5 Positive Tips to Improve Communication with Children
How parents and kids can communicate better
On 9 October 2021—to celebrate Children’s Day in Singapore—we held a special webinar with BigV SG titled “Better Communication for Parents and Kids“. This post recaps the event with 5 really useful takeaways.
Leading the seminar were:
- Our very own CEO, Dr. Woo Yen Yen, who holds a doctorate in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College and was also a tenured professor in the field of education;
- Dr. Chao-Hsiang Hung, who teaches psychology at National Taiwan University of the Arts, and is also resident education psychologist at MangaChat, a K-12 platform for socio-emotional learning.
Supporting the two doctors was our quick-draw cartoonist Colin Goh, who was making cartoon summaries of the discussion.
The questions came fast and furious in the seminar, but there was an overarching theme:
How can we be better, calmer, saner parents when our kids are driving us crazy?
We’ve summarised the points into 5 positive communication strategies that will help to keep our kids talking while also reducing parenting stress.
Positive Communication Tip #1:
Provide Alternative Solutions
In our story, “Uh-Oh!” 《糟糕！》(available to read on the Dim Sum Warriors App), Papa Bao is desperately trying to get Baozi to school on time, but Baozi is always saying, “Uh-Oh!” because he’s forgotten one thing or another. Naturally, this leads to Papa Bao getting increasingly impatient and angry.
Dr. Hung praised one thing that Papa Bao did in the story – he asked his son, “Should we adjust the alarm clock so you get up 15 minutes earlier”? So he suggests:
Always try to offer alternative solutions to the problem instead of simply getting angry.
Such a great idea! I know that, because my daughter used to have the same problem with getting out the door, and then have to double-back to grab something she’d forgotten. (A lot of our stories are inspired by true events. 😅)
So we worked together on a checklist that we pasted on the front door, so she could do a quick scan to see if she has remembered everything before stepping out. This became a habit, and she now rarely forgets things. On the other hand, I think I need a front door checklist of my own…
Positive Communication Tip #2:
Focus On the Behavior, Don’t Use Negative Labels
Because emotions do not recognize “time”, whenever we get highly emotional, our brain dredges up memories of all the previous times we had similar feelings, and we experience them all over again. That’s why we often utter hurtful labels like “you are always so” lazy, careless, messy, forgetful, (fill in your favourite here), etc.
While understandable, over time, these can have a negative impact on our children’s self esteem or self worth.
This is because if repeated often, your kid will start taking on the label as his or her identity – “I am always lazy, careless, messy, forgetful, etc.”
We should take ourselves out of the heat of the situation and view the moment in isolation. So we are not behaving like an Actor experiencing all these feelings, but rather as a member of the Audience witnessing the incident.
This way, we can be calmer and more rational and see the infraction as the behavior at that moment, and not tied to an entire series of infractions.
Dr. Hung talks about this as pulling the emotional string that unravels the whole 肉粽 (bak chang in Hokkien and ròu zòng in Mandarin) rice dumpling. I laughed so hard at the food analogy. (I also love “bak changs”.)
In other words, focus on the behavior at specific moment—“You forgot to pick up your dirty clothes” as opposed to “You are always so forgetful and messy.”
This also provides kids an opportunity to correct the error; whereas if they perceive it as a permanent label, then there is the risk they will give up on trying to correcting the behaviour, since “Well, that’s just what I am.”
Positive Communication Tip #3:
Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings
One parent brought up how it made her sad to see her child really experiencing frustration with homework, which also seemed endless.
Dr. Hung recommends that we first acknowledge and recognize our children’s negative feelings. (After all, we parents have them too.)
After that, we should actually make some decisions about what we value as parents—which may be hard.
So, for example, if we acknowledge that homework is truly a struggle for our children, this is something we CAN discuss with our children’s teachers – to see if the work can be different or more suited to our children’s capacities.
Remember: spending all their time on homework also means our children will run out of the time to explore their own interests and grow in more self-defined ways.
We should at least try to find a solution that does not dismiss our kids’ feelings.
I experienced this myself when my daughter entered the 4th grade in her Taiwanese primary school, and I saw her getting frustrated with homework occupying so much of her time after school. This was compounded by the fact that we had only just relocated from New York and she had just started learning Chinese from scratch, and in the traditional script at that.
So I went to speak with her teacher, explaining that she could only afford an hour of homework a day, otherwise it would crowd out all the other things that she wanted to learn and try or which were interesting to her. Her teachers actually worked with me to make sure that she didn’t have too much homework, and that she could finish most of it in school with the teacher’s help.
This has led to very positive results. My daughter became a lot more focused on her homework, as she knew that she only had to do it for one solid hour, and after that, would have the freedom to pursue her own creations and ideas.
It was a solution that first emerged from acknowledging her feelings, rather than just dismissing them as trivial or just something all the other kids have to endure.
Positive Communication Tip #4
Find Out The Motivation for Your Child’s Behavior
A parent asked about how to deal with pre-teen child starting to talk back to her parents.
Of course, we know from many families that this is not uncommon, nevertheless, this can create quite a lot of family stress.
Dr. Hung explains that for every kind of behavior that children exhibit, there’s always a motivation or reason. Sometimes it’s a call for attention, sometimes it’s an expression of questioning identity.
An important goal in positive communication is to:
Find out the underlying motivation for the behavior rather than trying to stop the behavior superficially.
Pre-teens talking back are often an indication that they are beginning to question their place in the world and what their future will be like.
So getting angry at their talking back is an empty reaction, and does not address the very natural impulse to question the point of one’s existence.
That’s not to say you have to provide a definitive answer to their questions about the meaning of life. That’s something every individual has to grapple with on their own.
But what can help is finding time when you’re doing casual activities together—sharing a car ride, folding clothes together, having a meal, etc—and just talk about the questions your kids might be asking about life or the world. And you can broach the subject obliquely by, say, talking about a TV show you’ve seen or book you’ve read.
The discussion will provide a better understanding of what’s beneath the “talking back”. It is usually not about rebellion per se, but about trying out new identities as they try to evolve their own selves.
Positive Communication Tip #5:
Talk Less, Listen More
When children come to us with strong emotions – whether it’s being super excited, upset or worried – try NOT to respond with:
💥 orders or threats (“Stop behaving like that or I’ll take away your iPad!”) because they automatically incite resistance. And nobody needs to add more drama!
💥 dismissals of their concern or anxiety (“Oh, you’re just getting worried about nothing! The solution is so simple!”), because it can make kids feel foolish for bringing such trivial situations to us in the first place. When that happens, they may stop sharing their concerns with us altogether, or only tell us news they think we want to hear.
Hear them out, acknowledge their feelings and involve them in finding solutions.
Here’s a handy drama-reducing strategy for when kids are highly emotional.
1. Give them a chance to say what they feel—in full. Avoid interruptions, dismissals or quick suggestions. Listen closely. Maybe even take notes.
2. Repeat and summarize what they have told you, and ask them whether you have understood them correctly.
3. Acknowledge their emotions—”I can see that you’re upset/anxious/angry, etc.”
4. Ask them if they have any ideas that could solve the problem. Often, they actually have some sense of things that can be done, but are too swept up in the emotion and drama.
5. Offer your suggestions only after they have given their suggestions/ideas.
In this way, we are acknowledging their feelings and intelligence, while also helping them become independent.
This, of course, is a highly condensed edition of the webinar, which covered even even more topics. By the end, the audience was asking for more such sessions—and we’re definitely planning them!
To be notified about upcoming sessions, please go HERE and register. You’ll not only be signed up for our mailing list, but you’ll also get access to our award-winning Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Comic App, which contains many stories that provide wonderful opportunities to discuss the socio-emotional issues that affect children’s lives.