If you want to be heard, you first need to be prepared!

Communicating with your child and managing your expectations

Many of us have had the experience of talking to our child and not getting a timely response or a response at all. How many times have you asked the same question, repeatedly, to a young child without receiving an answer? And then we repeat it again. All sorts of thoughts may go through our mind, like 'did the child not listen to us?', 'Did the child not understand us?', 'Is the child hiding something and refusing to speak?'; Is the child being disrespectful and not providing us with an answer?

As the parent or carer of a child, we have a responsibility to understand the child’s perspective as well, sometime pre-emptively as, due to their developmental stage, there are some natural limitations in their abilities.

Here we would like to highlight some of the reasons we may be getting responses from our child that do not fulfil our need to be listened too. By understanding these, we can manage our expectations and make sure we help to create messages that will be clear and ensure that the quality of our communication matches our children’s capabilities. At the end of this article you can see simplified schematic of the different processes forming two-way communication, i.e. sharing of information from the parent to the child and back to the parent (Processes of Two-way communication).

Step 1. Prepare your message

A prepared message is always going to be clearer and easier to understand compared to one we deliver on the spot. When we are preparing our message, there are many things we will need to take into consideration, including ourselves, our child and the environment we will be delivering the message to.

A great rubric we can use is the 7 C’s of Communication. Complete; Concise; Clear; Concrete; Correct; Courteous; and to wrap it all up, Considered (see What can we do to improve the quality of our communications with the children and How understandable is our message by our child?)

Step 2. Get child’s attention

For most part of the day, children fully engage with activities. Children of 2-3 years of age focus on one activity and still find it difficult to shift their attention when spoken to. Children at around 3-4 years begin to control their own focus of attention and can shift this between an activity and then us when we speak to them, and at 4-5 years, they can now move their attention between an activity and a speaker without stopping to look at them. If we need to communicate with the child, we have to understand that many times we are interrupting the child’s focus, and that they may not want to be interrupted. We should take the above in consideration before we interrupt and make sure we have their full attention before communicating our message.

Step 3. Deliver message

Your message delivery is as important as the message itself. When communicating, make sure that the emotion, tone and cadence the message is delivered with matches the message you want to send. If your tone and emotion are intense for something that does not require it, your child will find it difficult to listen to the message amongst all the angst. On the other hand, if your delivery does not have the high intensity a situation requires, i.e. your child runs out onto the street and you deliver your message in a nonchalant manner, the urgency of the message will not be delivered correctly. (also see Setting the stage and delivery)

Step 4. Allow time for the child to respond

Any message, no matter how simple we feel it is for us, is much more complicated for the child. Children have a limited vocabulary; they may not have had experience with different meanings of a particular word; and we can be very ambiguous with our use of language. These factors will increase the child’s processing time of our message. Further, the child has to form and deliver their response. Considering that their communication abilities do not yet match their thinking abilities, this will add a further delay in their response. It is important to give a child upwards of 5 seconds to respond, more if our message is more complex, or if the child is younger. For some children, we may have to wait 10-20 seconds for them to understand and respond.

Step 5. Listen

Invariably, your child’s message may be muddled, unclear, grammatically incorrect, or many other things. Human language is a very complex process, either we look at the physical level of how we produce speech, or the actual language itself. We grow into adults, and we still have the odd slip of the tongue and almost always perfectly communicate our thoughts and emotions. Allow the child to make mistakes and do not correct them mid-sentence (see Now it is down to the child to think of their response). Be compassionate and understand that we do our best thinking when we talk, and it is our first time we hear those specific thoughts out aloud. So, we make mistakes, our thoughts are not always expressed in words with the clarity and fidelity we wish, and that is many times worse for the children who have yet to be comfortable in the art of thinking and the complex biomechanics of speaking.

Step 6. Be prepared to repeat or clarify our message

If we need to repeat our message, try to repeat it exactly as you delivered it the first time. Any new information will require the message to be analysed again causing further delays. If you need to clarify your message, make sure you know which part needs clarification, clarify it and repeat the entire sentence again exactly as before.