Communication includes what we say (verbal communication), how we say it (nonverbal communication), and listening. Verbal communication is the the words we choose to convey our thoughts and feelings. Nonverbal communication is how information is conveyed using facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. And listening helps us understand what others are thinking and feeling, an important stepping stone to empathy.
Communication skills are essential to good social relationships—they help us engage with others as we build, repair and strengthen relationships. But, how can you identify when your child is struggling with communication skills?
Begin by observing your child, particularly in social situations with new adults or peers. Does your child listen, appear to understand the conversation, and respond appropriately to questions? Or does your child interrupt, ignore, or not follow the thread of the conversation? Does your child take the initiative to engage with another child and respond when invited to play? Does your child grasp the flow of existing play and join in appropriately, or does he take over and act out?
How to Help
Pay attention to how your child expresses herself and give specific, positive, actionable feedback by pointing out ways her words or her body language may be unclear. Actively praise her efforts to improve this skill and offer opportunities to practice communication skills with you. For example, you might say “Thank you for introducing yourself to our neighbor, I appreciate that you made the effort to meet someone new! Next time you introduce yourself, try looking at the person and smiling, in addition to saying your name.”
In addition, pay attention to how your child listens to you, his siblings, and friends. Practice listening skills by having him echo back to you what he has heard you say, to ensure effective listening. Simply request, “Tell me what I said,” and give praise for accurate reflection. Explore any areas he did not hear correctly and then try again.
You can model good communication skills by not interrupting, waiting for a response, being specific, being concise, and not blaming or causing others to be defensive. And when listening, echo back what he said. Tell him what you heard him say and let him correct anything you may have heard incorrectly. He is likely to appreciate how good it feels to be heard and, in turn, want to do the same for you and others.
Use the following practice situations and alternate taking turns in the speaking and listening roles.
- Talk about a time when you were worried or scared about something. What did you do?
- Talk about a time when you felt really proud about something you had done.
Afterwards, the listener should repeat back what they heard and the speaker should tell the listener if what they heard was accurate.
Communication is easiest in a quiet, calm, and structured setting, so try changing your child’s environment to increase her ability to communicate. Turn off the TV and other background noise during family times such as meals or while playing board games. Remind your child to face the person she is listening to, make eye contact, and lean toward the other person. Good listener’s body language, as described above, will show the speaker that you are paying attention and that they are being heard. And remind all family members not to interrupt and to let everyone have an opportunity to express themselves.
Start by sharing a personal example about when you felt like someone did not understand you. Then, ask your child what it is like for her to communicate with her friends. “Do you ever feel like your friends don’t understand what you are trying to tell them?” Let your child discuss her thoughts and feelings, and remember to wait and listen while your child talks.