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Connecting with Your Kids: Strategies for Tough Conversations

Fewer than half of all sixth graders describe their family communication as positive and only 22% of high school seniors do. What would your kids say?

The challenge for parents? Learn to listen. Be available without being pushy. And find ways to talk about the hard stuff, so that she feels comfortable sharing with you. If you can control your emotions and keep the situation safe, your child may be able to start sharing her deepest worries. That's when break-throughs happen. How?

  • Don't take it personally. Your teenager slams the door to her bedroom. Your ten-year-old huffs, "Mom, you never understand!" Your four-year-old screams, "I hate you, Daddy!"What's the most important thing to remember? DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! This isn't primarily about you. It's about them: their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions.Taking it personally wounds you, which means you do what we all do when we're hurt: either close off, or lash out, or both, which just worsens a tough situation for all concerned.
  • Manage your own feelings and behavior. The only one you can control in this situation is yourself. That means you:
    • Take a deep breath.
    • Let the hurt go.
    • Remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can't get in touch with it at the moment.
    • Consciously lower your voice.
    • Try hard to remember what it feels like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
    • Notice if your "story" is making you upset ("But she lied to me!") and if necessary expand the story to change your emotional response: ("My daughter was so afraid of my reaction that she lied to me. I guess I need to look at how I respond when she tells me bad news.")
    • Master your own fear about how she's acting. Just because she's emotionally overwrought at the age of twelve doesn't mean she'll always act this way.
  • Reconnect with your love and empathy for your child. You can still set limits, but you do it from as calm a place as you can muster. I'm not for a minute suggesting that you let your child treat you disrespectfully. I'm suggesting you act out of love, rather than anger, as you set limits. And if you're too angry to get in touch with your love at the moment, then wait until you are.
  • Always start the conversation by acknowledging your child's position, as near as you can make it out. That takes him off the defensive so he can hear you. Let him take off from your comments to correct and elaborate; then reflect his corrections so he knows you recognize his side of things.
  • Extend respect. Remember that more than one perspective can be true at once. Assume your child has a reason for her views or behavior. It may not be what you would consider a good reason, but she has a reason. If you want to understand her, you'll need to extend her the basic respect of trying to see things from her point of view. Say whatever you need to say and then close your mouth and listen.
  • Keep the conversation safe for everyone. People can't hear when they're upset. If they don't feel safe, they generally withdraw or attack. If your child begins getting angry, scared or hurt, back up and reconnect. Remind him - and yourself - how much you love him, and that you're committed to finding a solution that works for everyone.
  • Try hard to avoid making your child wrong. This isn't about winning, but about teaching. Use "I" statements to describe your feelings ("It scares me when you're late and don't call.") Describe the situation. ("This report card is much worse than your previous report cards.") Give information. ("Our neighbor Mrs. Weiner says that you were smoking in the back yard.")
  • Summon your sense of humor. A light touch almost magically diffuses tension.
  • Remember that expressing anger just makes you angrier because it reinforces your sense that you're right and the other person is wrong. Instead, notice your anger and use it as a signal of what needs to change. For instance, rather than throwing a tantrum because the kids aren't helping around the house, use your anger as a motivator to implement a new system of chores - one they help design -- that will help prevent the problematic situation in the future.

Author: Laura Markham, PhD. Dr. Laura Markham is the founder of the parenting web site,, featuring a popular advice column and parent-tested solutions you can use every day to connect with your kids and create a richer family life. Her work appears regularly on a dozen parenting sites and in print. Dr. Markham specializes in helping families nurture the parent-child relationships that protect today's kids. She lives in New York with her husband, eleven-year-old daughter, and fifteen-year-old son.

Page last modified or reviewed on February 2, 2014