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How to Develop Open Communication with Your Child

In communicating with a child, here are some pitfalls parents fall into. Plus how to improve communication with your child.

A parent writes: I can't understand my children. They won't talk to me about anything important. Because they don't open up to me, I find out from their friends' parents, or even from their friends. I know they have worries and problems, but they don't tell my husband and I about them. Don't they trust us?

Communication with Parents Unique for Each Child

The extent to which children disclose their inner thoughts and feelings is a reflection of both their unique identities and the extent to which the environment makes it safe for them to do so. Just like adults, many children withhold and seal over their inner world of worries, fears, and concerns because of their temperaments. They become so accustomed to leaving their parents out of the loop of "what's really going on" that it doesn't even occur to them that they might open up their gates to share.

Others have learned from the past that when parents "know too much," they may use that information in ways that may embarrass them, or create other "problems." For example, they worry that their parents will share private information about them with other adults, such as their friends' parents or teachers, or that they will be punished for revealing something. Another reason for closed mouth kids stems from a kind of picking and probing on the part of parents. Some of us are far too quick to pick up on what we perceive as problems, and then probe for more information to support our discovery. Kids experience this as interrogation; not an atmosphere likely to make them feel safe to share.

How to Communicate with Children

Here are some coaching tips to make for a smoother communication pathway with your children:

Take stock of what is not working.

  • Are you the type that leaps too quickly into the interrogation mode?
  • Is your child still holding a grievance about a past betrayal of their confidence?
  • Do you try to directly bypass your child's "temperamental gates" by asking very direct questions that your child has never really answered before, and probably won't now?

By recognizing how your efforts may be interfering with safe communication you can take steps to correct the situation. Ask your spouse, or perhaps a relative or family friend, for feedback about what they observe between you and your child. Be prepared to accept their observations without defending yourself so that they can feel safe to be honest.

Turn knowledge about your communication pitfalls into humility. Many of us are quick to jump on our kids when they make mistakes but may not humbly admit to our own. Make a point to tell your kids about your errors. Keep in mind that I am not talking about the ones you made as a kid, but the ones you made today, perhaps in your role as a parent. Admitting to problems can leave children feeling vulnerable and exposed, but parents who do likewise can help their kids see this is a natural part of being human. Emphasize that sharing such stories helps people let go of some of the hurt and embarrassment that stays inside when you hold it in. Demonstrate sharing within the family by opening up new areas for discussion, perhaps about your own doubts or insecurities that your children have not seen you reveal in the past. Emphasize how this is a way of getting input from others on how to solve problems or prevent them from happening again.

The importance of being quiet cannot be overstated. Although we hold the best intentions, sometimes our biggest mistake is opening up our mouths. The most innocent sounding comment from a parent can sound like a judgment or criticism to a sensitive child or adolescent. On occasion, our children only want to tell us about their lives and are not looking for us to "fix" anything or draw conclusions. Some of us fall into the trap of trying so hard to prevent our own fears from coming true that our kids withhold any information that might be picked up by our "worry radar." Be careful not to let your worries about future outcomes make you sound like you have absolutely no confidence in your child's ability to steer themselves in the right directions in life.

Don't wait too long to build a deeper communication bond. The older the child, the harder it is to make substantive changes in your relationship with him or her. Try to make inroads before adolescence hits, but if he or she is already there, your ability to be a nonjudgmental and humble listener can turn things around. Even though the gates will often be closed, don't stop knocking, and don't give up. You never know when your child's decision to volunteer information may even save their life.

About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2010, May 18). How to Develop Open Communication with Your Child, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/the-parent-coach/how-to-develop-an-open-communication-with-your-child

Last Updated: May 29, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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