If you have kids, you’ve probably wondered if there is a better way to communicate with them to transform the frustrating dynamic into a smoother, more amiable one that ends with both parties understanding each other better. Though communication methods differ across families and cultures, the styles can still be grouped into three categories: passive, aggressive, and assertive communication.
This communication method tends to be gentle, with parents generally avoiding discipline or assertiveness. Passively parented children have little guidance on how to behave and miss out on learning the boundaries and behaviors they need to function well in society.
Parents who use aggressive communication often rely on scare tactics like yelling, shaming, scolding, and punitive action to achieve a sense of control over their children. These children become fearful and lack trust in their parents, which can drive a wedge into their relationship.
As the most effective method of communicating with children, assertive communication involves being gentle yet firm, confident, positive, consistent, and clear in your words and decisions. It creates a respectful and safe atmosphere for both parties, where children are more likely to communicate and listen to their parents.
There are plenty of things we can do to improve how we speak to our kids in a way that will encourage them to listen and open up to us. No child is the same, and age has an impact on the way kids listen and speak. Whether you’re a parent of toddlers, teens, or in-betweens, we’ve laid out 20 tips on having more assertive and more effective conversations with children of all ages to help bridge the gap between child and parent.
It might seem silly to include this, but using your child’s name is an effective tool for catching their attention. Try to say your child's name until they look at you, then speak to or instruct them. This directness helps your child focus on you and be more receptive to what you have to say.
Establishing eye contact while speaking with your child is an important way to catch and hold their attention. Not only that, it shows your child that they have your undivided attention — and that they should reciprocate by doing the same. Eye contact is best while sitting together at a table as it allows both people to get comfortable. The same tip goes for giving any instruction:
It might be uncomfortable at first, but you can put them (and yourself) at ease with a smile or a kind word before beginning the conversation.
Always consider your child’s feelings when speaking with them. Be aware of how they’re reacting. If you sense they feel uncomfortable or sad, remind them that you are here and you love them. Or, if you sense they are starting to get annoyed, ask if they need a break before resuming the conversation. Children in emotional distress are less likely to listen actively. And they're people, too — give them the respect and consideration you give to other adults or friends.
Often, when a child gets a “no” from one parent and a “yes” from another, it can be confusing and show your child that you’re not firm in your decision-making, which may lead them to push more boundaries in the future. One way to remedy this is to unite with the other parent and determine decisions together before telling your child.
Suppose you tell your child they aren’t allowed to watch TV on school days; strive to remain firm in this decision and follow through. They may protest or become upset, but over time, your child will have more respect for your choices and be less prone to pitting one parent against the other or even whining until they get what they want.
Sudden commands could be frustrating for your child. Whether that’s turning off the television, leaving the playground, or cleaning up the toys before bed, your child is bound to feel momentarily stunned or caught off guard if they’re told they have to stop what they’re doing immediately (especially if it’s an activity they find fun). This might elicit behaviors such as whining, crying, or even tantrums. Try giving your child some time to transition between tasks to soften the blow. For example, you might tell your child he has five minutes left of playtime before he needs to begin cleaning up. This will give your child time to mentally and emotionally prepare to end his current activity.
The value of a one-on-one conversation with your child is truly priceless, especially if you have multiple children of differing ages. Children have different capacities for understanding and speaking at different ages, so it’s important to find time to talk to each of them personally. This allows you to meet them where they are developmentally while strengthening your relationship through quality time. You might choose to have this chat while going for a drive with your teen to pick up some food, painting with your six-year-old, or eating ice cream with your ten-year-old. An unstructured, one-on-one conversation keeps children at ease and more willing to talk and connect with you.
Similar to being more positive, incorporating “I” messages makes your child view the issue at hand from an impersonal lens. This allows them to bring down their defenses and be more willing to listen. For example, instead of saying, “Clean up your room. It’s so messy,” you might say, “I’d like you to tidy up your room, please.” Another way to practice “I” messages is by talking about your feelings on the matter. Instead of saying, “get away from the stairs!” consider saying, “I feel scared when you play so close to the stairs because you could fall and get hurt. Please stay away from them.”
Fortify your daily conversations and one-on-chats with open-ended questions encouraging your children to think, share their feelings, formulate their own opinions, and problem-solve. Open-ended questions require more than a yes or no answer and require a little more patience and thinking on your part. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” try asking, “What stood out to you in science class today?” Respond to their answers in a way that shows your interest, such as saying, “Oh, you’re right. That does sound hard!” Combine this tip with eye contact and using their name so they know they have your full attention and want theirs in return.
In conjunction with open-ended questioning, utilize inquiry-based listening. This involves responding to your child in a way that invites more detail and conversation on their part. For example, if your child has come to you with an issue involving their friends, avoid immediately providing advice to resolve the matter quickly. Dig through this problem with them by asking more questions. Respond with questions and statements such as, “how did you feel when your friend didn’t speak to you at lunch?”, “what happened after?” or “do you think maybe he had a bad day?” These inquiry-based responses show that you’re paying attention, caring, and, most importantly, making time for them.
Lessen both of your frustrations by ensuring your child understands what you’re saying. You can simply ask your child to summarize or repeat what you’ve said to them. The answer will be pretty clear right away. If they haven’t understood you, ensure you have their attention using eye contact and gently but firmly repeat yourself. For example, if you’ve asked your child to gather their toys, make their bed, and put away their shoes in one breath, they might meet you with a glassy-eyed stare. Try establishing eye contact and saying, “Melissa, did you understand what I asked you to do? No? Okay, let me tell you again, and then you can tell me what you’ll do first.” This clear direction ensures your child understands the tasks they need to complete and engages them in the conversation rather than just being told what to do.
You should make any instruction you give your child as simple as possible. A long-winded command with multiple steps is bound to confuse them or be forgotten. This is especially true for younger children. Instead, try breaking it up into reasonable segments or steps. What’s reasonable depends on their age and maturity, so it’s best to start by telling them to do one or two things at a time. Only once they’ve completed your previous request should you move on to the next one. Remember to show your child the respect, kindness, and consideration you’d offer to anyone else when giving instructions. For example, “Hey, do you think you can do me a big favor and put your books back on the shelf?”
While important, rules and regulations can overshadow the big picture. If your child puts a toe out of line now and then, it’s better to show mercy and compassion rather than quickly doling out a consequence. Use these minor mistakes as opportunities to connect with your child. Ask open-ended questions and employ inquiry-based listening.
Suppose they let go of a balloon after you’ve told them to hang onto it. In that case, it may make a more significant difference in your relationship (and their understanding of why rules exist) to discuss why they did it and how it affects them than just punishing them without a conversation. Improving your connection with your child will have better results than scolding or shaming. Your child will know you’re not unreasonable and will be more likely to talk to you and be receptive to what you have to say in the future.
Conversations not only have the power to form a secure attachment with our children but also strengthen children’s language skills and brain development. A Harvard study found that in children ages 4-6, Broca’s area (a small part of the brain responsible for language development) was primarily impacted by the number of back-and-forth conversational turns experienced, not the number of words heard or learned.1 Have a conversation with your child and fully immerse yourself in it, no matter how silly it might be. Let them talk uninterrupted, follow their conversational lead, use inquiry-based listening, and keep them talking by asking open-ended questions.
In the end, it’s all about setting a good example. Parents want to be respected and have children with good manners but often forget that children must be shown how to behave, not just be given instructions. Telling your child not to yell won’t work if you resort to yelling often. Insisting they don’t use their phone so much won’t work if they see you spending too much time on yours. Children often mirror their parent’s behaviors, so it’s essential to display respect. Your child deserves the good manners and etiquette you reserve for another adult, so show them the tools they can learn from and use later. Next time you need the salt at the dinner table, say, “excuse me, David, can you pass the salt, please?” instead of, “give me the salt, David.”
Negativity has a way of infiltrating our daily conversation in the most stealthy of ways. Even saying “don’t” or “no” can be taken the wrong way by children of any age. To combat this, reflect on how often you use these words. Even phrases such as “don’t yell,” “no more snacks,” or “don’t run on the stairs” implies that your child has done something wrong. Negative phrases are also ineffective because they don’t give your child any guidance. Instead, consider saying, “use your indoor voices, please,” “you can have a snack later, after lunch,” or “please walk carefully down the stairs,” respectively. These phrases show your child exactly what you want and guide them away from their unwanted — but not punishable — behaviors.
Another way to be more positive is to cut out name-calling, sarcasm, shaming, or ridiculing. Saying things like “don’t be a baby,” “you’re being so bad,” or “why don’t you ever listen to me” only shows your child that they are disappointing and not meeting your standards. Hurtful words such as these are admonishing, hurtful, and not constructive. Instead, consider engaging your child’s cooperation by talking about your feelings, describing the problem and its effects, and working with them on how to fix the issue.2
Frustration and anger can quickly get the better of us, especially when it involves children. Avoid getting into heated arguments with your child, as this can, more often than not, result in a game of who can yell the loudest. You shouldn’t resort to a raised voice whenever your child steps out of line or shout for them down the stairs or from another room. The more you yell, the more likely you’ll be ignored. However, using a raised voice has its place in situations of urgency or emergency. Using it discerningly will make your child pay attention and listen.
If you need your child to do something right away, employ the other tips we’ve listed. Instead of shouting, go to them, say their name until they give you their attention, make eye contact, tell them what you want them to do, and make sure they understand. For example, instead of shouting, “Sarah! Stop fighting with Melissa!” try walking over to Sarah, looking her in the eyes, and asking, “Sarah, please share your toys. You and your sister get along better when you take turns. Can you do that for me?”
Sometimes direct instruction can backfire profoundly. If your child throws a tantrum because she doesn’t want to do her homework, doesn’t want to wear socks, or doesn’t want to eat her vegetables, it can soon feel impossible not to give in, and forcing them one way or another can produce even more alarming reactions.
Diffuse the situation by remaining gentle and firm, and provide them with alternatives and options that adhere to your instruction. For example, try saying:
Providing your child the freedom to choose how they do something allows them to express themselves while following your lead and getting the task done.
Being micromanaged is unpleasant for adults and is even more unpleasant for children of any age. Children have not yet developed their capacity for tolerance and emotional regulation, so if you nag a child about chores, bad behaviors, or inappropriate speech, they’re more likely to ignore you or react angrily.
Another reason micromanaging doesn’t work is that children are often visual learners. Knowing this, find a different way to communicate your point more effectively. Consider writing a note or creating a chart with incentives. If your child is prone to leaving their shoes on the floor instead of the rack, consider making a sign that says, “Put your shoes on the rack, please!” and hang it above the shoe rack. If they have trouble completing their chores, make a chart with incentives. They might get a prize if they complete three chores a day for five days. Get creative and tailor it to your children’s unique personalities.
One way to engage your child’s cooperation without nagging them about it is to employ intermittent reinforcement. This behavior modification method uses random positive reinforcement (such as rewards and praise) to incentivize further what they need to do.
For example, if you see they’ve been completing their chores on time, you might pull them aside and say, “Hey, I see that you’ve been keeping up with your chores. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you working hard. I love you.” Or, “You’ve been doing so well with your chores. Why don’t we get some takeout for dinner? Your choice!”
Seeing the benefits of completing their chores, doing their homework, or whatever task you set out for them will make them more likely to achieve it on their own without nagging or micromanaging.
Allow your child to speak, tell a story, respond to a question, or ask questions without interrupting them. Interrupting them to focus on a minor issue or discrepancy might make your child lose their train of thought, make them feel ashamed, or regret even talking to you in the first place, which is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve. Save your comments and inquiries for later and focus on the words and emotions your child is saying and displaying. Use the opportunity to employ inquiry-based listening and eye contact and encourage your child to keep talking. Once they’re done, gently say what you need to without scolding or shaming.
Letting your child take the lead can help move a simple conversation from lip service to secure attachment. This not only strengthens the bond between parent and child but supports their emotional, social, and cognitive development.1 It is also less stressful than putting yourself in the position of giving advice, instruction, or a solution every time. Simply listening to your child and letting them ask any question that pops into their heads allows them to explore ideas and reach their own conclusions.
For example, you and your five-year-old decide to bake cookies. She holds up the eggs and asks you how to put them into the batter. Instead of providing the answer right away, you could ask whether she thinks she should remove the shells first or drop them in whole. Test whatever she decides, and watch the gears in her brain turn!
Acceptance is critical to a meaningful parent and child relationship, and ensuring your child knows you accept them wholly helps them to form a secure attachment. A secure attachment makes it clear to your child that you are there for them unconditionally and that you accept them for who they are.
Secure attachments are primarily formed in infancy and allow children to feel more comfortable talking with and listening to you. Maintaining this bond involves getting to know and accepting their likes, dislikes, preferences, and interests. It can look like exploring their hobbies, allowing them to choose an activity, and simply following their lead. Be regular and consistent in your efforts to get to know them. Set out a time to do something with them of their own choosing every day.
Children who have secure attachments with their parents or guardians exhibit more self-control, higher self-esteem, stronger critical thinking skills, higher academic performance, more empathy, and better social skills than those who don’t.3 So, while hunting for bugs in the yard, trying to find the best hill to fly a kite, or attempting to build the tallest tower of blocks may seem like just childlike play, these are the ways you stay connected to your children.
Creating a strong bond and secure attachment with our children doesn’t have to feel impossible. It does, however, require the patience, determination, and hard work that all good relationships need to thrive. Following even some of these tips can help your child feel comfortable talking to you at the very least, and at best, know with certainty that they are loved, accepted, and can come to you without fear or shame about anything, knowing that you’ll listen.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Rolland, R. (2022, February 2). The one thing you need for great conversations with kids. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-art-talking-children/202202/the-one-thing-you-need-great-conversations-kids
Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2002). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk (36th ed.). Harper Perennial.
Tominey, S. (2019, March 18). Five Ways to Talk with Your Kids So They Feel Loved. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_to_talk_with_your_kids_so_they_feel_loved