Communication with children and teens

talk to the hand teen

Communication between parents and children/teens

by, Patience Domowski, LCSW

Isn’t it so frustrating when your child/teen won’t talk to you? Especially if they seem to talk better to their other parent, stepparent, friends, teachers, etc. Communication with your child/teen is so important as it builds your relationship together, and prevents some risk factors as well (like drug abuse, for example). Here are some ways to work on this.


If your child won’t talk to you…

·         Initiate/ask about their day. Don’t accept shrugs/”fine” answers, press a little more and then back off a little and wait for them to answer. (Riding in the car is the best time to talk usually).

·         Try being more approachable- Don’t expect your child to talk to you every time you try to initiate a conversation but be open and ready when they bring something up/start to talk. If it’s really not a good time tell them that what they have to say is really important to you and tell them when a better time is- and then stick to that time/make sure to come back and discuss it later.  

·         Don’t overreact- Even if your child tells you some shocking things- please act cool or he/she will automatically shut down and refuse to tell you what’s going on. It’s better to know what they are thinking and doing than not so be open minded to hearing what they have to say.

·         Don’t respond with shut downs like “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “don’t do that!” or “you have to do…” but instead just listen to their feelings and give advice if they want it without telling them no or shutting them down.

·         Be nice- don’t make fun of them or say something demeaning or insulting, try not to yell, don’t make a big deal about small things, don’t punish constantly for small problems, try to listen and not just talk. Compliment them when they make good choices or you are proud of them. Tell them specifically what you liked about their behavior/choices/etc.

·         Ask your child how to make things better and try to take their suggestion if possible- If you realize there is a problem but don’t know what it is exactly that is causing your child to pull away or not want to be around you, ask them what the problem is and then try to take their input and see if its fixable.

·         Try to fix the problem – If your child says what the problem is or you realize what it is try to fix it! Be open to changing and don’t just expect your child to change but parents to adjust too. Be willing to compromise.

·         Do fun things together- Find something you have in common to do together or at least something your child enjoys even if you don’t. Go out to eat, go shopping, mini golf, bowling, make crafts/build something together at home

Some writing prompts could work really well as conversation prompts. Check these out. 

Getting your child to talk about their day

kid talking to mom

Getting your child to talk to you about their day at school/camp/etc

If your child comes home from school and won't talk about their day, here are some suggestions...

1) Don't let them get away with "I dont know" or a shrug when you ask them about it. Keep asking, or don't let them move on until they give a response. Often they just dont want to think about it or hope you will just let it go. Once they learn they have to respond with something, they usually will! If they need some time to decompress after they come home, try asking them about it at dinner or bedtime instead of right off the bus.

2) Suggest options for them to pick from: "Which special did you have today? Music or Art?" , or give more closed-ended questions to get them thinking more specifically. "Who did you sit with on the bus?" ," What did you play at recess?" "Tell me something new/funny/etc that happened today?" If they are in preschool, for example, and the teacher sends home a paper/note daily to tell parents about the child's day, use that as a jumping off point to discuss. "I see your teacher said you played with playdough today, tell me about that?" or "Oh you had gym today, what did you play in gym class?"

3) Everyone in the family has to share something about their day at dinner. With parents and older siblings modeling this, younger children will often soon learn how to join in. It just becomes the expectation to discuss. This could be done at bedtime alternatively.

4) Let the child draw a picture of something that happened that day, or write down a response if they are not verbal learners or have difficulty with communication (often this will work better with kids with Aspergers)

5) I made up a form that I have used with some clients to have them write a little something or draw something about their day. In therapy I have used "I don't know" tickets. I give the child 5 tickets for example in therapy and when I ask them questions if they say " I don't know" I take away a ticket. When they run out of tickets (may be for a few different questions, not all at once) then they have to respond. Kids usually catch on quick and don't want to lose the tickets so will answer! Even if the tickets don't mean anything! They also will often not need the tickets after a few sessions, because they learn that I won't just drop it and they get used to responding to me.

6) Consider that your child might legitimately not know due to memory issues, too young to process, or they can't think about what happens in different settings when not in that setting. Try suggestion number 2 above and if that's unsuccessful, they may just not be able to respond at this time (until they are older or more advanced in learning/cognitive skills).

Teaching Language skills

child asking dad for something

Using Language to Communicate to Get what you want

Kids (especially Autistic children) have to be taught to communicate (whether its verbally, with sign language, picture exchange, or tech device). They will often use the least amount of effort to get what they want.
Even typical (non autistic/non special needs) kids will often cry or whine for something if they are not made to communicate properly if that behavior will still get them what they want.

Problem example:
Child wants milk. He whines. Mom knows what he wants, so she gives him the milk.
Child wants to eat. He cries. Mom fixes him dinner.
Child wants a toy. He points to it and grunts. Dad hands him the toy.
Child wants something at a store. He throws a tantrum. Mom/Dad buy the toy.

Even if you know what your child wants, other people may not, and you want your child to learn to communicate (usually verbally) instead of making noises (grunts), pointing (in some cases), crying, or tantrumming to get what they want/need.

Here's what you can do. "Friendly Sabotage": Hold the object/item the child wants, or put it just out of reach and DO NOT give it to the child until they communicate appropriately (whatever is acceptable and Possible for that child whether its talking, using pictures, signs/gestures, etc).
For example. Child wants drink. He points to cup and whines. Mom holds the cup and says "Drink. Do you want drink?" Child nods. Mom waits. Mom repeats "Drink. I want Drink". (Either says what the child should repeat, or waits for child to make request). Child says "Drink/I want Drink" Mom gives him/her the drink.

Another example. Teacher/Therapist/etc is doing a craft with the child. Teacher/therapist withholds the tools needed (markers, glue, scissors) and tells the child to do a task. "Write your name on the paper". When child realizes they need a tool to complete the task, they must ask for the tool first. "I need marker please!" Teacher/Therapist can hold the marker/glue/etc or say the word for child to repeat. "Do you need marker? Ask for the marker/ I want marker, please."

If child cannot talk then use sign language, or picture exchange (your child's therapists/teachers should come up with the best communication system for your child in consultation with parents and observing child's preferred way of learning and his/her abilities already) - consult with your child's speech therapist and special education teacher, as well as with behavioral therapists for more ideas and suggestions and ways to teach this skill.