Parenting Solutions: How to Talk So Your Children Will Listen… and Learn

Parents and other significant adults can employ several key communication techniques to “get through” to children about the tough issues kids face every day.

Illustration by Joel Snyder

A mother from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tells of arranging a funeral for her “beautiful 21-year-old daughter.” The cause of death: AIDS. “A parent could not have wished for a more loving, talented, and motivated child,” she says. A moment of youthful recklessness caused her to contract the AIDS virus. The young man with whom she had hoped to spend the rest of her life also became infected.

The emotional impact on that mother’s family was considerable. “You cannot imagine the toll this has taken on our entire family. She had three younger siblings, the youngest being 11 years old. Our heartbreak and sorrow have been overwhelming.”

Not only did the mother have to deal with her daughter’s illness, but she had to explain AIDS to the younger siblings: how it is contracted and the end result when it cannot be successfully treated.

The situation above illustrates how today’s children, more than ever before, are confronted with a wide range of tough issues—death, divorce, terrorism, drugs, alcoholism, sex, homosexuality, war, famine, sexual abuse, suicide, and AIDS.

Teaching children about the “real world” is harder than ever. But there are ways to talk about tough issues so your kids will listen and learn:

Avoid these communication mistakes

In their book, Counseling Techniques That Work, W. W. Dyer and J. Friend offer this list of communication vices to avoid when talking to children and youth about tough issues. “Don’t…

“…preach, make windy orations, ramble, overtalk, complicate the simple, talk down, intellectualize, make convoluted interpretations, or indulge in jargon;

“…monopolize, keep attempting to convince, give a prolonged lecture, confuse through the multiplication of examples, use sarcasm, mumble, constantly reexplain, make fun of your own utterances or demean their import, hint at but never specify, endlessly contradict yourself or give double messages, or never really mean or take responsibility for what you say;

“…hesitate or tremble the words out, think aloud instead of beforehand, fall in love with and repeatedly promote your own causes or favorite themes, insist on the validity of your own interpretations, or communicate one line while living another.”

Maintain openness to your children

Do all you can to convey to your children that you are open and available to hear their questions on any topic at any time. Put down your newspaper; turn off the TV; stop doing chores for a few moments; put aside all other thoughts and activities in order to listen to your kids. If children sense parents are closed to them and their concerns, they will seek answers from their peers and frequently acquire inaccurate information. This will result in children becoming anxious, confused, and ill-prepared to deal with life’s stresses and strains.

Become an authority

Before giving advice or counsel, be sure you know what you are talking about. Your children will be more apt to listen and take you seriously if your response to their question is an informed one.

Listen to the little stuff

That advice is given by Harvard Medical School psychologist Dr. Lawrence Kutner.

“Kids will talk to you if they know you’re going to listen,” he says. “Sometimes they will talk about heavy issues like sex and drugs. Other times—most times—they’ll talk about everyday things like schoolwork, their friends, and what’s for dinner. If your kids know you’re listening to the little things, they’re more likely to trust you enough to talk about the big things.”

Be clear and concise

Get right to the point. Use simple concrete language which is age-appropriate to your child. Children must not be overloaded and overwhelmed with explanations. They need and want simple, straightforward answers to questions and issues they are struggling with.

Employ thought-provoking questions

This technique is especially effective when you need to challenge a child’s behavior or provide a different perspective.

Here is an example provided by Dr. Robert Schwebel, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in substance abuse. In his book Saying No Is Not Enough, he tells of counseling a 16-year-old girl who was smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol on a regular basis.

“Her drug use was clearly creating problems for her in school and at home, yet she was boldly proclaiming the merits of drugs,” he recalls. “She focused on how great she felt when she was high.”

Dr. Schwebel successfully changed the focus with this conversation which began with two thought-provoking questions:

“‘Is there another side to this? Do you ever worry about your drug use?’ Taken aback, she admitted she had worried, then added: ‘But I don’t dwell on it.’

“‘It’s unpleasant to think about, isn’t it,’ I asked.

“‘Yeah,’ she said.

“‘But not thinking about it doesn’t make it go away, does it?’

“‘No, I guess I need to deal with it,’ she said.”

With that admission, Dr. Schwebel was able to help the girl come to terms with her substance abuse. Because thought-provoking questions are so effective, Dr. Schwebel offers this list of questions which he frequently uses in talking with teen-agers:

  • Is there another side to this?
  • Do you worry about your drug use?
  • Do you feel your drug use may be out of control?
  • Have you thought about the potential dangers?
  • Do you see any risks?
  • Do you have any concerns?

Apologize when you are wrong

Some issues will trigger strong emotions in you as a parent. There can be a strong temptation to overreact or respond harshly and angrily. If that happens, quickly admit you are wrong, apologize, and ask to restart the conversation again.

Gary Smalley, an author and authority on family relationships, tells of a conversation he had with his daughter, Kari, when she was 16.

“I managed to close her spirit down in anger in just a few minutes,” he recalls.

The two of them were on their way to a high school basketball game. Kari was excited because she would be meeting her boyfriend at the game. During the drive, Kari casually broached a topic to her father, saying of her boyfriend:

“I’m really starting to like Roger. I think I love him. We’ve even talked about the possibility of getting married someday.”

That brief bit of information caused the father to erupt in anger. “You’ve what?” he shouted. “I can take the love thing, but if you guys are talking about marriage, that’s where I draw the line! You’re only 16 years old!”

From there the discussion became so heated that the father had to pull off the road and calm down. Meanwhile, his daughter was in tears, fell silent, and stared out the window away from her father. They did not speak to each other again that evening. The following day, when his emotions were cool and he was thinking more clearly, Smalley wrote this brief note to his daughter:

Dear Kari,

Last night I made another major mistake. I was wrong to react the way I did. I love you. I would really appreciate another opportunity to hear about your feelings for Roger. Maybe you could tell me tonight.


Through that written apology, mutual respect was reestablished and communication was restored so father and daughter could continue their important conversation.

Communicate your values

Rather than simply bombard a child with “facts” about various issues such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, etc., convey your own personal values and ethics. When it comes to young, impressionable minds, keep in mind that values are caught rather than taught.

Let your children see your values in action. Let your deeds match your creeds. If you believe compassion is important, let your children see you act compassionately and kindly toward others. If you believe honesty is important, let your children see you deal honestly and with integrity toward everyone you encounter. If you believe marital infidelity is wrong, then be faithful and loving toward your spouse.

Making your beliefs clear to children provides them with a powerful role model and enables them to absorb your values for themselves. Then, as they face the tough issues of life, they are equipped to manage them in healthy and creative ways.

Victor Parachin lives in Tulsa, Okla.

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