Put down devices or pause televisions.

  • Sit at their level.

  • Have your child repeat what you said before responding.

Teaching empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share in others' feelings. An empathetic child thinks about why a person acts the way they do.

Before a child learns empathy, they have to be shown it. Children need to feel seen and understood by the adults in their life. For example, "I noticed you seemed frustrated when you couldn't find your toy." 

Creative play and storytelling are other great ways to teach empathy. Whether by discussing why the toy dinosaur is angry or reading about why a character in a book was sad, your child begins to think about what others are feeling.

Learning empathy is an early step toward being a problem-solver. Children who learn empathy consider how others may respond to things they do. They have more positive interactions with peers and other adults.

Tips to model empathy skills

  • Acknowledge their feelings. For example, "I know that makes you sad. It's OK to feel sad."

  • Verbalize why you think they may say or do something. For example, "I think you were throwing things at school today because you must have felt frustrated. You may need a break to calm down."

  • Help them see things from another's perspective. For example, "Your classmate was throwing things at school today. They must have felt very frustrated. They may need a break to calm down."

  • Offer suggested responses to things they see. For example, "Your friend has been quiet and down lately. They may need you to listen to them."

  • Read stories and discuss the characters' feelings.

Why healthy communication skills matter

You are the first teacher of and role model for your child. How you handle communicating ideas, needs and concerns influences how your child communicates.

Without strong communication skills, children often struggle to develop friendships, to have positive teacher interactions and to navigate life's ups and downs. Showing your children how to communicate clearly and positively helps them build strong relationships.

From using helpful language to practicing active listening, you can guide your child to become a strong communicator. Remember, children learn by watching others and your child is watching you.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from HealthyChildren Magazine, Winter 2022 American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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