Say it With Love: Using Communication to Strengthen Our Relationships with Our Children

Home / Parenting / Say it With Love: Using Communication to Strengthen Our Relationships with Our Children


Communication is the lifeblood of any meaningful, close relationship. The closer the relationship, the more important communication becomes. Effective communication is always found in strong parent-child relationships. In fact, effective communication and family quality are so closely related that what affects one will likely affect the other. Although The Family: A Proclamation to the World is silent on communication, it is clear that every characteristic of strong marriages and families is fostered through open, honest, and loving communication.

We learn from research that parent-child communication influences the development of children. Messages parents send can be broadly defined as support messages and control messages. Support messages include praise, approval, encouragement, physical displays of affection, giving help, listening, and cooperation. Control messages include coercion, giving reasons for compliance, pointing out consequences of a child's behavior, ignoring the child, isolating the child, statements of rejection, and nonverbal acts showing disappointment or coldness.

Supportive messages from parents to children lead to a variety of positive outcomes. Some of these include higher self-esteem, greater adherence to moral standards, compliance with parents' wishes, less aggression and other problem behavior. Fathers' supportive messages foster cognitive development, masculine sex-role identification and academic achievement of sons; mothers' supportive messages foster the cognitive development and feminine sex-role identification of daughters. Other communication-related factors contributing to positive child outcomes include a mother's responsiveness, the discussion and acceptance of feelings, and the reinforcement and modeling of positive social behavior.

Negative control messages such as physical punishment are related to greater aggression in children, and coercion weakens a child's adherence to moral standards. Rejection leads to greater dependency. Positive control messages such as giving reasons and explanations help children develop the social competence they need to be successful.

Since effective communication is vital in successful parent-child relationships, it's essential that we foster the proper attitudes and learn the necessary skills for it to happen.

Here are some ideas for communicating with our children:

Take time to talk. Sometimes parents become so busy that they neglect to take time to visit with their children. Before any of the other skills can work, it's essential that parents and children prioritize talking time. Look for times to talk: while driving in the car or doing chores or projects together, or before bedtime. You might try scheduling regular (say, once a month) one-on-one "talk times" with each child. This is a time to be alone just to talk together about feelings, needs, goals, and concerns. Enjoy a milk shake together while you're talking.

Take time to learn children's views. A great way to build relationships with children is to ask them about their interests, needs, feelings, and opinions. We shouldn't do it like a police officer seeking information. The questions should sound like a friend showing genuine interest in them. For example:

  • "How did your school project go?"
  • "What was your best experience today?"
  • "What did you enjoy most about your visit at Grandpa's?"
  • "You seem sad (worried, tired). Will you tell me how you feel?" 
    Parents need to be especially understanding when their child is expressing strong feelings. Imagine your child has just told you about trouble with the school bus driver. To show understanding you could say the following:
  • "How did you feel when the bus driver yelled at you?"
  • "It must have been very embarrassing for you."
  • "I'll bet that made you angry."

Some parents feel that if they show understanding their kids will think that their bad behavior is okay. But showing understanding doesn't mean you agree with their behavior. It shows you care about their feelings. Children need to feel that they are understood first. Once it's clear you understand, then you can look for ways to solve the problem. For example, ask: "What do you need to do to prevent trouble with the bus driver in the future?" If the child feels understood, he or she should be willing to look for solutions: "Would it be better if you sat by different people on the bus?"

Invite cooperation in respectful ways. Parents want their children to be responsible, to cooperate. But sending these messages properly is crucial. Some parents may be Generals, giving orders: Wash your hands. Don't eat with your fingers. Feed the dog. Don't jump on the sofa. Sit up straight. Don't pull the dog's tail. Do your homework. Don't talk with your mouth full. Practice the piano. Brush your teeth. Go to bed. Parents may try even more negative ways to win children's cooperation: Why aren't you out of bed? Can't you get anything right? Do I have to do everything for you? Your room is a filthy mess. Get off the phone.

We may think that children need to be corrected in these ways to help them improve. However, if this is the kind of correction children receive most often, they are more likely to feel inadequate, stupid or bad. There are better ways to encourage the cooperation of children.

Use common courtesies, like you would with friends. Say "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and "you're welcome." Instead of saying, "Can't you leave the dog alone?" say "Please leave the dog alone." Or instead of saying, "Will you move out of the way?" say "Excuse me, I need to get by."

Emphasize do rather than don't. Instead of saying, "Don't slam the door!" say, "Close the door softly, please." Talk to your children with the same amount of kind consideration you expect of others when they speak with you.

Use encouraging words. They communicate love and respect. Try some like these:

  • "You're good with your hands."
  • "Thanks for helping your sister clean up her room."
  • "That was a good idea you had."
  • "You're special to me."
  • "Will you come with me to the store? I enjoy having you with me."

Parent educators Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, say that parents can invite a spirit of cooperation by using the following five skills:

Describe. Describe what you see or describe the problem. Instead of "You haven't taken that dog out all day. You don't deserve to have a pet," describe: "I see Rover pacing up and down near the door."

Give information. Instead of "Who drank milk and left the bottle standing out?" say "Kids, milk turns sour when it isn't refrigerated."

Say it with a word. Instead of "You promised before we got a dog that you would feed him every day. Now this is the third time I've had to remind you this week" say, "Billy, the dog."

Talk about your feelings. Make no comment about the child's character or personality. Instead of "What's wrong with you? You always leave the screen door open!" say, "It bothers me when the screen door is left open. I don't want flies around our food."

Write a note. Sometimes nothing we say is as effective as the written word. The note below was written on the bathroom mirror by a father who was tired of cleaning his daughter's long hairs from the sink drain: "Help! Hairs in my drain give me a pain. Glug, your stopped up sink." Another note was written by an employed mother who taped it to the TV: "Before you turn this on--think--Have I done my homework? Have I practiced?"

Share negative feelings with care. Sometimes it's necessary to tell our children how some unacceptable behavior is making us feel. An effective way to do this is to use "I-messages." These messages are different from "You messages" when a person blames others for his or her feelings: "You make me so angry!"

An I-message often takes the following form: "When (describe what happens that is a problem) I feel (describe the feeling)." For example, "When the barbecue is left on, I feel angry." "When you say those kinds of word, I feel sad and hurt." "When I see the kitchen floor dirty again, I feel frustrated."

A good I-message lets the child know that what he or she is doing is causing trouble without insulting or blaming. I-messages are also good for letting children know when we're likely to not be our best. We might say, "I'm not feeling my best today. If I seem a bit upset, know that it's nothing you've done."

Sometimes negative feelings become so intense that it becomes very difficult to communicate them in helpful ways. In these cases, we need to stop talking and deal with our feelings first. Simply stopping and taking a break for a while, say ten minutes, might be enough to keep intense emotions from harming a relationship. Other times you may need to be more deliberate in decreasing the intensity of emotions. We can do simple things like counting to ten, walking around the block, cracking a joke; or more involved things such as reading or writing poetry, playing the piano, lifting weights, playing racquetball, or listening to or writing music.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., CFLE. Professor of Family Life, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Portions adapted from Dr. Duncan's article, Communication: Building a Strong Bridge Between You and Your Children , published by Montana State University Extension Service.


  1. Goddard, H. W. (1994). Communication: Building a strong bridge between you and your children. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
  2. Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon.