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?”
Parent: “What did you do?”
Parent: “Did you play outside?”
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:
- 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…”
- 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.
- 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.
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?”