Teaching Kids to Communicate Effectively

Meeting Kids Where They ARe- Communicate Effectively - April 2023

Do you have difficulty engaging in healthy conversations with your coworkers, friends, and family? John and Julie Gottman are married PhDs who have dedicated their lives to researching the commonalities in healthy relationships. They have discovered four communication styles that predict family disruptions with 90% accuracy: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman’s research has also determined that everyone can learn to communicate in a manner that heals the wounds caused by these destructive patterns and limits negative interactions from occurring in the future.

Replace criticism with a gentle start-up: Criticism is an attack that uses “you” language. Criticism says, “You never do what I ask you to do. You are so forgetful.” Instead, try voicing your complaints with a kind and honest, gentle start-up. A gentle start-up uses “I” language, addresses a specific complaint, and suggests a solution. For example, a gentle start-up says, “I do not like when you forget what I ask you to do. How can I help you remember these tasks in the future?”

Replace contempt with appreciation: Contempt is the most harmful of destructive communication patterns. Contempt is mean, extremely disrespectful, and full of sarcasm (which children do not understand). Contempt intends to make the recipient feel unwanted and unloved. The antidote for contempt is appreciation. We show appreciation when we take the time to notice all the positive actions and attitudes of the person we communicate with. Children need to hear what they do well. Even when they fail, we must praise them for every attempt they make to do the right thing. Research has shown that children need an 8 to 1 praise-to-correction ratio to persevere through discouragement.

Replace defensiveness with taking responsibility: As parents, we sometimes respond inappropriately toward our children out of anger or fear. When we do this, we must take responsibility for our wrongdoings. We cannot blame or justify our behavior on anyone else. As adults, it is our duty to take responsibility for all the mistakes that we make. When we admit what we have done wrong and apologize to our children, we repair any fractures in the relationship, teach our children how to learn and grow from mistakes, and model humility.

Replace stonewalling with self-soothing: Stonewalling is when we separate from others to avoid conflict or show disapproval. Stonewalling children is extremely detrimental. Children need us to draw close, especially when their negative behavior is a reaction to big emotions. They need to know that we can handle their difficult feelings and behaviors as a building block for them to learn how to self-manage. However, parenting is challenging and exhausting. Take the time to learn the skill of self-compassion and practice it. Knowing how to self-soothe allows you to parent well in challenging moments.

As a parent, it is your responsibility to teach these effective communication skills to your children. First, make sure that you do not model criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling when you communicate with your children or others. Second, actively teach and make your children practice a gentle start-up, showing appreciation, taking responsibility, and self-soothing.

When a conversation goes completely wrong, have a “redo” when everyone is calm so that your children can see productive communication in practice.

Dr. Beth Long received her education in Counseling Psychology from Chapman University. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Beth has worked in six unique clinical environments across the country and currently owns Works of Wonder Therapy in Montgomery. Beth utilizes the knowledge from a variety of different disciplines to give her patients the best care possible. To learn more visit


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