How to speak to your kids positively to build better behaviour & self confidence

If you have never yelled at your child, then you are either a one in a million parent, or you’re telling fibs! No one ever sets out to shout at their kids, but when you are sleep deprived, stressed and your child’s behaviour is pushing you over the edge, then things can boil over.

Sadly, we aren’t given a manual at their birth telling us how to talk to our children, and most of us just muddle along, slowly building up talking and working out other communication skills that our children respond best to. Every child is different, and some are better natural communicators, while others respond to social cues in less conventional ways. Language, tone and emotional messaging are some of the key parenting tools needed to help raise a confident and happy child.

Some kids are harder to parent and talk to than others and this is where building positive parenting communication skills can be a game changer. Anxiety, attention deficit, learning difficulties, sensory issues as well trauma can all be borne out by children showing oppositional, defiant or aggressive behaviour and these are the kids who benefit most from positive communication.

If you have felt a bit too shouty recently and your household has been quite fractious, then here are some simple parenting tips that can help to build more harmony and a lighter atmosphere in your household. I have drawn together some of the best communication techniques that I have learnt from being trained as a coach, and applying it with my own three kids and all the many families I have looked after in my clinic.

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Work out why your child is misbehaving

If your child is being naughty or difficult, first try and work out what’s going on in the background – are they overtired, overwhelmed, too much sugar, hungry or had a bad day, a sore tummy? How is the atmosphere at home? Have there been any big changes or disruptions, has someone been mean to them?

Sometimes it’s appropriate to talk about that, and if you can, it may help defuse the situation. Providing a safe place to talk and express themselves means you will get to understand how your child ticks and what triggers specific behaviours.

If it’s not appropriate to talk about what might be causing the behaviour, working it out can still help you formulate a plan. But remember boundaries are still boundaries, and you need to balance sympathy with consistency. Letting them get away with things when they kick up a fuss is a fast track to encouraging it next time.

Listen without solutions

Talking things through is often a good way of downloading our worries to someone else. It is very tempting for the listener to try and provide a solution to a problem; however more often than not, all they want is to be listened to as they express themselves, and respected and empathised with when they are having trouble. So hold your ideas and solutions to yourself for the time being.

The process of telling another person what has happened and sharing what is on their mind can often provide the brain space and perspective for them to work out what to do themselves.

Providing solutions to other people’s problems can come across as telling them what to do, which can potentially undermine self-confidence and perpetuate the problem. Plus, if you are always working things out for your kids, then they will learn to always expect an adult to provide the answer to all their worries. It is important for them to work out the right solution for themselves, so they build up skills for building independence and navigating life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Kids and teens need a safe place to share their worries and if they have the confidence, they can do this with a person who is going to properly listen, then they will turn to adult support more often. Simply hold them close and tight and say “Thanks for sharing this with me. I know you can work it out and I have faith in you.”

Lead with questions

It can be very effective to use questions to guide people to work out for themselves what you would have suggested, had you been asked. This is a fairly advanced coaching technique, but it’s worth a try.

For example, if your daughter has had trouble with something, start by asking her how she feels about it, and then how she thinks she will deal with it next time.

Get creative about communication

If your child is unable to tell you what is going on in their mind, then get them to draw a picture or write a journal, a story or a letter – sometimes this is easier for them than finding the words – kids who have been through trauma find it especially hard to find their voice, especially when things are still quite raw.

You may find that this helps your child snap out of whatever it is, when they channel their energies into writing or drawing, instead of taking it out on those round them.

Build fun and laughter into your day

10 minutes of singing songs at the tops of your voices, playing ping pong, kicking a ball around the garden, telling jokes or cooking together in the kitchen, doing colouring in together or simply being silly and blowing raspberries will bring lightness to the family atmosphere. A walk together in nature can also take help to take the sting out of a tricky situation. When kids are under stress, they need to release endorphins, so laughter and exercise can really help.

Happy parents, happy child

Parents who prioritise looking after themselves and actively take time out to do things that support their health and wellbeing will be happier and will build a more harmonious home. This also teaches children that we all need to look after ourselves and builds a feeling of self-worth that will have a positive effect on how the family interact. These can involve simple things like taking exercise, preparing and eating a delicious meal you like, or a nice long bath in the evening once everyone else is in bed.

Feedback sandwich

This is a canny way to get kids to do the things they really don’t want to do! A feedback sandwich is where you praise first to set the scene positively, then point out what they could do better, and then praise them again for something else. It’s hard for them to object to the bit in the middle while they are being praised!

For example, if you want them to make their bed in the morning without a meltdown, break the steps down into three:

  • “Well done for folding your pyjamas, that’s brilliant!”
  • “Even better, see if you can also remember to make the bed before you come down for breakfast.”
  • “You’ll feel so happy and calm that you room is neat and tidy when you get back from school.”

Be consistent and persistent

If you want something to be done regularly, you need to monitor it regularly, and feed back each time. For a child, getting shouted at once a week for not brushing their teeth is worth it for not having to bother 6 days a week!

Instead, ask them each day until they have got it nailed, and they’ll soon learn that it’s annoying and a waste of time to get interrupted and have to go back upstairs.

Avoid the “Don’t” word

If someone said to you “don’t think of blue elephants” the first thing that will pop up in your mind is blue elephants. This is because our brains do not process the “don’t” word very easily – especially kids with minds that skip ahead like kids with ADHD or dyslexia.

If you say “don’t cross the road now” then guess what immediately pops into your child’s mind? That’s right, it gives them the idea (if they hadn’t already thought about it) to cross the road now. Instead, give a positive command… tell them what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. “Stay here with me… until I say it’s safe to go.”

This is really hard for most of us to perform, but it can be a game changer. An example might be swapping “don’t be rude” to “let’s be really polite today and pretend the Queen is coming to tea”. That usually gets them giggling!

Criticise the behaviour, not the child

If you do need to have a few stern words with your child, then try to do this calmly without a raised voice. Never criticise the child, just the behaviour. For instance, instead of saying “you are a naughty boy” say “pushing that child was very naughty” as this addresses the behaviour without teaching them that their core identity is “naughty boy”.

Remember kids tend to lash out most when their self-esteem is rock bottom so the kids that are the worst behaved are usually the ones that need more work on their confidence and self-esteem. That’s where all these positive communication techniques can make such a massive difference.

Behaviour has consequences

Make sure that they understand the consequences of their behaviour. This can mean asking them to consider how the other person feels when they have done something that affected them.

As far as possible their own negative behaviour should cause them inconvenience, not you. This means they should clean up their own mess. And if they have wasted time arguing, faffing or refusing to stop watching TV, then “Oh dear because you spent so long doing X, we won’t have time to do the thing you’re looking forward to.” Be careful to present this as a consequence of their own action, rather than a punishment. It has FAR more effect in the long term.

If you have tried all these techniques and still are struggling with your child’s behaviour, then there may be something more deep-set and the issue may lie in their physiology rather than in their minds. Often a child’s anxiety or behaviour can be due a nutritional shortfall, metabolic imbalance or a disturbed balance of gut bacteria and this is what our clinical team specialises in. You can read more here and here.


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