Communicating with Children

“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

Edwin Friedman’s quote (above) outlines a reality of communication – there is much more than mere syntax when two people engage in the process of exchanging messages. It is often complex, and most importantly, dependant (the outcome) upon each individual’s cultural, social and emotional background, and the context in which the message is being delivered (or received).

In this context, this article will tackle a common scenario which conjures a high dose of disparity between cultural, social and emotional backgrounds within the communication process: communicating with children.

Erikson’s Stages

One of the critical aspects of working with parents is encouraging them to develop an understanding of what behaviours are typically expected of a child from a particular age range. Overzealous expectations do little but create frustration or even a sense of failure in the minds of parents and their children alike.

Erik Erikson outlined an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development. Each stage is characterised by a challenge to construct and reinforce a positive sense of self through interactions with others. According to Erikson, failure to complete each stage results in a reduced capacity to complete further stages and therefore a less robust development of self:

Trust vs. Mistrust (age: 0-1)

In infancy, children learn the ability to trust based upon the consistency of their caregivers to provide comfort and meet their needs. Successful completion of this stage sees the child develop confidence and security in the world around them. Unsuccessful completion can result in an inability to trust and a greater propensity toward anxiety and insecurity.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (age: 1 – 3)

Children begin to assert their independence at this stage. If this is encouraged and supported by caregivers, children are likely to feel more secure in their own abilities and capacity to survive on their own. If children are overly criticised or controlled at this stage they may develop doubt in their own abilities and a tendency toward dependency on others.

Initiative vs. Guilt (age: 3 – 6)

As children begin to make decisions and instigate activities, the opportunity to foster initiative is provided to caregivers. Successful completion of this stage sees a child develop self-initiative and the ability to lead others. Alternatively, if this stage is heavily controlled or discouraged, children may feel guilty, shy away from leadership and develop a preference for following others.

Industry vs. Inferiority (age: 6 – Adolescence)

This stage is characterised by the completion of projects and developing a sense of pride in accomplishments. If children are reinforced for their achievements, they are likely to feel industrious. If on the other hand, children are not encouraged, or encouragement is restricted they are likely to develop a sense of inferiority and doubt in their abilities.

Identity vs. Role Confusion (age: Adolescence – Early adulthood)

During adolescence, children become more independent. They explore possibilities in terms of values, plans and priorities. They begin to form an identity based on the outcomes of these explorations. The results of this stage are frequently influenced by the outcome of earlier stages. For example, a child with a weak sense of autonomy (due to unsuccessful completion of autonomy vs. shame and doubt) is not likely to engage in the active exploration required to see possibilities and choose among various options.

Intimacy vs. Isolation (age: Early – Middle adulthood)

A shift away from self toward the establishment of intimacy in personal relationships, typifies this stage. An ability to connect and establish commitment characterises the successful completion of this stage. Avoidance of intimacy and commitment on the other hand is likely to lead to isolation and loneliness.

Generativity vs. Stagnation (age: Middle – Late adulthood)

At this stage, commitment begins to expand beyond intimate relationships to include community, family and society. Successful completion of this stage is characterised by an adult whose need for self-expression and personal achievement is combined with the welfare of society at large. This results in a capacity to care for others in a broader way than ever before. Unsuccessful completion of this stage may lead to self-centredness, self-indulgence and ultimately stagnation.

Ego Integrity vs. Despair (age: Late adulthood)

In this stage, we are likely to begin reflecting on the accomplishments and achievements of our life. We develop a sense of integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life. Despair may occur at this stage if we feel as though we have made irreversible decisions that have damaged our sense of integrity.

Erikson’s stages provide one perspective of development across the lifespan. Many other theorists have proposed variations along a similar theme. Developing, fostering and maintaining an open, trusting and committed relationship is the foundation of effective parenting. This kind of relationship is established through regular honest and respectful communication.

First, consider the mechanisms that parents may employ to establish an open channel of communication between themselves and their children. By combining appropriate language with useful non-verbal messages, parents can establish a process of two-way communication that effectively clears the common misunderstandings between parents and their children.

Furthermore, effective communication forms the basis of effective discipline. Consider a variety of disciplinary strategies and learn the process of implementing effective rewards and consequences.

Effective Communication

Learning to communicate with children is the cornerstone of effective parenting. Children have a desire to be heard and understood just as adults do.

Active listening is a critical tool for communicating effectively with children. Eye contact, body language, ‘being heard’ gestures and waiting until the other person has stopped talking before saying anything are all useful skills to help you connect with a child in conversation.

‘Being heard’ gestures

‘Being heard’ gestures show that you are paying attention to a child in conversation. Gestures such as nodding from time to time while they are speaking and showing appropriate facial expressions contribute to the child’s perception that you are listening.

In addition, showing a child that you understand by validating and normalising his or her feelings is an important way to convey listening.


Imagine that you are speaking with a child (Claire – age 6) about her day at school. Claire received an award for spelling and she is very excitedly describing the moment to you. A parent could easily respond with the any one of the following statements, but only one of these will make the child feel truly heard.

  • Smiling, maintaining eye contact and nodding
  • Offering your hand in a gesture of congratulatory “high five”
  • Sighing and murmuring “Hmmm.”
  • Nodding and saying: “Your brother, Peter, is good at spelling too”

Six Ways to Improve Communication

Source – Grisdale, M., Carter, J. & Morton-Evans, M. (2005). Why won’t my child listen? Sydney: Simon & Schuster (p. 132).

First, really listen to what your child is saying without formulating an opinion or making a judgement. Just stay in neutral.

Then listen to the emotions behind your child’s talk and respond appropriately without trying to solve or teach anything.

Recognise your children frequently by stopping to play a little game with them or sitting down to do a drawing. It need only last two minutes and they do appreciate it! This is a powerful tool, guaranteed to cut down on whining and demanding behaviour.

Take time to tell your children stories. Children love stories, especially true ones about Mummy and Daddy. It is a great way to open the lines of communication. As your children grow older, encourage them to think for themselves by not immediately rushing to solve every problem. Ask them how they might solve it first.

Always tell children the truth. If you lie to them and they find out, the damage done is far greater than in the same situation with an adult. If you want a child to communicate openly with you, then you must be open with them. Children are brighter than you think

Ask them what they are feeling and ask for their opinions. This is how children learn to form opinions and express feelings, and at the same time come to believe that their opinions are worth something.