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Simple, Yet Effective Techniques for Communication with Children and Adolescents

by Kathleen Krol

When we are communicating well, both parties walk away with the same understanding from the conversation. However, many times we may find we are working to express ourselves but not feeling heard—and hearing another person talking without really comprehending what it is they are trying to say. When we are busy and caught up in the daily in and out of our routines, clear communication can be lost along the way. For adults interacting with children, there are added complexities.

Sometimes simply changing the words used or how we say them can make a small but significant change in an interaction with a child. Praise and positive reinforcement for what a child is doing well are usually more effective than emphasizing what he or she is doing wrong. Try to avoid negatively phrased words such as “can’t”, as in, “You can’t do that.” The child hears the negative “can’t” and may respond defensively by acting out. Instead, give choices and alternatives when directing a child to stop certain behaviors: “The ball is for outside play,” or, “What do you want to play with instead: your trucks or your dollhouse?”

Children often have problems with sense of time and their need for immediate gratification. This can be helped by giving them a timeframe for when they can have what it is that they are requesting: “Right now, I need to cook dinner. After we eat, I can play that game with you.”

Children need our full attention and eye contact when they’re upset. They often act out because they feel uncomfortable inside and don’t know how to put their feelings into words. We can acknowledge a child’s feelings without accepting their behavior. Acknowledging that their feelings are heard often calms an upset child more than yelling, ignoring or punishing the crying behaviors. Say things like, “You really wanted to go outside to play. You’re feeling mad that you can’t go outside. I see how upset that makes you.” If the behavior continues, setting a limit or giving a time-out may be needed, but taking these other steps first may reduce the intensity of the tantrum before it escalates.

With teenage children, power struggles and overloaded schedules add complexity to interactions and communication. When talking with teens, it can be helpful to take the following factors into consideration.

  • Teens want to feel heard. They often feel more heard when adults are mindfully present, listening without an immediate need to reassure, give advice, make assumptions and point out the negative.
  • Agree to disagree. We must choose our battles, and remember our relationships with our own parents as teens. Is winning the battle more important or having a relationship with the child years later?
  • Think of the teen years as the rewind of the “terrible two’s”, in which children fluctuate between needing the parent and asserting their own will. Although this can be one of the more difficult childhood phases for parents and teens to navigate together, it is important to remember that the teen is pushing and asserting and experimenting as a way to build a confident adult identity.
  • When conversation becomes a power struggle, pause the conversation. The rational part of the brain has shut down, and the emotional part of the brain can’t process or rationalize what is being said. Take a breath, walk away and come back to the situation when everyone is calmer.
Kathleen Krol is a licensed clinical social worker and registered play therapist/supervisor, who works with children, adolescents and families. She uses family therapy with parent and child to discuss and problem-solve issues, play therapy and sand tray therapy with children to help them work through difficult feelings and parent coaching to provide parenting techniques and support. Krol holds therapy sessions at The Resiliency Center, in Flourtown. Connect with her at 215-289-3101, [email protected], or August 2015.

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