Why Communication is so Difficult for Kids and How to Help

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Kids suck at communication. It’s true. But it’s not their fault.

Honestly, I’ve talked to plenty of adults who aren’t so great at communicating either. I wouldn’t say that I’m good at it.

Just the other day, I was in the car with my husband. He was driving on a long trip to Utah. He asked me to open a water bottle for him so that he could take a quick drink. Now, this water bottle is the kind with the spout on top, you know, and you pull the spout to drink.

Click the image below!

Well, when he asked me to “open” it, I unscrewed the lid all together and handed it to him. I dunno, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time because that is how I interpreted “open”.

My poor husband was trying to keep his eyes on the road, so he didn’t notice. When he said “open” he assumed I would pull the spout- not take the lid off all together. Woops. He tried to take a drink… but he wasn’t expecting the lid to be off…. The poor guy was drenched and had to drive the rest of the way in wet clothes because he and I had different ideas of what “open” meant in this situation.

I think this kind of thing happens more than we think. In this example, there was an immediate consequence so the confusion was obvious. I bet there are more miscommunications at work, between spouses, and yes, between parents and children than we realize because some of them aren’t noticed right away.

Now let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective.

  • He’s barely learning the English language.
    • This applies no matter how old the child is, in my opinion. English is complicated. Even if the child knows words, there is a whole mountain of phrases, idioms, and other not-so-obvious things about speaking English. I assume other languages have similar confusing things, but since I only speak English, I won’t speak to that.
  • He’s still learning about body language and how it impacts the overall message that a speaker is conveying. (Click the image below)

  • He’s still learning about tone of voice. This is most often confusing when adults use sarcasm and the child takes it literally.
    • This is tricky because we use sarcasm a lot. Like, a lot. We often don’t even notice we are using it. (Click the image below)

Recently, a friend told me this story about her 5 year old daughter.

My friend was sitting on the couch brushing out her child’s hair. They were getting ready to leave the house for the day.

My friend had just had a baby and also has 3 other kiddos running around. Her husband is so kind and wanted to make sure she was all taken care of, so he asked her if there was anything she needed him to do before he got in the shower. Just to make sure she wasn’t left to the wolves for the next 15 minutes or so. (I know, awwwwww!!!)

Anyways, this led to some playful sexy banter…. The husband says “Or maybe you can get in the shower with me?” in a cute, teasing voice. The parents both laugh and wink at each other.

Everyone thought that the little girl wouldn’t know what they were talking about, so no harm done.

Well, that is half right.

A few minutes go by as the girl thinks the situation over.

Then out of nowhere, she asks mom (who has already forgotten about it all), “Mommy, did daddy forget how to shower?!”

Hahahahaha! Yep, that’s her logical explanation of why daddy would want mommy to get in the shower with him. He must have forgotten how to do it himself.

Kids are cute!!

Basically, I’m saying these poor kids often misunderstand OUR message to them, so how are they supposed to learn from our communication styles and methods in order to communicate THEIR message to us??

It’s no wonder that kids get upset and tantrum when they can’t express themselves!

Here’s my tips on how to help your child with this problem so that they can grow up to be one of the few adults that can actually convey their ideas respectfully and intelligently.

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  • Why is it So Hard for a Kid to Express Themselves?

First of all, these poor kids’ brains aren’t developed yet. Well, I mean they are develop-ING but that’s a lot different from develop-ED. Actually, our brains aren’t fully developed until around age 25- with girls usually maturing a little earlier than boys.

So, give them a break just for that.

Second, communication is complicated. But we’ve already discussed that. Remember- there’s language, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

This is all a learned art- one that some people just never learn. Most people learn enough to get by. And just a few get really good at it. I hope I can be one of those few eventually.

And last- it’s hard to learn to communicate when you’re learning from imperfect models. Remember how not all adults communicate well? Well, now consider trying to learn from those exact adults?

When we think of it this way, it’s no wonder. My poor daughter is picking up on my own communication problems.

Ouch…. I’ve got to step up my game….

As always, imperfect parenting isn’t the end of the world. This is just a call to do your best.

woman holding baby sitting on green grass field under sunset

This all makes sense, but it’s hard to remember when my 1-year old is hitting and screaming because she can’t tell me what she wants.

Of course, I feel bad for her. I get it that she doesn’t know any better.

But sooner or later, I have to deal with this.

How do I do that???

Keep reading!

  • Listen First

There are lots of ways to listen.

I know, it seems straight forward- someone says words, the words float through the air in the form of sound vibrations, those vibrations are picked up by my ears and interpreted in my brain.



As it turns out, listening is kinda complex.

  • There’s listening where you are trying to solve the person’s problem for them,
  • there’s listening where you are trying to get information from the person,
  • there’s listening just because it’s the polite thing to do,
  • there’s listening where you are more focused on forming your response than hearing what the person is saying….

(Click the image below for a great resource on how to listen!)

The kind of listening that I encourage parents to practice is the kind where you honestly want to hear the child’s message- not solve the problem.

1-Give the kid all of your attention. Like, all of it. No TV. No Cell phone. Nothing distracting you from them.

2-Hear what they are saying and DON’T JUDGE… yet. Why not yet? Because it is your job as a parent to judge sometimes.

brown wooden gavel

For example, let’s say the child’s problem is that her boyfriend wants her to have sex and she isn’t sure if she wants to (first of all, good for you for having the type of relationship where your child would tell you that). You feel that she is too young and that this situation is potentially dangerous. If that is the case, then by all means, be a parent and set some boundaries.

But….. save that judgement for AFTER you completely understand your child and their needs first.

Maybe, with some carefully worded influence from you, your child will come to the same conclusion all on her own.

Because you waited to place judgement, you didn’t rob her of the chance to learn from the situation and come to her own conclusion.

Score for the parent… and for the kid!

3-Clarify the message to make sure you understand- even if you think you already do understand. Again, miscommunications sneak in without us knowing, so it’s better to check.

  • You can do this by repeating things back in your own words. Then ask if that’s right.
  • You can do this by asking questions to get more information.
  • You can do this by asking the child if you are interpreting their feelings about the situation correctly.

4-Ask the child what they need from you as a result of this communication. They might not know at first- you’ll have to teach them how to communicate to you what they need. I know, kinda sticky. You have to teach about communication in order to communicate, but they have to communicate so that you can do that… Bleh. My head hurts.

  • Do you want me to help you solve the problem?
  • Do you want me to help you feel better?
  • Do you want me to empathize?
  • Do you want me to learn about you?
  • Do you want me to spend time with you?

woman reaching hand above water during daytime photo

5-Once you know what they want, fulfill that need- even if you want to do something else. The most common issue I see with this one is when someone just wants you to help them feel better but you want to fix the problem that caused them to feel sad or angry. Hold it in- maybe they already know the solutions, they just need support. This is more common with older children, like teenagers, than younger children, who often need help problem solving.

6- If the situation calls for some parental intervention, DO IT! This is the follow up from step #2. This is the part where you just might have to make a judgement call as a parent and then follow through with it. Don’t be afraid of this step. You are a parent, and boundaries are necessary.

This process doesn’t come easily to me.

I find that I have a habit of listening in specific ways. For me, I usually don’t worry about finding solutions when someone talks to me about a problem. I am usually focused on the emotions they are feeling. Instead of listening, I am thinking, “what could I possibly say to make them feel better?”

The problem is, I usually can’t think of anything. That leaves me without a solution, without any help to offer, AND I’ve completely missed their message because I was thinking about other things.

This carries over into my parenting.

It is really tough to break habits of behavior like this.

My usual learning curve goes something like this: I fail 10 times (not because I didn’t do it well, just because I FORGOT!!) and then on the 11th time I finally remember to try to change my behavior. Then I might not do it well 10 times (assuming I keep remembering to try to change my behavior) and finally after like 50 tries (after I forgot and messed up a bunch more times) I finally make progress.

person's left palm with bandage

No wonder change is slow.

But I’m going to keep trying at it.

  • Teaching Communication For the Future

For a lot of people, communication is tough because of one major barrier that we haven’t talked about yet: The other person has to be willing to communicate with you.

In order for this to happen, they need to have a positive relationship with you. If your children don’t respect you or if they don’t think you’re on their side, they won’t talk to you.

NOTICE- I did not say “if your children don’t LIKE you”. Respect is different than like. You want respect. You don’t have to be their best friend- you just have to be a parent.

people holding hands

If you want long-term open communication, put the time and effort into having a positive relationship. Yes, TIME is a big part of that. That means time with the TV off, time without devices, time doing things that the child is interested in, and time one-on-one together.

(Read about our Mother-Daughter Spa Day! This is a great idea for one-on-one time with your child or a group activity to get to know your child and their friends. Or try cooking with your child for consistent, daily one-on-one time.)

Time is hard to come by. But it’s worth it.

Then, remember to be a good example of positive communication. That means keeping your cool, clarifying others’ messages, withholding judgment, you know, all the stuff we’ve already talked about.

Do your best. Then apologize when you mess up. That’s how to be a good example.

man sitting on chair holding and surrounded by people

Sometimes, I stand in my own way of building a strong relationship with my kids… on accident, obviously. Here’s the story of one epiphany about my communications with my daughter.

I was going about my day like any other day. I am a stay at home mom, so that included things like cleaning up the house, doing dishes, starting a load of laundry, running errands, making meals, you know. All the normal stuff.

My little one (about 14 months) wanted me to hold her for what seemed like the entire day.

I would put her down, and she would cry.

I finally found a toy that seemed to interest her. As soon as I walked away, she abandoned the toy to follow me.

The more I tried to get things done, the more she seemed to want me.

I’m sad to say that I didn’t connect the dots that day. Or the next day. Or the next. It took me a week or so to realize a pattern.

I noticed that there was communication going on here that I hadn’t specifically intended, but it was happening anyways. I was telling her that I was too busy to give her attention and she was telling me that she needed me even though I had other things to do.

This stumped me for a while, because I knew that I still needed to divide my time between my daughter and my other responsibilities.

The solution that finally worked for us- Play with my child first, and do chores after. Then, I am communicating that I value our time together. If I put her first, then she doesn’t feel so starved of my attention when I need to do chores so she isn’t so clingy. We both enjoy our day better and I get a lot more accomplished.

silhouette photo of group of people on mountain

Who knew??

Now I want to be clear here because this is a topic that can trigger a lot of that mom guilt– Yes, there other things that require my time. That’s life. Some of my time must go to the house. Some of my time needs to go to my husband, and some of my time needs to go to myself.

With our time being divided so many ways, no wonder children crave it! No wonder time is such a big part of having a relationship with someone. And I want a relationship with my children.

When our actions communicate to our children that they are valued, they will feel secure enough to have open communication with us in the future.

  • Even with a Strong Foundation, Communication Doesn’t Just Happen Magically- So Ask Questions!

So I’ve been working every day on putting my child first in my life. I feel pretty good about our relationship. But, I still don’t feel like she confides in me….

What can I do?

Think about when you confide in other people.

  • Is it usually planned out, or did it just happen?
  • What situations make it more likely that you will talk to someone about something private?
  • How did that person make you feel comfortable enough to share?

Now try to replicate those conditions with your child.

man and girl sitting on bench in park

The common factors that I parents report include:

  • My child confided in me when we had one on one time alone.
  • My child confided in me but I had to bring up the topic first.
  • My child confided in me but I had to dig deeper. First, they told me that they were fine. But I asked more questions. Then they dodged the questions. But I kept at it. And finally they told me.
  • My child confided in me but I had to change the type of questions I ask. I had to ask questions that require more than one word for the answer. Rather than “how was your day?” (“Good.”) I learned to ask “What did you do today?” (Well, at recess, I played with my friend Kyle but he didn’t want to play what I wanted to play…..)
  • My child confided in me but I had to speak respectfully and stay calm about the situation.
  • My child confided in me after I told them that I love them and won’t judge what they say

The reality is that I don’t get much one on one time with my kids. Life is just busy.

When I do get it, I have to train myself to ask questions.

I am more effective if I am aware of what is going on in each child’s life. If I am thinking about specific things about each child, I can more easily think of what to ask about. Plus, it makes the child feel loved that I know this stuff about them.

There’s nothing worse than missing a golden opportunity for no good reason except that I wasn’t paying attention or I wasn’t prepared for it.

But as always, there is always a silver lining to every parenting mistake.

gray clouds with sun rays at daytime

I don’t know what yours is, but here’s a few that I’ve experienced:

  • I didn’t know what was going on in my child’s life, so I asked. I wasn’t prepared beforehand to “dig deeper”, but I gained a lot of knowledge about my child and I connected with her personally by showing interest in her interests.
  • I didn’t have questions ready, so I fumbled for what to say to my child. But she saw that I am human and that I’m trying my best.
  • I didn’t feel comfortable asking more questions because I wasn’t sure how my child would respond. So, instead I just reassured her that I loved her no matter what.
  • My child didn’t appreciate me trying to get to know her. She thought I was being nosy and getting into her business. But she will always know that I care enough to be a parent rather than being a friend. That will mean something to her someday.
  • I had a one-on-one opportunity but I missed it because I was distracted by chores. I just didn’t think about the chance to connect with my child. But the child got to see me working hard.

Communication is a major part of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, it is often imperfect.

Remember to take this one step at a time! Choose one thing you’d like to change and focus on that until you’ve mastered it. Then take the next step.


Mrs. S

Please share with any parent who is trying their best to communicate effectively with their children!

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