How You Talk to Your Children Matters- A Lot

Key Questions:

  • Did both sides listen and understand?
  • Was I respectful?
  • Was I helpful?

Did both sides listen and understand?

Tips to get children to listen:child not listening

  • Listen to your children
  • Get to eye level, make eye contact- gets both sides attending and engaging
  • Say it once, then repeat the key words to increase the chance your child understands you
  • Be clear and concise
    • State what you want them to do (rather than what not to do)
    • Don’t give a choice if there isn’t a choice
    • Be selective about what directions you give- less is more
  • Follow through- your children will listen as much as you follow-through

What can my child understand?

  • Use about 2x the amount of words your child can use, when you speak to your child (especially when giving directions).  If your child is speaking in 1-2 word combinations, you should aim for 2-4 words in your directions.

If your child doesn’t seem to be understanding…

  • Try simplifying the language
  • Then increase your wait time/processing time (pause and wait before talking again)
  • Add visual or gesture
  • If your child is upset (or experiencing any strong emotions, like excitement, anxiety, fear), their processing ability decreases dramatically.

Was I respectful?

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

  • Model honest, direct, and respectful communication to your children.  You want your children to trust what you say.  When you don’t follow through, you lose that trust and children learn not to listen.

Be a good role model, your language is powerful to your child.Child playing with flowers

  • Children are listening even when you think they are not. Anything said with strong emotions is more likely to be remembered and repeated.
  • Children use language to learn the concept of self and self-regulation/self-control.
    • Be aware your voice becomes your child’s inner voice.  Model how you want them to talk to themselves.

Tip to use your powerful influence in positive ways:

  • Be emotional when appropriate, it helps build memories.
  • Sing it or use a rhythm to increase memory of what you say (think song jingles).

Was I helpful?

Use specific praise and name positive attributes, rather then vague compliments.

  • Why? Teaches and reinforces specific ideas. Children can’t always make the inference about why they are being praised; we have to connect the dots for them.
  • Why? Builds self-esteem and self-worth about specific attributes.

Tell your child what you want them to do, rather than what not to do.

  • Why? Child have very underdeveloped frontal lobes, which means their executive functioning skills (impulse control) is very immature.  When you tell a child what not to do, he or she is focusing on your words and trying to control the impulse related to the commands, but likely the brain isn’t mature enough to comply.
  • The problem is also immature inference making ability.  Children often do not know what they should do or are allowed to do.  We assume that when we say “Stop running” that they make an inference to “walk”.  Language and cognitive skills may not be developed enough to make this connection.
  • Simplify it for your child.  Tell them what you want them to do. You avoid the problems with immature impulse control and inference making. Additionally, your child will internalize your voice telling them positive things to do and this becomes their inner voice/coach that will help them with behavior in other settings.child1

This post is part of presentation I am available to give on helping parents becoming more aware of how they talk to their children and its impact on their children development.  For more information, click here.


Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.