HomeHealth & Behavior

Talking to your preschooler: The top-three mistakes parents make

Avoid these conversational pitfalls to improve communication with your child.

By Valle Dwight

When you’re ready to sit down and have a chat with your preschooler — even if you’re only trying to wrangle information about her day — there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. And if you happen to try the latter, you may well run smack-dab into a dead end.

“Talking to our children in a way that lets them express what is on their mind is extremely important,” explains Dr. Atilla Ceranoglu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “Talking to children from early on keeps both child and parent attuned to one another. It is solid preparation for the more stormy, tumultuous days of adolescence.”

An expert in parent-child communication, Ceranoglu offers tips on how to avoid the most common mistakes parents make when trying to get the conversational ball rolling with their children.

Cat got your preschooler’s tongue?

Parent: “How was school today?”
Child: “Fine.”
Parent: “What did you do?”
Child: “Nuthin’.”
Parent: “Did you play outside?”
Child: “Yes.”
Parent: “Who did you play with?”
Child: “I dunno. No one.”

Sound familiar? The child who talks nonstop about his imaginary friend or retells the plot of his favorite book for hours on end is suddenly struck dumb when you want to get a glimpse into his day.

“This sterile exchange often becomes frustrating for both parent and child,” says Ceranoglu. “The common misconception here is the belief that children can sit like adults and have conversations face-to-face without doing much anything else. Reality is different — not only for kids, but also for most adults!”

According to Ceranoglu, the top-three mistakes parents make when trying to talk to preschoolers are:

  1. Hold an inquisition. No one likes to feel like he or she is being interrogated. Probably worst of all are the queries that start with “Why did you…”
  2. Treat kids like mini-me. Parents tend to think of their kids as little adults who have grown-up communication abilities. If your preschooler is angry because you’re working too much, she won’t say, “Mommy, you will be gone for an awful long time, and we will not get to play now, and guess what: I am only four, so I do not fully know how to live with delayed gratification.” Instead, she will whine.
  3. Play Mr. or Ms. Fix-It. We tend to provide solutions to our children’s problems when they are distressed. This may send kids the message that they are unable to solve their own problems.

What works

So what’s a parent to do?

Be here now (with your child). The easiest way to get your child talking is to do something together that he loves — swimming, playing a board game, fishing, or just hanging out in the yard, says Ceranoglu. And be patient.

“Expect an initial verbal blackout, particularly if you and your child are new at this,” he says. “Bear the silence. Even if you fished for a good half hour in silence, know that there is a lot more being accomplished than if you were chasing your child in words. You are giving your child the strongest message in the loudest way: You are there and will be there when that silence breaks.”

Avoid “asking” questions. Instead of asking, “Did that hurt your feelings?” try saying, “Wow, that would have hurt my feelings.” That gives your child a chance to respond without being put on the defensive. Also, you’ll get more mileage out of simple listening sounds like “hmm” or “huh,” because they reflect an understanding of the child’s concerns better than questions, Ceranoglu says.

Meet them at their level. For younger children, it often helps to kneel down to their height and talk or play with them face-to-face. If your child is frustrated trying to communicate something, help him out by naming and acknowledge his feelings: “That is sad! It was your favorite toy.”

Read books together, and discuss the story as you go along. This will improve your child’s vocabulary and also provide a reference for the two of you to use later on. For example, you might say, “Remember how Thomas the Tank Engine felt sorry when everybody started to play with Stanley? Yeah, maybe your friend Jason playing with other kids made you upset, huh?”

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"Well, I have both a pre-school and an elementary age boy. I went to the elementary link first adn was expecting this article--instead I got an article on SEX. I know that elementary age it the time for 'The Talk' which we have had, but I was expecting tips like these for getting my 9 yr old to open up. Thanks for providing these tips. I would recommend having a link on the elementary page to indicate these age appropriate tips rather than a sex talk. I think thats a whole other article and not what we were looking for."
"Very good! That's exactly what happens."
"Excellent article."
"i always get frustrated with my 4 year old daughter. every time i try to communicate with her she wont listen or she takes off, but I'm trying to not to ask any questions and trying to be reasonable, but some times it gets to the point i start yelling at her especially, when i tell her to stop when she is doing something wrong. my husband told me because i treat her like an adult like 'mini-me' please tell me how to handle it."
"I like these articles. and I always read them and try to follow. I used to tell my husband about treating our son with love and affection, understanding his feelings.But he never listens to me and always scold him without a reason. How I make my husband be a good father is the question lingering in my mind 24 hours a day. Will you help me ?"
"I have 4 years old boy and you have been fighting a lot. He is very strong personality and very jelous about me. I can not talk to anyone else, even with my husband. He checks on me all the time.It is very frustade and I really do not know what to do with him. We are a love family but his behavior is too much...."
"Thank you for your help and interest everytime I read an article I learn a lot."
"I have a 3 year old niece visiting for two weeks this summer and I have been thinking about how I`m going to break the ice with her. we haven`t met yet but this article really helps me to prepare for the visit now. Thank You! Perfect timing too!"
"I love these articles, and read them whenever they come my way, regardless of age mentioned. I like the point this author made about 'treating kids like a mini-me', they don't get the sarcasm or play-on-words etc..(my husband and I are very sarcastic with each other, it's humorous to us. but we recently discussed that since he isn't getting the jokes, our son may think we are making fun of him??) It is always a good reminder to me that I am a teacher, and my son will interact with the people in this world the way I interact with him. "