Say it With Love: Using Communication to Strengthen Our Relationships with Our Children


Supportive messages from parents to children lead to a variety of positive outcomes. Some of these include higher self-esteem, greater adherence to moral standards, compliance with parents’ wishes, less aggression and other problem behavior. Fathers foster cognitive development, masculine sex-role identification and academic achievement of sons; mothers foster the cognitive development and feminine sex-role identification of daughters. Other communication-related factors contributing to positive outcomes include mother’s responsiveness, discussion and acceptance of feelings, and reinforcement and modeling of positive behavior.

Negative messages such as physical punishment are related to greater aggression in children, and coercion weakens a child’s adherence to moral standards. Rejection leads to greater dependency. Positive messages such as giving reasons and explanations help children develop social competence.

Take time to talk. Sometimes parents become so busy they neglect to visit with their children.  Look for times to talk: while driving, or doing chores together, or before bedtime. You might try scheduling regular (say, once a month) one-on-one “talk times” with each child. This is a time to be alone just to talk about feelings, needs, goals, and concerns. Enjoy a milk shake together.

Take time to learn children’s views. A great way to build relationships is to ask children about their interests, needs, feelings, and opinions. Not like a police officer seeking information, the questions should sound like a friend showing genuine interest. For example:

  • “How did your school project go?”
  • “What was your best experience today?”
  • “What did you enjoy most about your visit at Grandpa’s?”
  • “You seem sad (worried, tired). Will you tell me how you feel?”
    Parents need to be especially understanding when their child is expressing strong feelings. Imagine your child has just told you about trouble with the school bus driver. To show understanding you could say:
  • “How did you feel when the bus driver yelled at you?”
  • “It must have been very embarrassing.”
  • “I’ll bet that made you angry.”

Some parents feel that if they show understanding their kids will think their bad behavior is okay. But showing understanding doesn’t mean you agree. It shows you care about their feelings. Children need to feel they are understood first. Then you can look for ways to solve the problem. For example: “What do you need to do to prevent trouble with the bus driver in the future?” If the child feels understood, he or she should be willing to look for solutions: “Would it be better if you sat by different people?”

Invite cooperation in respectful ways. Parents want their children to be responsible, to cooperate. But sending messages properly is crucial. Some parents may be Generals giving orders: Wash your hands. Don’t eat with your fingers. Don’t jump on the sofa. Do your homework. Practice the piano. Parents may try even more negative ways to win children’s cooperation: Why aren’t you out of bed? Can’t you get anything right? Do I have to do everything for you? Your room is a filthy mess.

We may think children need to be corrected in these ways to help them improve, but if this is the kind of correction they receive most, they are more likely to feel inadequate, stupid, or bad. There are better ways.

Use common courtesies, like you would with friends. Say “please,” “thank you,” etc. Instead of “Can’t you leave the dog alone?” say “Please leave the dog alone.” Or instead of, “Will you move out of the way?” say “Excuse me, I need to get by.”

Emphasize do rather than don’t. Instead of, “Don’t slam the door!” say, “Close the door softly, please.” Talk to your children with the same amount of kindness you expect of others when they speak with you.

Encouraging words communicate love and respect:

  • “You’re good with your hands.”
  • “Thanks for helping your sister clean up her room.”
  • “That was a good idea you had.”
  • “You’re special to me.”
  • “Will you come with me to the store? I enjoy having you with me.”

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, say parents can invite a spirit of cooperation by using these five skills:

Describe. Describe what you see or describe the problem. Instead of “You haven’t taken that dog out all day. You don’t deserve to have a pet,” describe: “I see Rover pacing up and down near the door.”

Give information. Instead of “Who drank milk and left the bottle standing out?” say “Kids, milk turns sour when it isn’t refrigerated.”

Say it with a word. Instead of “You promised before we got a dog you would feed him every day. Now this is the third time I’ve had to remind you this week” say, “Billy, the dog.”

Talk about your feelings. Make no comment about the child’s character or personality. Instead of “What’s wrong with you? You always leave the screen door open!” say, “It bothers me when the screen door is left open. I don’t want flies around our food.”

Write a note. Sometimes nothing we say is as effective as the written word. The note below was written on the bathroom mirror by a father who was tired of cleaning his daughter’s long hairs from the sink drain: “Help! Hairs in my drain give me a pain. Glug, your stopped up sink.” Another note was written by an employed mother who taped it to the TV: “Before you turn this on–think–Have I done my homework? Have I practiced?”

Share negative feelings with care. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell our children how some behavior is making us feel. An effective way is “I-messages.” These are different from “You messages” when a person blames others: “You make me so angry!”

An I-message often takes the form: “When (describe what happens) I feel (describe the feeling).” For example, “When the barbecue is left on, I feel angry.” “When you say those kinds of word, I feel sad and hurt.” 

A good I-message lets the child know that he or she is causing trouble without insulting or blaming. I-messages are also good for letting children know when we’re likely to not be our best. We might say, “I’m not feeling my best today. If I seem a bit upset, it’s nothing you’ve done.”

Sometimes negative feelings become so intense it’s difficult to communicate them in helpful ways. In these cases, we should stop talking and deal with our feelings first. Simply taking a break for a while, say ten minutes, might be enough to keep intense emotions from harming a relationship. Other times you may need to be more deliberate. We can do simple things like counting to ten, walking around the block, cracking a joke; or more involved things such as reading or writing poetry, playing the piano, playing racquetball, or listening to music.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., CFLE. Professor of Family Life, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Portions adapted from Dr. Duncan’s article, Communication: Building a Strong Bridge Between You and Your Children .

Adapted From Forever Families


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