One of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do in your parenting is learn how to communicate with your kid. Communication in and of itself has never been easy, but add an age gap, youthful angst, and a budding vocabulary, and you might find yourself feeling like you’ll never get it right, that you and your child will always be in a perpetual state of misunderstanding each other.
That feeling is totally understandable. Most of us either haven’t learned or truly practiced what real communication is—an exchanging of ideas in a safe environment where everyone feels heard and, hopefully, understood. For many of us, the process of communicating can feel downright uncomfortable, leaving us fleeing from awkward conversations or responding in ways we aren’t proud of.
But here’s our chance to get it right. Now, with our kids, is an opportunity to shape what true communication is in the next generation. We have the power to raise kids who are not only confident enough to express themselves and communicate their needs, but also to nurture compassionate listeners. In each phase, your kid’s communication style will be different. Here are some ways you can best communicate with your kid, no matter the phase they’re in:
In the preschool phase, your kid is learning what they can do, whom they can trust, and exploring the depths of their emotions. It’s important to establish yourself early as a safe place for your kid to express themselves. The way you communicate in this phase should convey that you’re not afraid of their big feelings and that you’re going to stay right there while they express them.
Empathy is the name of the game here: While their feelings seem blown way out of proportion to you, that blueberry you accidentally dropped down the garbage disposal was important to them, and you should respond as such. Affirm their feelings in that moment with understanding, using words like, “You didn’t want that to happen” or “That didn’t turn out the way you’d planned.” Then, follow up with affection and remind them you’re here to listen if they want to talk.
Phase: Elementary school
When your kid enters elementary school, you’ll start to notice how much they crave having your attention. If you had a dollar for every time your kid said, “Look at me! Watch this!” you’d likely be sitting on the deck of your very own yacht by now. It’s also during this phase, particularly in second and third grades, that your kid starts to compare themselves to others.
When communicating with your elementary schooler, it’s important to get down on their eye level when talking to them and give them your full, undivided attention. Resist the urge to multitask in this moment—eye contact can go a long way in this phase. When you talk, make sure you start a conversation off with praise for their efforts, reminding them what a good kid they are and using words like, “You should be so proud of yourself when you . . .” Be sure to give them space to express their views without judgment before expressing your own.
Phase: Middle school
Once your kid becomes a middle schooler, you might’ve noticed a little—ahem, a lot of—resistance on the communication front. You’re not alone: It’s during this phase when your kid is fighting to discover their unique identity, and this is often not without a bump against authority, namely you.
While they may appear bold and confident, it’s likely a façade. At this phase, your kid is second-guessing everything, asking themselves where they fit in the world and among their peers. So, the best thing you can do in this phase is perfect your listening skills. Your kids will have a lot of feelings—ones they may or may not want to share with you. But once they do share, know that moment is really important. Affirm who they are, and remind them of their strength and capability.
This is also a great time to call in reinforcements and invite other caring adults into your kid’s life. While this may be hard to hear, your kid might not always feel comfortable talking to you about what’s on their mind and heart. Just make sure to have someone you both trust waiting in the wings to step in with wisdom and understanding.
Phase: High school
In the high school phase, what’s top of mind for your kid is finding a place to belong and living their purpose. During their sophomore year in particular, your kid is clarifying their values, but it often comes off as rebellion and counterarguments. As difficult as communicating may seem in this phase, your kid needs to hear from you that you trust them, that you’re listening, and that you love them, no matter what.
This phase is also marked with a huge transition for your kid: They’ll be leaving home soon. No doubt, your kid is feeling so many things all at once, and likely, fear is the predominant emotion. When communicating, make sure you’re conveying how much you love your kid and that you are their partner in whatever’s to come next. While many things feel uncertain, their place at home will always be something they can count on.
Learning to communicate well is hard, yet important work. And while you may not get it right all the time, know your effort and your desire to understand your child and be understood by them makes you a great parent.