Jill Schoeneman-Parker, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

How to Communicate with your Kids-- (the nuts and bolts of how to say the things you meant to say)

Both what you say (content) and how you say it (context) effects the self-esteem of your child. While the content is important- and perhaps even critical -- how you say it also important as it communicates

a relational message.


Ideally, parents want to give their children support and help and speak in a respectful and constructive manner. But parenting is exceptionally difficult work. It becomes tiresome and frustrating to tell your child, for the fourth time to "please go and..." What we are talking about is a "failure to communicate". Parents are telling and kids are, well... not getting the message.


How can this happen? I hear this form parents a lot. They will say the asked and then re-asked and then told their child to.... The problem is that only one person was involved in the communication. The sender was trying to deliver the message, but it kept being "returned to sender" or bounced back as "email address unknown". Both the sender and receiver need to be involved for effective and healthy communication to occur.


Communication might go very smoothly at times, especially when things are going well. However, no child or adult is perfect. There will be times when things aren't going so well. There will be times that you will need to talk with your child about his actions or words or behaviors-- or failure to follow through with his or her plan. It seems that these negative feedback messages keep getting bounced back. Hmmm. Think for a moment about how much you enjoy getting negative feedback form your boss? Do you want to hear him or her criticize you? Shame you? Badger you? probably not. Neither do our kids. This does not mean we do not give then direct and honest feedback on mistakes they have made. The manner in which we deliver this feedback is what needs to be modified.


We will need to give feedback messages to children as to how we perceive them and their behavior. Children believe what we say about them. The most potent feedback includes things they hear constantly or said with intense emotion or when the feedback is from a very important person (parent) in the child's life. With this in mind, think about these approaches for giving other some feedback:

Principles for giving negative feedback

1) Focus on the behavior, not the person


2) Focus on things that can be changed


3) Focus on observations- things you actually see or hear, not inferences


4) Avoid absolutes: (“you’re never on time”)


5) Build on what the child is doing right, not focusing or exaggerating on what they are

doing wrong.


6) Focus on the child's needs, not yours (This is the most challenging)

Most feedback is about us- many times we project things out onto other people. For example,

we say "Please settle down and be quiet." Relational message is "you're doing something

wrong" Really, what is happening is "I need peace and quiet."


7) Focus feedback on the future, not the past.

We have no control over the past.

"Lets talk about things you can do the next time to make it better"


8) Limit the amount of negative feedback you give


Principles for giving skillful positive feedback

1) Feedback should be specific, not general


2) Positive feedback should always be sincere


3) Focus on what the kids are doing to and for themselves


4) Give lots of positive feedback


Respect: Quality or state of being esteemed

To facilitate respect: Take children into consideration, listen to your children's thoughts, feelings and intentions, and take them seriously          

What communicates respect?

a) empathic listening

b) genuine dialog


The common ways to not communicate respect.-

  • Pretend listening "uh huh... yah..."- selective listening -- a highly sophisticated form of pretend listening they say a word which is a segue into our own agenda (e.g. "speaking of Spanish"... )
  • Autobiographical listening We listen to our children through lenses of our own vast wisdom and experience
(thinking of our values, goals, needs).


We dismiss what’s not important to us (like your son's explanation of Bakugan or


your daughter's latest American Girl Doll story).

  • Distracted communication: Put down your phone, turn off the email. Multi-tasking never allows for good communication. Something will be your second or third priority and something will be missed. You cannot guarantee that your child's need will not be the thing that gets misinterpreted.

Empathic Listening

Listening, simply with the intention to understand (not to judge, to give advice or solve problems) - e.g. saying "sometimes it is so hard to be a parent" Empathic listening requires 3 skills

1) We have to choose to attend to the other person

2) Listening to the whole person, not just the words (nonverbal messages, tone of


voice, tension in the body, etc.)

3) Feed your understanding back to the other person


Skills of responding is Reflective Listening

Sometimes reflective listening doesn't work because there is such a discrepancy between the intensity of what the person is feeling and how it is fed back to them.


Sometimes after you have fed back your understanding, it is best to simply let there be silence. One benefit of empathic listening is that our children discover the solution to their own problems. Let them know "I'm with you... I understand." Empathic listening is very simple, but the most difficult thing to do.


Benefits of Empathic Listening

1) When we listen this way, our children feel valued and cared for.

2) Sometimes all our children need is to be understood. If your child has a difficult feeling, once understood, they may let go of the feeling.

3) Your kids get to discover just how competent and capable they are and

you get to discover how little you need to get involved in their problems.

4) When we listen to our children this way, they'll begin to listen to us.