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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jennifer McGinness

Tips for Communicating with Kids

Every parent or caregiver has struggled to connect with a child at one time or another. This can be incredibly frustrating and defeating, especially when a child is experiencing emotional pain, conflict, or a tough obstacle. Luckily, there are a few different ways to adjust our methods of communication to better connect with the kids in our lives.

Validate feelings and experiences

When trying to connect with kids, adults will commonly ask questions or give commands instead of validating a child’s feelings and experiences. Oftentimes, adults do this without even realizing it! For example, when you see your child drawing, you might ask, “What’re you drawing? What’s the purple object?” This may cause the child to feel overwhelmed by questions or even invalidated because to the child, it is perfectly clear what they are drawing. Similarly, adults will often accidentally give a command such as “Look at what you’re drawing!” While an adult may view this statement as enthusiastic praise, it is actually confusing to the child who is already looking at the drawing.

Instead of asking questions or giving commands, try describing or imitating what the child is doing. For example, “I like the texture you are making with the purple marker. I am going to try to make something like it.” Keep in mind, when imitating a child’s creative behavior, it is important not to make something “better” than the child. Of course, it is valuable for children to learn that others will be better than them at things and they will have to “lose” in games and activities. However, it is okay to put these life lessons on hold when you are making the effort to intentionally connect with your child.

Similarly, when connecting with kids on an emotional level, there are a few ways to modify adult language to better connect with children. For example, when your child comes home from school looking withdrawn and teary-eyed, most parents' first instinct is to try to “fix” the painful emotion. Parents might say something like “Why are you so sad?” or “Don’t let mean kids bother you.” While well-intentioned, these statements can be invalidating to kids.

Asking the question “why?” can give the impression that your child’s feelings are not valid and they may feel the need to defend their rationale for feeling a certain way. Instead, try comforting your child with a hug or handhold before diving into emotional exploration. This will help your child to regulate their emotions before talking about them. Next, ask the child, “What are you feeling right now?” or say, “Tell me about what happened.” These statements are softer, non-judgmental ways to help your child process emotions.

Naturally, parents often feel an urgency to remedy their children’s painful feelings. This can cause children to feel overwhelmed, worry about burdening their parents, and feel like there is something wrong with them for expressing emotional pain. Let your children know it is okay to wait to talk about painful emotions and that it is perfectly normal to “feel our feelings” before discussing them.

Be specific!

At times, it can be tempting to resort to standard phrases like “Behave!” “Be good!” or “Nice job!” However, kids, especially smaller children are not always sure what these phrases actually mean. For example, if you tell your child to “behave” when they are making loud noises and wandering around in the grocery store, the child likely does not know what action to take to “behave.” Instead, be specific and calmly tell your child to use an “inside voice” and “put one hand on the shopping cart.” This is one way to take a vague phrase like “behave” and define it in a way your child can clearly understand.

Similarly, when praising your child for a job well done, tell your child exactly what it is you liked. For example, if your child is sitting quietly and drawing while their younger sibling is taking a nap, describe and praise this behavior. Say something like, “I notice you chose a quiet activity while your baby sister is sleeping. I love how you are using your purple markers to draw flowers.” If you want to go the extra mile, imitate your child’s good behavior by joining in. Sometimes parents worry that pausing to praise their child’s good behavior may interrupt a peaceful moment. However, the contrary is true! Children thrive off of praise and attention and will be more likely to repeat a behavior that received praise, especially if the parent praises the child with genuine enthusiasm.

Tell your child what to do, instead of what not to do

Any parent who has asked their child not to do something can think of a vivid example of their child doing exactly the thing they were asked not to do. This happens because the parent has provided a description of an undesirable behavior without providing an example of a desirable behavior. Imagine you are asked not to push a large, shiny, red button and likely, all you can think of is pushing the button. Imagine instead you were told to place your hands in your lap, hold someone's hand, or carry an item. You are much less likely to think about pushing the red button if you are told what to do instead of what not to do. The same is true for kids!

Keep instructions simple

Furthermore, if you are asking your child to complete a task, make sure to provide one instruction at a time. Children become overwhelmed by many multi-step instructions. For example, if you want your 5-year-old to put on their shoes and socks, first ask them to open their top drawer and pick out a pair of socks. Once the child has completed the first simple step, ask them to complete the next part. This prevents the child from feeling overwhelmed, distracted, and defeated if they are unable to complete the task.

When possible, offer choices to help your child feel empowered and independent. For example, “We’re going to the park, put on your light up shoes or your sneakers. You pick!” Finally, instructions should not be worded in the form of a question. If you ask your child, “Would you like to pick up your shoes?” the child has the option of saying, “No.” Additionally, when giving instructions, it can be helpful to describe why you are giving an instruction. For example, “Put your legos in the toy box so Dad doesn’t step on them on his way to the laundry room.”


If you have tried some of these tips and tricks and are still experiencing difficulty communicating with your child, this is a great time to talk to a therapist!

At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialize in assisting teens and children with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation, either over telehealth or in person!


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