Communicating with children

Warm, loving communication between you and your child enhances your relationship and helps avoid behaviour issues. Parenting expert Eileen Hayes wrote this article in February 2004. This article was last reviewed by Heather Welford in September 2008. Communication is a complicated process, with your child receiving a lot of ‘information’ from you. These include:

The words you speak Your tone of voice – loud, soft, harsh or whispered

  • Gestures
  • How you stand
  • Your facial expression

Your child has to watch, listen and react to an enormous amount of information and, in order to have a conversation with you, also judge when and how to take their turn.

Body language

The words you speak often carry less weight than the non-verbal parts of your communication. It’s worth considering the impression you give through your facial expressions and body language.

Take a moment to look at your face in a mirror. How do you appear? Are you frowning, smiling, strained? When you approach your child with a soft, smiling face they’ll be more receptive to your message.

Think about your posture. Do you stand over your child or get down to their level when you speak together?

Paying attention

Your child may know you care about them through your loving attention, but it takes extra effort to keep giving that message once they’re away from you all day at school. The sort of attention you give will change in subtle ways as your child matures and their needs change.

At age five your child will still be keen on cuddles, tickles and hugs. They’ll probably light up with pleasure if you wink, pat them on the shoulder, ruffle their hair or give them a thumbs-up sign. The rituals of saying goodbye at school can be important – a wave as they go in or through the classroom window shows you have them in mind.

Your child will tell you when they want your attention with the ubiquitous cry of “Daddy, Mummy look at me!” or with more subtle approaches to show you their artwork or books.

This isn’t showing off. Your child has asked because they need your approval and their self-esteem is often reflected in the attention you pay to them. Take these opportunities to stop what you’re doing and show your interest.

Get your message across

  • Get up close. This means stopping what you’re doing and going to within arm’s length. If you call out from a distance or from another room, they may not hear your whole message above the chatter and noise around them. They’ll also miss out on other information, such as the look on your face that shows whether you’re serious or joking, and the gestures you use.
  • Use your child’s name first. This will get their attention – people are tuned to hear their own name above most other words – so they know the message is for them. If their name comes last they won’t be sure who you’re talking to and may miss the message. “Joe, come for your bath please,” will work rather better than “Come for your bath please, Joe”.
  • Keep your instructions positive. For example, your child will respond better if you tell them what you want them to do, rather than what you want them to stop doing. Try “Emma, please hang up your coat,” rather than “Emma, don’t drop your coat”.
  • Give your child a chance to respond. Young brains take a few seconds to process what you’ve said and turn it into an action.
  • Keep it simple. Your child can remember only about three subjects in any one sentence. For example, “Tom, please take off your coat, hang it up and then come here,” will usually get a good response. “Tom, take off your coat, get your homework, find the pens, then come here,” will probably be too much.
  • Be clear. It’s good to give choices – this will build your child’s independence. For example, “Sam, would you like beans or spaghetti for dinner?” But don’t ask a question if you’re really giving an instruction. Asking “Could you go to bed now?” invites your child to say no!

More information

Some of the ideas in this article can also be found in the Triple P Positive Parenting Program. Find your nearest practitioner at

BBC Health Claire Halsey