Every interaction with children is a form of communication; it builds and strengthens the relationship between the child and their parents, shapes their emotional and cognitive development but also teaches them how to communicate with others. We communicate daily and do it without thinking – we operate on communication autopilot. This article encourages you to think about how you communicate and gives you ready-to-use strategies to help your child develop communication skills.
Types of Communication
Communication takes several forms and most authors list:
In this article, we'll focus on two types of communication children start developing from the earliest days - verbal and non-verbal. These two are heavily intertwined, especially in face-to-face interactions.
Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
While verbal communication occurs when we engage in speaking with our children, it is more than just using words. It is also about the complexity of those words, how we combine them to create a message, as well as the intonation (pitch, tone, cadence, etc.) we use while speaking. For young infants, how we say words plays a more significant role than the words themselves. Research shows that 5-month-old babies smile when we speak to them in a loving and approving voice and show negative affect in response to prohibitions (1). Interestingly, the language is less relevant. In this specific research, children we exposed to infant-directed (ID) English, nonsense English, German, Italian, Japanese, and adult-directed (AD) English. They showed facial affect in response to ID vocalisations in every language except Japanese.
Infant-directed speech seems to come naturally to mothers and fathers but also to people who don't have children (2). Adults speak more slowly when interacting with young children and use shorter sentences with easy structures. They also repeat themselves a lot and emphasise certain words by uttering them in isolation.
This tells us that young children notice HOW we speak to them even more than WHAT we tell them, which leads us to non-verbal communication.
Non-verbal clues cross paths with what we say in so many instances. It is both intentional and unintentional communication through our body language. What children learn from this type of communication are:
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
- Personal space
- Hand gestures
- Physical touch (e.g. a hug, tap on a shoulder)
Questions for Better Communication
We've already established that how we speak with children matters as they learn communication skills.
Think about the usual conversations with your preschool and school children: Is the TV on? Do you ask questions or just talk? How do you show interest? Which topics are the most common - school, emotions, success, grades, friends, hobbies, etc.?
Teaching communication skills is more than just speaking with your child. It is also about listening and responding to their verbal and non-verbal cues. Finally, it's about getting to know yourself better. Ask yourself these questions to improve your verbal interactions:
- How long can my child focus and pay attention?
- How do they express embarrassment, excitement, sadness, or other emotions?
- Does their voice change when they become upset or excited?
- Am I comfortable talking about everyday topics as much as feelings or bad news?
- Do I wait for my child to finish the sentence or jump in with suggestions and solutions?
- How do I usually react to bad news or inappropriate behaviours?
Learning Communication Skills through Imitation
Numerous studies have found that young children imitate various behaviours. For example, in terms of learning languages, children imitate the sounds of their native language, vocabulary, and communication skills. So if we want our children to learn good communication skills, we must be good role models. And keep in mind that communication is about speaking as much as it is about listening.
- Active listening
Pay attention to what the child is saying. Give them your undivided attention by removing all distractions such as mobile phones, television, emails, etc. Also, paying attention means putting aside distracting thoughts. It might be difficult not to think about problems at work or what you have to prepare before lunch, but this tells our children - I am listening and I hear what you're saying.
- Conveying attention
Use non-verbal clues to show the child that you're hearing what they're saying. As we've mentioned above, these include eye contact and facial expressions. How to use this body language? Look at the child directly and get down to their eye level. Sit or crouch down if necessary. Use facial expressions; smile and nod occasionally. Keep the conversation going by using small verbal comments like "Yes" and "Aha".
Active listening also means showing that we understand the message. Children's vocabulary is often confusing, and their thoughts might be incoherent. To ensure that you really understand what the child is saying, paraphrase what you hear. Simply repeat back what they say using different words.
Model your responses by saying, "If I understood correctly, you're saying that..." "What I'm hearing is..." "Sounds like you're saying that..."
Asking questions will clarify the message but also show your child that you're interested in what they're saying. Use questions to ensure that the message your child sent is the one you heard. For example, "Could you please tell me more about...?" "Why do you think this happened?" "Is this what you're trying to say?"
- Waiting to disclose your opinion
Interrupting won't contribute to communication. Sometimes, offering constructive suggestions before the child has finished can send a different message than intended. It might make the child upset and frustrated because they hear us saying - I know better. I'll tell you what to do. Also, interruptions limit the full understanding of the message. Let your child finish talking and then respond.
- Building on
Keep the conversation going by showing interest in what the child is telling you by saying: This sounds interesting. Tell me more! I'd like to learn more about this. Can we talk more about it? Something similar happened to me when I was your age. How did it make you feel?
Some of the key elements of successful communication include active listening, asking questions, and building on what your child is telling you.
Developing good communication skills helps you build a deeper relationship because it sends the message that you hear and value your child's thoughts and feelings.
Suggested reading on the topic
(1) Fernald, A. (1993). Approval and Disapproval: Infant Responsiveness to Vocal Affect in Familiar and Unfamiliar Languages. Child Development, 64: 657-674. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1993.tb02934.x
(2) Broesch, T. & Bryant, G.A. (2017). Fathers' Infant-Directed Speech in a Small-Scale Society. Child Dev. 27. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12768