Here are four things to keep in mind when you talk to your child as a parent. I have organized them in a way that will help you remember the important things, even in the heat of the moment.
Keeping the lines of communication open is paramount. All you have to do is T.A.L.K.
1. “T” Is for Tone
The tone of your voice matters immensely when discussing something with your child. So much meaning is conveyed in the tone of voice, much more than the words you are saying.
In one study published in the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that we can learn more when we hear a tone of voice.
Oftentimes as parents, we correct our child’s tone of voice, but how much do we think about our own?
Our children need us to be firm with them, yes. But the tone of our voice can either cause them to tune into what we are saying or tune us out completely. Using a respectful, gentle, but firm tone promotes calm in us and our children.
Coming away from addressing our child, especially if it is a correction, our child may remember what we said, but they will definitely remember how they felt while we were saying it.
How they feel after we talk to them will either inspire our children to come to us with their questions, problems, and joys or make them want to hide from us. A simple change in tone can change our relationship with our kids.
2. “A” Is for Age
The age of the child you are speaking to plays an enormous part in how you should go about speaking with them. Your default tone tends to change with them from babyhood to adulthood.
For example, we tend to use gentler teaching tones when speaking to babies and toddlers, and sometimes we want to use more annoyed or severe tones with our teens. No wonder teens seem to respond more harshly with us.
Kids these days have way more access to information than previous generations, but they may not be able to fully understand the content they consume. They may have questions about more sensitive subjects at an earlier age just because they have been exposed to information.
Talking to our children about all subjects on an age-appropriate level is important. Almost any subject can be broken down into smaller chunks or even pureed (to illustrate the metaphor) to be easier for our children to understand. Avoid details that are over their heads or not needed at their age.
Chronological age isn’t the only important consideration. Developmental age is also key. Thinking through what our child can understand will guide us forward.
3. “L” Is for Listen
If the only thing we are interested in when talking to our kids is them hearing us, then we have a problem. We need to hear them out as well.
Asking them how they feel about what we said is a good idea. Encouraging them to share their thoughts and listening intently to them builds self-esteem, trust, and understanding.
It is a two-way street. When we listen, we encourage our children to listen to what we say as well. Leading by example is significantly more effective than harping on and on telling them what they should and shouldn’t do.
4. “K” Is for Knowledge
Know yourself, know your kid, and know what you are talking about. Too often, kids’ questions come at the weirdest times. I don’t know how many grocery checkout lines parents have been in when their kid needs to know right then where babies come from.
Are you the kind of parent that is easily embarrassed in a situation like that? If so, take measures beforehand for those tricky times.
Do your research. Have a response prepared in advance so that when it happens—because I’m telling you it will—you will be ready.
Know Your Kid
Are they the kind of kid that asks a lot of questions? Do they need to find out things for themselves? Do they bottle up everything inside?
Answering questions like these can go a long way to helping you know how to talk to them. Some children need their parents to draw them out. Some need to be left alone until they are ready to engage with their parents on their own terms.
As an example: Does your child have a challenge such as autism? Do they have questions about their neurodiversity or their diagnosis? Research how to talk to them before they ask.
Know What You Are Talking About
If you wait until your kids ask or until you feel they are ready to talk about a certain subject before learning the facts, you will be caught off guard. I think parents sometimes stop the prep-work of gaining knowledge when the pregnancy stage ends.
A sensitive subject that comes around eventually for all families is the “sex talk.” A book on how to talk to your child about sex is a good idea. Reading it, even if your child is an infant at the moment, can help a lot.
We can help our family by researching topics, how to bring them up, when to bring them up, the latest science, etc. in advance. Then, we will at least know what we are talking about when the time comes. The point is, to know what you need to know before you need to know it.
Bonus: What If You Mess Up?
There is no such thing as perfection in parenting. Thankfully, kids are resilient and love us regardless of whether we do it right or not. Sometimes, we give in to feeling like a failure.
One bonus tip I have for you is #5: Apologize.
I cannot say it enough—when you mess up, fess up. Our kids need to see that we acknowledge when we get something wrong, that we have the decency to say we are sorry and to call attention to where we need to change.
Too often, we go about our day after speaking unkindly to our children—or worse, justify the offense. That is not okay. That is a true parenting failure.
Apologizing to our children builds their trust, allows them to see our humanity, and inspires them to apologize when they are wrong as well. Again, lead by example.
After we recognize and acknowledge when we get it wrong, showing our children that we are willing to change is key. This includes showing them our willingness to work hard to make sure that we change what we need to. It’s okay to let them see the struggle.
Highlight the Progress
Lastly, highlight the progress. Let your child know when you have seen them do right. Let them know you celebrate your own progress as well. Being proud of ourselves is just as important as being proud of our kids.
Many times, therapists help adults understand the wounds their parents left on them by helping them see the humanity of their parents. This allows them to relate to their parents’ struggles in a new way and often leads to forgiveness.
How great would it be for our generation to parent children who get that from their childhood? It would put them light years ahead of the previous generation, not just in time but in thought, balance, life, and love.
Talking to our kids is something we do more than any other activity we do with them. How we talk to them is important. No matter what stage of parenting we are in, preparation is necessary.
From teaching them how to walk to talking them through their first heartbreak and beyond, our voice is the one that will be in their heads until they find their own.
With the T.A.L.K method, we can remember to use the correct tone, age-appropriate level, to listen, and to know what we need to know. Talking to our children can be effective and is our best tool for relationship building.