I find myself barking at and ordering Jennifer all the time. I don’t know how or why it happens, but she doesn’t seem to take what I say seriously. Sometimes I wonder if she hears me at all. Where did I go wrong? I don’t talk like that to other people. Am I a bad mother? I wish we could just get along a bit better.

Key points

  • Let them talk. This will help them figure out things themselves.
  • Sometimes you can use dolls or stories to model ideas.
  • Consider alternate ways of communication, but do so with care.
  • Speak to them like you would want to be spoken to.

Go fishing

Communicating with your child is like big-game fishing. We should let them talk, stretch them out, let more and more content  come out of their mouths before we start putting it all together (just like a fisherman will let a marlin stretch out the line, before eventually reeling them back to the boat).

It’s a ‘tell me more’ approach. Come thee hither. Prompts like ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘What do you think Sally thinks about what you just said?’ help this stretching out happen. Even short prompts like ‘Really?’ or non-verbal prompts like nodding or raising eyebrows can ‘kick’ the conversation along. The longer the better.

Don’t go in too hard (machine gun questions) or too corny (echoing everything they say), but ask focused questions where needed and demonstrate a genuine desire to hear what they have to say.

What is their point of view?

This is ‘the big tease’.

The more they describe a problem or dilemma, the more they extend the conversation, the more likely they are going to figure out what they need to do to sort it themselves. If they do so, it’s so much better than if we had rushed to solution and provided them the answer. They thought of the solution themselves (with a little help from us) rather than having it delivered on a plate. We are showing them how to think.

In emotionally complex situations, we can also consider less direct methods, such as using dolls, or stories to model ideas (this is why these techniques are often used by police and social workers to talk to children being interviewed about child abuse), or even notes or letters to older children.

Another option is to use alternative ways of communicating the message (a glance, an action, an SMS/email/social network message) to deliver factual information without emotional baggage (but choose your words carefully here as such messages also can be misinterpreted without any covering  emotional context).


It may sound strange, but respect should always be paramount when communicating with your child. Speak to them like you would want to be spoken to. Accept and guide, don’t constantly correct and judge. If we are speaking to them and have some emotional baggage we want to unload, try to do this in controlled way, and not explode. Vent slowly!

You can also ask permission to say something emotional before you say it — this softens the blow (‘Alessandra, can I tell you something important?’ She nods. ‘I am getting quite frustrated that you’ve been watching TV all afternoon and still haven’t done your school work which is due tomorrow.’).

We need to remember that children are learning this stuff, and they may have trouble understanding what we mean the first time around.

We should also listen to them with respect.

If we listen carefully and show them we are interested in what they have to say, they will feel valued in our eyes.

If we fail to speak and listen to our child with respect, this can lead to problems in our relationship with them.

As Cat Stevens sang in ‘Father and Son’;  From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.