University of Missouri Extension

GH6123, Revised April 2016

Communicating Effectively with Children

Sarah Traub
Regional Specialist, Human Development and Family Science

Children base their views of themselves and the world on their daily experiences. One of the most important experiences adults can provide for children is to talk and listen to them. Through these daily interactions, children and adults can develop relationships that help children learn about themselves and the world. Adults who care for children have a responsibility to create and maintain positive and healthy relationships with them. One of the most practical and mutually rewarding ways to achieve this goal is through positive communication.

Research suggests that the best parent-child relationships are characterized by positive communication and interaction. Parents and children with a healthy relationship communicate on a regular basis about many different things, not just when there is a conflict. Researchers believe that when adults stay in touch with children through attention and conversation, children might be less likely to act out or behave in ways that create conflict or require discipline.

Communicating with children of different ages

Encourage family stories

Children love to hear and to tell stories. Adults can encourage children and parents to share their family stories. Storytelling is a universal way for families to pass down important history from generation to generation. From hearing family stories, children learn about their family identity as well as the beliefs and expectations that make their family unique. These experiences encourage children to use their imagination to create visual images of relatives from long ago and far away. Storytelling also brings adults and children closer together and creates a wonderful opportunity for intimacy and relationship building. Ask the children and families you care about to share some of their stories.

Taken from: Stone, E. 1988. Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our family stories shape us. New York: Penguin Books

Effective communication with children requires styles and behavior appropriate to the child's age. Rewarding interactions with children require an understanding of how children of different ages communicate and what they like to talk about. Adults must communicate in a way that relates to the age and interests of the child.

Infants: birth to 12 months

Infants communicate with coos, gurgles and grunts, facial expressions, cries, body movements like cuddling or back arching, eye movements, and arm and leg movements. Recognize these signs and encourage the infant's efforts at communication:

Toddlers: 12 to 36 months

Toddlers communicate with a combination of gestures and grunts, one- and two-word sentences, positive and negative emotional expressions, and body movements. Recognize these signs and encourage the toddler's efforts at communication:

Preschoolers: 3 to 6 years

Preschoolers begin to talk in full sentences that are grammatically correct. Young preschoolers might struggle with telling stories in the correct order, but sequencing the events of a story comes much more easily by age 6.

Preschoolers like to talk about their past experiences. They experiment with pretend and fantasy play, and they sometimes talk about imaginary experiences.

At this age, children begin to recognize the connection between the spoken and written word. They often recognize traffic signs and restaurant signs without being told what they literally say.

Preschoolers often talk to themselves when playing and working on tasks such as puzzles or art activities. Recognize these signs and encourage the child's efforts at communication:

School-age: 6 to 12 years

School-age children talk in full sentences. Much like adults, they ask more questions, relate past experiences in vivid detail and seek more information and justification for the way things are.

They can understand and talk about another person's perspective and are beginning to recognize the influence their behavior can have on others. School-age children can handle more pieces of information at once and can effectively engage in goal setting and problem-solving with assistance from adults.

At this age, children spend more time talking and playing with peers and friends. Recognize these signs and encourage the child's efforts at communication:

Adolescents: 12 to 18 years

Adolescents are interested in talking in-depth about themselves and about their relationships with others. They want to understand who they are becoming and what others think and feel about them. Children at this age want to talk about how they are different from their parents, and they are beginning to recognize that their parents are imperfect people.

Adolescence is a time when children typically act more negative and have more conflicts with their parents, and they spend more time alone and with their friends and less time with their families. Recognize these signs and encourage adolescents' efforts at communication:


The power of the written word

Sometimes we get so busy with everyday life that we forget the simpler ways to communicate. In Put Your Heart on Paper, Henriette Klauser encourages use of the written word as a way of staying in touch. She says that writing can start communications that might be too difficult for the spoken word and can heal conflicts between adults and children. Most important is that these writings become part of the relationship's history. Here are some ideas for how to use the written word in your relationships:

Make the most of communication

Few activities in life come with so great a reward as communicating effectively with one another. The ideas in this guide can help you develop healthy and mutually rewarding adult-child relationships. The world can be overwhelming for children. By paying attention to and communicating regularly with children, you can help them create a positive and healthy view of themselves and the world.


This guide was originally authored by Sara Gable.
GH6123 Communicating Effectively With Children | University of Missouri Extension

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