Teaching healthy communication skills is one of the most vital ways we can prepare our children to succeed and thrive in school, peer relationships, and beyond. You might be wondering how to talk to kids effectively. Whether you have an infant just beginning to babble and giggle, or a preschooler learning to express complex ideas and feelings, their caregiver is their first, foundational communication partner.
Modeling strong self-expression and communication skills for kids involves all those healthy conversational tools we (hopefully) use with everyone in our daily lives: active listening, respect, and empathy.
But how you put those interpersonal skills to work depends on the developmental stage your child is in. Here, we’ll guide you through the stages of communication and child development and provide practical strategies to support your child’s self-expression at any age.
Children's Developmental Milestones in Communication
Before we delve into our tips on nurturing healthy communication skills, let’s take a closer look at the developmental milestones in children’s communication.
Keep in mind that these stages are only general benchmarks—your child will progress through these milestones at their own pace. Of course, if you’re concerned that your child isn’t reaching developmental stages when you would expect, it’s always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician for guidance and advice.1
Infants & Early Communication
During infancy, children express themselves through non-verbal cues and body language, such as:
- Eye contact – Babies usually begin to make more focused, deliberate eye contact with their caregivers around 6 to 10 weeks. Your infant will make eye contact with you for cues when they encounter new objects, unfamiliar people, etc.2
- Facial expressions – Infants as young as 4 months old have been shown to watch their caregivers’ faces for expressions like fear, joy, and happiness to learn how to react to new stimuli.3
- Gestures – Around 8 to 10 months, babies typically begin to start using gestures like pointing, touching, and waving to show interest in things around them.
- Pre-verbal vocalization – Noises like cooing and babbling aren’t just adorable—they’re vital practice for learning to shape syllables and words.
This developmental stage is pivotal because there’s so much language that infants are absorbing. They’re observing all the language around them and beginning to make sense of it. A huge first step is talking with your infant, reading to them, and having conversations with them to help establish a foundation for communication.
An early communication milestone to encourage is known as “joint attention.” It’s when an infant and their caregiver look at or engage with an object together. You’ll notice your baby making eye contact with you, looking at an object that’s holding their attention, and then looking back into your eyes. Believe it or not, engaging in this simple act with your baby has been shown to be connected to stronger vocabulary skills later on.4
Toddlers & Expanding Vocabulary
When your child hits toddlerhood, you’re in for a vocabulary explosion. Some typical milestones to watch for:
- Between 1 and 2 years – Most children have lots of simple words and begin to put two words together in short phrases (“want Mommy,” or “read book”).
- By 2 to 3 years – Most toddlers know words for most everyday things and can put several words together in simple sentences.1
You can engage with your young child here, holding two-way conversations and modeling turn-taking and listening skills. Practice:
- Narrating what you and your child are doing
- Pointing to and naming objects
- Asking questions while reading to encourage using their vocabulary (“What do you see?”)
Pre-Schoolers & Building Sentences
By age 3 and up, your preschooler’s communication skills will be growing every day. (But emotional regulation is still off in the distance, so don’t expect those complex sentences to add up to logical behavior!)
You might start to see:
- Longer sentences using different verb forms (“walking,” “ran,” etc.)
- Talk about feelings and ideas, not just what they see around them
- Clearer speech that people outside the family can understand
School-Age & Refined Communication
By their early school years, young children begin to grasp an incredible range of concepts, long words, logic, wordplay like rhyming and alliteration, and much more. You can do lots of communication activities or play communication games, to support this rapidly growing skillset:
- Add more variety to storytime—chapter books, poetry, non-fiction, etc.
- Play storytelling games
- Have them teach you things (“How did you paint that picture?” or “How do you play this game?”)
- Try new hobbies that involve reading and following instructions, like cooking or music
Tips to Nurture Self-expression
As your child’s communication skills grow, you can support their ability to express their feelings with a few simple daily practices. Here are three of our favorite tips:
#1 Create Safe Spaces
Just like adults, children won’t express their feelings in environments where they fear criticism, judgment, or shaming. Offer words of encouragement for kids. Here are a few ways to help your child feel safe and develop social skills:
- Avoid describing any feelings as bad or wrong
- Remind your child that it’s normal to feel scared, worried, mad, or any other emotion
- Create a cozy corner or seat where you sit together for open conversations
- Make a promise to your child that saying anything is safe in the “feelings corner"
#2 Incorporate Play & Activities
As the saying goes, “Play is the work of the child.” Different types of play are a fantastic tool for teaching any important skill you want your child to practice. You can use play to work on communication by:
- Reading storybooks about self-expression together
- Providing toys that encourage imaginative play, such as dress-up, puppets, and dolls
- Using artwork to explore feelings and support non-verbal expression of emotions
#3 Encourage Daily Reflections
With so much going on in our daily lives, you can make a conscious decision to build time for connection into your daily routine. Schedule activities like:
- End-of-the-day check-in – Cuddle up on the couch or after the bedtime routine and talk about their highs, lows, and what they learned.
- Daily gratitude – Use a gratitude jar, journal, or pinboard and let your child write or draw a note about something they enjoyed each day.
- Mealtime sharing – Gather the family around the table for breakfast or dinner and share what you’re looking forward to or what happened that day, and ensure everyone in the family is being a good listener.
Ensuring Children Feel Safe in Communication
As your child develops the ability to share deeper emotions and thoughts, they also need continuing assurance that communicating with you won’t lead to judgment or fear. Trusting, safe communication is the bedrock of the caregiver-child bond.
You can nurture that bond by validating what they share with you, and providing an active, engaged ear when they talk.
Validating & Acknowledging Feelings
Unfortunately, many adults experience times when we confide our feelings to someone and they minimize them. You may have felt unheard, unsupported, or maybe even embarrassed. You probably wished you wouldn’t have shared your feelings in the first place.
Your child is no different.
When your child tells you how they’re feeling, it’s crucial to give validation—even if it’s tough to hear, or you’re upset with them for acting out.
Let’s imagine they’ve just told you they’re afraid of the dark. Validating responses would be:
- “That’s okay, everyone gets scared sometimes. Would a nightlight help?”
- “I understand. What if I leave the door to the hallway open a bit?”
An invalidating response looks like:
- “That’s silly. There’s nothing there.”
- “You’re too big for that. Just go to sleep.”
Active Listening & Presence
It’s easy to half-listen to your child with the endless distractions of preparing dinner, reading work emails, or folding laundry. We’ve all done it sometimes. But just like communicating with your partner or a coworker, kids deserve your full attention and presence.
Remember to put your active listening skills to work as you interact with your child:
- Set aside distractions; set down your phone
- Make eye contact while they talk
- Get on their level by sitting or kneeling
- Paraphrase what they said and ask if you have it right
Modeling Positive Communication for Children
As a parent or caregiver, you’re the person your young child watches to learn how to engage with the world around them. If you’re a respectful, open, and effective communicator, it’s likely your child will learn those habits too.
Here are some good communication habits to practice, both with your child and with others:
- Use reflective listening – Reflective listening helps your child learn to recognize and name their feelings. See our article on reflective listening for tips.
- Teach expression without aggression – Demonstrate setting boundaries and expressing feelings clearly yet calmly. Show your child that it’s possible to express frustration and disagreements without resorting to either verbal or physical aggression.
- Model nonviolent communication – Brush up on your conflict resolution skills and put them into practice with your child. Teach them to listen to the other person’s perspective and use “I” statements to navigate conflict without placing blame.
Raise a Confident Communicator with Slumberkins
You’ll be amazed at how quickly your child can build communication skills with a little practice and encouragement. By creating a supportive, trusting environment and modeling healthy and effective communication skills yourself, you’ll be well on the way to raising a kid who can express themselves confidently, lovingly, and openly.
At Slumberkins, heartfelt communication is at the center of everything we do.
We’re here to help every kid learn how to show empathy and compassion for others while caring for their own well-being and emotional health too. With resources like our Self-Expression, Self-Acceptance, and Emotional Well-Being collections, your child will have all the tools they need to connect, grow, and learn.
- "Age-appropriate speech and language milestones." Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=age-appropriate-speech-and-language-milestones-90-P02170
- Pelaez, Martha, and Katerina Monlux. “Development of Communication in Infants: Implications for Stimulus Relations Research.” Perspectives on behavior science vol. 41,1 175-188. 17 Apr. 2018, doi:10.1007/s40614-018-0151-z
- Pelaez, Martha et al. “Acquisition of social referencing via discrimination training in infants.” Journal of applied behavior analysis vol. 45,1 (2012): 23-36. doi:10.1901/jaba.2012.45-23
- Salo, Virginia C et al. “Exploring Infant Gesture and Joint Attention as Related Constructs and as Predictors of Later Language.” Infancy : the official journal of the International Society on Infant Studies vol. 23,3 (2018): 432-452. doi:10.1111/infa.12229