Expert Opinion

Communicating positively with young children

As a psychologist, I’m often asked how to change the behaviour of toddlers and preschoolers – with parents wanting to know what to do when their children don’t listen, are destructive, aggressive or simply following their own agenda. 
However, as a parent, I know many of us can get to the end of the day and feel like a vast majority of the interactions we’ve had with our kids have been in some way negative. If we listened to a voice recording summarising the day, we’d probably hear a lot of sentences starting with “don’t” and “no”! While this is a common experience, what I know as a psychologist is that we are not likely to make a huge impact on changing our child’s behaviour by communicating with them in this way.

So, what’s the answer to helping our kids to do less of the stuff we don’t want and more of the listening? The secret is largely to do with changing how we are communicating with our kids in the first place. Here are a few of the communication strategies I’ve used successfully in my practice with parents over the past 15 years:

  • Positively phrase your instructions to your kids: this means, you focus on what to do rather than what not to do. So instead of “don’t eat that icy pole on the couch”, you would say “remember we eat icy poles at the table”. When we positively phrase our instructions, we leave less room for error as our kids get a clear idea of our expectations and what they should be doing instead. When we start with “don’t” or “no”, we are expecting our kids to problem solve and generate a better solution on the spot, which many won’t have the capacity to do at a young age.
  • Keep check of the content: at the end of the day, we want to have had more positive interactions with our children than negative. So, make sure you have a heap of positive comments in your repertoire such as “wow, I love how you’re so creative” or “you really enjoy jumping on the trampoline, don’t you.” This will help balance out those times when we need to give critical feedback to our toddlers.
  • Take note of your tone: while research varies, somewhere between 50% and 90% of our communication is nonverbal. Our tone (the way we say things) impacts the meaning and consequently how our children interpret it. Remember to use a kind tone with your kids, even when you are taking charge as the parent. This helps the interaction to be less emotional and increases the chances that your child will learn from it, as their brains can’t manage new information very easily when they become emotionally heightened.
  • Connect with your kids meaningfully when you’re speaking with them: get down to their level physically and make eye contact. This lets them know they have your full attention, and it also helps you notice if you’ve got their full attention. If you’re correcting them or offering feedback, it becomes more meaningful and less intimidating.
  • Don’t over-correct: yes, it is tempting to correct the mistakes of our kids or even jump in and take over when they’re trying something new. Developmentally, young kids need to be given the chance to feel independent and successful. If they’re over-criticised, they can develop self-doubt and become overly dependent on others because they believe they can’t do a good enough job.

Fundamentally, the way we communicate with our little ones will impact not only their behaviour, but also their emotional regulation, social skills, independence and self-esteem. By noticing and making small and manageable changes in how we are interacting with our kids, we can have a lasting positive impact on their development. 

So a quick recap: remember to positively phrase feedback, keep your tone kind, stay calm, get down to their physical level and be patient and encouraging while your littlies learn. Good luck!

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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