University of Missouri Extension

GH6123, Reviewed June 2003

Communicating Effectively with Children

Sara Gable
State Extension Specialist, Human Development

Why take the time to communicate?

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 with and listen to them. Through these daily interactions, children and adults can develop relationships that help children to 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 lots of positive communication and interaction. Content parents and children communicate on a regular basis about many different things. They don't communicate only when there is a conflict. The researchers believe that when adults stay in touch with children through attention and conversation, children may be less likely to act out or behave in ways that create conflict or require discipline.

Effective communication with children requires communication styles and behavior appropriate to the age of the child. Understanding how children of different ages communicate and what they like to talk about is crucial for rewarding interaction with them. Adults must communicate in a way that relates to the age and interests of the child.

Communicating with children of different ages

Infants: Birth to 12 months

Infants communicate with their coos, gurgles, and grunts, facial expressions, cries, body movements like cuddling or back arching, eye movements such as looking towards and looking away and arm and leg movements.

Encourage infant communication

Toddlers: 12 to 36 months

Toddlers communicate with a combination of gestures and grunts, one word sentences, two word sentences, positive and negative emotional expressions and body movements.

Encourage toddler communication

Preschoolers: 3 to 6 years

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

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

Children of this age begin to recognize the connection between the spoken word and the written word. They often recognize traffic signs (e.g., stop) and restaurant signs (e.g., McDonald's) without being told what they literally say.

Preschoolers often talk to themselves when playing and working on tasks such as puzzles or art activities.

Encourage preschoolers' communication

School-age: 6 to 12 years

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

They can understand and talk about the perspective of another person and are beginning to recognize the influence their behavior can have on others.

School-age children can handle more pieces of information at the same time and with assistance from adults can effectively engage in goal setting and problem solving.

At this age, children spend more time talking and playing with peers and friends.

Encourage school-age 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.

Adolescents want to talk about how they are different from their parents and the rest of the world. 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.

Adolescents spend more time alone and with their friends and less time with their families.

Encourage adolescent communication

Encourage family stories

All 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 and about the beliefs and expectations that make their family unique. These experiences encourage children to use their imagination and create visual images of relatives from long ago and far away. Storytelling also brings adults and children closer and creates a wonderful opportunity for intimacy and relationship building. Ask the children and families that you care about to share with you some of their stories.

Stone, E. 1988. Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our family stories shape us. NY: Penguin Books

Be an emotion coach

It is important to help children understand their feelings. In doing so, adults can develop an emotional closeness with children that is important for establishing and maintaining mutual respect. Effective emotion coaching helps children to understand the emotional ups and downs of life. Research finds that children who grow up in families that spend time talking about emotions are more academically successful, have better friendships, fewer infectious diseases and can handle difficult social situations, such as getting teased, more effectively than children whose families do not talk about feelings.

Gottman and DeClaire, 1997

How can adults help children to better understand their emotions? Here are some ideas:


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 (1995), Henriette Klauser encourages us to use the written word as a way of staying in touch. She says that writing can start communications that may 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 a priceless good: 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. There is little doubt that the world can be overwhelming for children. By paying attention to and communicating regularly with children, you can help children create a view of themselves and the world that is positive and healthy.


GH6123 Communicating Effectively With Children | University of Missouri Extension

Order publications online at or call toll-free 800-292-0969.

University of Missouri Extension - print indicia