3 Tips for Avoiding Miscommunication with Kids

My kids are usually great, but sometimes…things get really hard. It drives me crazy when they don’t listen or follow the rules or seem disengaged. How can I communication so they understand better? How can we avoid so much conflict in our family?

The trigger for conflict is often miscommunication. Sometimes it seems like meltdowns come out of nowhere! Sometimes you talk with your child until they can recite back what you need from them and what the rules are, only to find the rules being broken soon after. Sometimes you explain to your child why they need to nap or eat, but it never seems to get through. So what gives?

It is surprisingly easy to have miscommunications with children, even when they say they understand. Children primarily attempt to learn how to communicate by watching their environment. It is simply more natural for them than stopping to ask what each individual word or action means. The trouble here is that it can lead to children not knowing what something means, or worse, guessing incorrectly about what it means. In addition, it is normal for children to not know to ask for help communicating or realize that some adults get annoyed when asked a lot of questions, so they stop asking! If you often find yourself in the scenarios above, these tips may help connect you and your child more often.

Check for comprehension. More times than I can count, I have seen children recite a parent’s words back or nod when asked if they understand, only to find out they had no idea what was meant! Try kindly asking a child what a certain word you used means, and you’ll be surprised how often they say they don’t know. Words like “strategy”, “development”, or “frustrated” may seem obvious to adults, but to kids they may as well be a foreign language. When we can offer them explanations in kind, calm ways, most children enjoy learning a new word!

Rehearse what you mean. Maybe your child does understand the words you used, which is great! But they may then not understand how to apply it in real-time. I imagine we have all had times, even in our adult lives, that we thought we understood what we needed to do, but then made a mistake or got confused when we tried to implement it. In these cases, it can be helpful to make a game out of practicing the expectations you have for your child. For example, they may know that they are not supposed to answer the door on their own, but feel pressured and confused when the doorbell rings and you are mowing the lawn and asked not to be interrupted. Take turns with your child acting out their role and yours a few times to let them practice finding a solution and modeling your solution. When done playfully, this can turn into an opportunity to connect and learn, rather than make mistakes and receive criticism.

Connect to what they do know. One of my favorite ways of creating understanding with children is to find a metaphor that connects with something they already know well. We can imagine a child who does not want to go to sleep, because they are sad they will not be awake to play. Children aren’t born with an understanding of why sleep is important (and many adults even forget this too). Most children, however, have learned that tablets need to be charged up to use them, and see that mom and dad put gas in the car to make it go. Teaching your child that their body can be like a tablet that needs to be charged to be fun, and that sleep is like the charger, can make it easier for them to understand and appreciate. No longer is this a “rule” that, to your child, is arbitrary and taking away from fun. Now it is a skill to take care of themselves so they can have even more fun later!

This post was written by Anna White, licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and child therapist specialist at Emily Cook Therapy in Bethesda, MD. She is passionate about helping kids and parents communicate in healthy ways – and with a big infusion of playful, loving fun!