We’re not going to sugar-coat it: Communicating with kids can be tough. Not only are they working with a more limited vocabulary, but they’re also short on life experience, and their brains are still developing. It all adds up to a young child who’s not quite always on your wavelength.
That’s why it’s so crucial for parents and caregivers to learn how to talk to kids in ways that take into consideration the differences between how kids and adults think. By doing so, you are helping them develop effective communication skills for kids.
Whether you’re a parent or caregiver looking to communicate more effectively with your child, or a teacher who needs to know how to talk to Kindergartners, we’ve put together the fundamentals of communicating with kids. We’ve also got a selection of tips for fostering a strong and healthy connection with your child that will have you speaking “Kid” with fluent confidence.
Recognizing the Unique Mindset of Kids
For many years, people approached child development as if kids were just mini adults—sure, they didn’t know everything about the world yet, but they basically processed it the same way. Now we know just how untrue that is.
Children’s brains are fundamentally different from those of adults. If you’re struggling to connect with your child, it’s helpful to keep that in mind.
While you’re using cognitive abilities like logic, reason, and experience to understand the world around you, toddlers and preschoolers are relying on a brain that’s acting largely on instinct and sensory information. And even basic sensory data, such as what they see and hear, is processed differently than when an adult brain receives the same input.1
Cognitive Development Milestones
Luckily, children’s brains develop incredibly quickly, so your child will be learning to communicate more effectively every single day. However, keep in mind that kids’ brains are still developing in several cognitive areas until their elementary school years, including:
- Processing speed – Children’s brains don’t sort information the same way adults do. Not only do they process language and sensory input more slowly, but they even use different areas of the brain to do so.1
- Sorting sensory input – Besides processing data more slowly, research has also found that young children don’t put separate sensory information (like sights and sounds) together the way adults do.2
- Understanding fantasy and reality – Preschoolers have some trouble understanding the difference between make-believe and reality, although often not as much as adults assume.3 By about age 3, kids will begin separating fact from fiction. By age 5, kids begin to understand the concept of make-believe and when something on TV couldn’t happen in real life.
Children’s brains have some significant differences when it comes to emotional processing as well, such as:
- Basic emotions – The emotional centers of the brain develop first, so babies can feel and communicate emotions very quickly. In fact, the first three emotions—anger, fear, and joy—are present from birth (in neurotypical infants).4
- Self-awareness – Between 12 to 36 months, toddlers begin developing an understanding of themselves as an individual. Your little kid will begin to think about how they act and start showing feelings like being proud or ashamed of themselves.5
- Emotional nuance and regulation – More complex feelings, better understanding of emotions, and emotional regulation will develop slowly as your child grows. Between ages 2 and 5, most children start developing the understanding that other people have feelings and that how they express their own feelings can be hurtful or helpful to people around them.5
Strategies for Effective Communication
Productive communication with kids rests on most of the same conversational tools you use for connecting with adults. Just remember the milestones we’ve outlined above, and be patient when your young child thinks differently than you do or responds more slowly. Here are 3 strategies that can help:
#1 Active Listening
Active listening is a highly effective tool to connect with people of any age, including kids. Active listening means participating in a conversation with the goal of understanding, not presenting your side. Here are the basics:
- Give your full attention – Set aside distractions and keep your attention on the conversation.
- Use body language to show interest – Sit facing the speaker and make eye contact. When talking with a little kid, sit or kneel to position yourself eye-to-eye with them.
- Listen without interrupting – And as you listen, really hear the other person. Try not to plan your response as they’re talking.
- Offer validation – Try not to jump right into expressing your opinions after the speaker finishes. Instead, good communication is to acknowledge what they expressed by rephrasing: “I hear you saying…”
#2 Age-Appropriate Vocabulary
Just because children don’t have the same vocabulary as adults doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of expressing big thoughts and feelings in their own ways. To connect with kids effectively, aim to strike a balance between simplifying complex ideas without talking down or being condescending. It is also a good idea to use words of encouragement for kids.
- Use familiar words and phrases – Of course, we’re all about vocabulary-building, but it’s best to keep it separate from conversations about difficult subjects. Stick with simpler language during emotional conversations.
- Try metaphors and stories – For example, you might remind your child of a time in a story or movie when a character faced a relatable challenge, was confronted with a difficult topic, or felt a similar emotion. This might be best for preschool-aged children.
#3 Body Language & Non-Verbal Cues
Adults can sometimes forget just how perceptive and aware kids are. They’ll pick up on aggressive, cold, or frustrated body language just as quickly as your boss, partner, or friends would.
Use these non-verbal signals to help your child feel safe and comfortable, especially when having challenging conversations:
- Sit and get at eye-level with your child
- Keep arms and legs uncrossed
- Maintain a warm facial expression
- Use nodding and smiling to show that you’re engaged and interested
- Avoid fidgeting, sighing, and frowning
Building a Genuine Connection
Kids respond best when you’re communicating from a place of authenticity and a genuine desire to connect. Try to approach your conversations with curiosity and openness about your own feelings, and you’ll be well on the way to creating a strong bond. Here are two of our favorite ways to build a connection with your child:
Sharing & Relating Personal Stories
Bonding with your child through sharing your own stories can be a powerful way to connect. Telling them about times you experienced a similar heartache or success helps them practice empathy and understanding the world through another person’s eyes. It’s also a beautiful way to show your child that you are a human with flaws, feelings, and weaknesses.
It’s important to remember, however, that kids learn best through bite-sized pieces of information. Try to:
- Keep your stories about personal experiences short and relatable to your child
- Share small stories more often instead of long anecdotes
Engaging in Their World
One of the best ways to strengthen your connection with kids is by joining in with their play. Not only will you build a deeper understanding of their likes, dislikes, and hobbies, but you’ll also discover that playtime is one of the best opportunities for helping them work through big feelings.
So go on—build those Lego towers. Get messy with the finger paints. Put on the dress-up clothes and be the customer at the restaurant. Within all that fun, you’re helping your child build a sense of comfort, trust, and security.
Avoiding Common Communication Pitfalls
Any time you’re trying to connect with a conversational partner whose mind works differently than your own, it’s easy to make mistakes. Do your best to avoid these common missteps—but don’t be hard on yourself when it doesn’t go flawlessly. Remember, your child is about the most forgiving audience there is!
Over-Questioning & Pressuring
When we’re having trouble connecting with our kids, it’s natural to try the tactic of peppering them with questions. The more one-word answers you get, the more questions you ask. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work any better with kids than it does with adults.
If your child isn’t opening up after you’ve asked a few questions, don’t fall down the quizzing rabbit hole. Instead, try a gentler way to connect:
- Offer reflective statements – Reflective listening can help children identify their emotions, and it also shows that you’re prepared to hear their feelings without judging or shaming. Try naming the emotions you’re seeing with phrases like, “I see that you’re feeling sad,” or “You’re angry right now.” You don’t need to offer a fix—just open the door for them to agree or correct you.
- Suggest a quiet activity – If they’re not ready to talk, engaging in an activity together can set the stage for them to open up later. You might try taking a walk, baking cookies, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or coloring together.
A common communication pitfall between parents and children is dismissing their emotions or minimizing their experiences. Parents usually don’t do this deliberately—the intention is often to make their child feel better by acting as if a problem is nothing.
You can unintentionally invalidate your child’s feelings with comments like:
- “That’s silly”
- “Stop crying”
- “It’s just a scratch”
- “It’s only a toy”
- “That doesn’t hurt”
- “You’re exaggerating”
- “You’re being too sensitive”
Instead of helping your child feel that their problem is no big deal, invalidating phrases can lead to younger children and older kids feeling worthless, ashamed, guilty, anxious, angry, or shut down.
Validating your child’s feelings, on the other hand, is the first step toward learning to navigate tough emotions. Try phrases like:
- “How can I help?”
- “I’d like to help. Could you tell me what you need?”
- “That sounds really hard”
- “I can see how much that hurt”
- “I see how sad you are”
Connect to Grow with Your Child the Slumberkins Way
Building stronger connections with kids becomes easier when you keep in mind the cognitive and developmental differences between the way your adult mind sees the world and the way a child’s growing brain does. Still, healthy communication techniques like active listening and being mindful of your nonverbal cues can help you connect better with anyone, especially your child.
And effective communication isn’t a one-way street. Modeling these habits will help your child navigate the wider world with ease and comfort.
For more helpful tips on building connections, healthy communication habits, and more emotional learning tools, Slumberkins is by your side. Our resource collections are packed with actionable insights for parents, caregivers, educators, and anyone with kids in their lives. Bring your family into the world of Slumberkins, and watch your connections bloom.
- Collins, Nathan. "Stanford researchers find that kids see words and faces differently from adults." Stanford News. 23 February, 2018. https://news.stanford.edu/2018/02/23/kids-see-words-faces-differently/
- "Children and adults see the world differently, research finds." Science Daily. 14 September, 2010. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913153630.htm
- Woolley, Jacqueline D, and Maliki E Ghossainy. “Revisiting the fantasy-reality distinction: children as naïve skeptics.” Child development vol. 84,5 (2013): 1496-510. doi:10.1111/cdev.12081
- Malik, Fatima. and Raman Marwaha. “Developmental Stages of Social Emotional Development in Children.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 18 September 2022.
- Saarni, Carolyn. "Emotional development in childhood." Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/emotions/according-experts/emotional-development-childhood