How to Talk to Kids: The Basics
Does your child respond to questions about their day with nothing but a shrug? Does it seem like they aren’t listening to you? Your approach may need a little fine-tuning. Read our guide on how to talk to kids, improve their communication skills, and encourage good behavior.
Try Self Talk or Parallel Talk
For very young children, especially those with speech delays or language delays, modeling communication is key. Narrating what you’re doing (self-talk) or describing your child’s actions (parallel talk) can go a long way toward reinforcing language development. For example, you could outline the steps of unpacking the groceries: “I’m taking the lemons out of the bag. Now I am putting them in the fridge.” If your daughter is drawing a picture, you can comment on the colors she’s using.
Keep It Short and Sweet
If you’re trying to talk to kids in an engaging way, time is of the essence. Children have short attention spans and little patience for parental rambling. Deliver instructions succinctly, using their name to get their attention, and avoid going on tangents. Put your main directive in the first sentence and try to stay positive.
“Hey, no running in the house!”➡ “Inside, we walk. Outside, you can run.” “You’d better pick up those toys.”➡ “Pick up those toys, please.”
Listen to Them
If you brush off your child’s excitement about their newest Squishmallow or refuse to look up from your phone when they tell you about their spelling test, you’re not sending a good message about communication. Instead, model some active listening skills. Make eye contact with your child, pay attention when they speak, and respond to the points they make.
Ask the Right Questions
Many parents make the mistake of pelting their kids with questions while still in the pickup line. If your child has ever responded to “What did you do at school today?” with “I don’t know,” you’re not alone. While some children feel overwhelmed by a barrage of questions, others don’t quite have the expressive ability required for open-ended asks. When a child is still learning the basics of language, “What did you do today?” is a tall order. They have to reflect on their day, choose the highlights, and summarize it for you.
Instead, ask simple questions like these to encourage conversation:
- “What did you like better today, snack time or fingerpainting?”
- “Who did you play with at recess?”
- “Was today a good day or a bad day?”
Present Them With Choices
Giving children choices empowers them to take control of their lives. By letting your child decide what you’ll read or when they’ll take a bath, you’re teaching them to make good choices later in life. There’s also the added benefit of ownership—they don’t see getting dressed as the worst thing in the world if they get to pick what they wear. You can present effective choices by following these guidelines.
- Only give a choice when one truly exists. For example, your child must hold your hand while crossing the street. Rules like this should not be up for negotiation.
- Don’t overload them with options. Start by laying out two or three possibilities.
- Use this sparingly and during more challenging moments, like transitions between activities. Offering choices about every facet of bedtime—which stuffed animal they’ll sleep with, whether they want a glass of water before bed, which pajamas they want to wear—can derail your usual processes.
Give Them Enough Time to Try
It’s tempting to swoop in and save the day when your child is struggling. You may feel compelled to fill in the blanks and grab the toy they’re asking for before they can fully articulate what they need. You might also want to interrupt mid-sentence when they’re trying to remember a word. When learning how to talk to kids, letting them try is paramount. Resist the urge to pelt them with prompts, questions, or synonyms. Instead, take a pause and give them a moment to attempt communication.
Encourage Them With Sincere Compliments
Finally, be sure you’re reinforcing all the great strides your child makes on a daily basis! When they’re telling you a story, say things to let them know you’re listening. When they exhibit behaviors you’re proud of, offer meaningful praise. The more you reward them, the more excited they’ll be about learning, growing, and exploring.
Helping Your Child Thrive
At Project Play Therapy, we help children of all ages to reach their full potential. Our offerings include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavior therapy, feeding therapy, psychoeducational evaluations, and music therapy. To improve your communication with your child and empower them to reach crucial milestones, contact our office.