Talking to Children: Prevention is Better than Cure


Early warning – this blog may be a bit long.  I want to push as many helpful tips into this blog as possible so that you as a parent or caregiver can start making positive change within the lives of children.

Aren’t babies just too adorable.  Those fat little cheeks and toothless smiles are enough to melt anybody’s heart.  They are precious and fragile.  As parents and caregivers, I believe that it is our privilege to raise them to the best of our abilities to ensure that they become the best people that they were meant to be.

We do not get an instruction manual when they are born.  We go into this new relationship with our own dreams, baggage, hardships and heartaches.  We start stressing about nappies, finances, food, health issues and many more worries that we never even knew existed.  One day after the other, they grow up, start to develop and yet, we are clueless on what is to come.

Often, we would love to think that those little bodies understand us.  The big words that we utter and easily assume that they understand the fear, excitement, worries, pride and all the other mixed-up emotions that we experience.  It is our responsibility to handle the grown-up adult stuff, but that little baby has a lot to learn, without even realising what milestones it must reach according to most baby books.  All of a sudden, they have to learn all about routines, feeding through the mouth (what happened to the umbilical cord feeding thing?) and communicating in extraordinary ways (yes, I am talking about that famous crying technique that they are masters of).  They learn about pain, comfort, soft and loud noises and eventually they learn how to sit up, crawl, walk and talk.  Before you rub out your eyes, they are running around like tiny little busy bees, opening cupboards and unpacking stuff that you packed neatly not too long ago.  They talk non-stop and question anything and everything that crosses their path.  They want to know it all and they want to know it all NOW.  I once heard a mom say that she has her own little circus at home – never a dull moment and with continuous entertainment.  She even mentioned that her gymnasium is at home now as she never gets to sit in peace for 5 minutes anymore, that gets combined with bending down to pick things up and running around to make sure that baby is not getting up to any mischief.

But when the little ones get up to mischief, how do we talk to them?  How do we react?  What tone do we use and what word-choice do we practice?  Do we shout at them, smack them, pinch them, throw things at them or do we calmly make them understand that what they did was wrong, explain to them why it was wrong, what the consequences are and allow them to reflect on what they learnt?

There is quite a debate on punishment and what is acceptable or not.  Within the guidelines of the law, parents are not allowed to smack, punch or hit a child.  No physical harm can be done upon a child and I agree fully with this law.  But now you may say that you were given hidings when you were a child and you turned out quite alright, and here I also agree with you.  The problem is that not all people know when to stop hitting or punishing a child.  Some people might go into a fury rage and cause detrimental physical harm to a child.  This could result in permanent physical or mental damage to the child or worst-case scenario, could result in the death of a child.

With that said, the right kind of discipline with children are crucial and the way that we talk to them can change them in dramatic ways.

While talking about my blog a few nights ago, my husband told me about a post that he saw that fits like a perfect piece of a puzzle into this blog.  I searched for it and came across it on  I would love to share it with you here.

“Death Row Inmate Writes a Letter to His Mother

A death row inmate awaiting execution, asked as a last wish a pencil and paper.

After writing for several minutes, the convict called the prison guard and asked that this letter be handed over to his biological mother.

The letter said:

Mother, if there were more justice in this world, we would be both executed and not just me. You’re as guilty as I am for the life I led.

Remind yourself when I stole and bring home the bicycle of a boy like me?

You helped me to hide the bicycle for my father did not see it.

Do you remember the time I stole money from the neighbor’s wallet?

You went with me to the mall to spend it.

Do you remember when I argued with my father and he’s gone?

He just wanted to correct me because I stole the final result of the competition and for that I had been expelled.

Mom, I was just a child, shortly after I became a troubled teenager and now I’m a pretty criminal man.

Mom, I was just a child in need of correction, and not an approval.

But I forgive you!

I just want this letter to reach the greatest number of parents in the world, so they can know what makes all people, good or bad, is education.

Thank you mother for giving me life and also helping me to lose it,

Your child offender.

I do not know how true this story is, but it makes us think of how our actions, or sometimes, lack thereof, influence and change our children.

How do we then talk to our children?  How do we help them learn important skills like listening and effective communication?  How do we discipline them without causing damage?  These are particularly important questions, and I will try to help as much as I can through this platform.

  • Collect your Thoughts before Responding: Take a few deep breaths and calm yourself down, especially when you are angry, upset or disappointed.  Think of what you want your child to remember from of this experience.  Is it that you lost your cool and hastily reacted in a negative unthoughtful way or is it that you were in control of your emotions, decisively taking control of the situation and have the best interest of all relevant parties in mind?  Often children are out of control and the last thing that they need is an adult that is equally out of control.  What they need is somebody that is composed that can offer calm reassurance in a time that your child experiences a crisis.
  • Set aside time: Life is hectic.  We run around like time is our enemy and we often forget to take a few precious moments to communicate truly and honestly with our loved ones.  It is important to make time for one-on-one conversations, especially with children.  This is particularly important when there is more than one child in the household as older children tend to talk over the younger ones.  Try to get one-on-one conversations with each individual child and use age appropriate language and vocabulary that their age level can comprehend.  Because life and all its distractions happen, it is often difficult to set aside a specific time.  Take advantage of opportunities where you can spend quality time with your child as they arise.
  • Make Conversation a Priority: Talking openly and comfortably with children encourages self-esteem and good relationships.  To top it all off, it also helps build a strong and healthy closeness between you and your child.  Talk to your child as often as you can and encourage them to talk to you.  Make conversation and time to connect a priority.  It makes children feel secure, safe, heard and it gives them the opportunity to learn from you.
  • Create Talking Rituals: Children have different communication styles.  Some children might be active and talkative whereas others need to be talked to at a slower pace.  Similar to adults, some children might be morning people and ready to climb a mountain before we even had our first sip of coffee in, but others might be a bit slower to wake up, but are full of energy by mid-day.  Some children like back and forth questions whereas others cannot tolerate questions.  We cannot change this and therefore we need to find natural times and ways of talking.  Find opportunities within these natural circumstances to connect and communicate.  Here you also give your child the opportunity to expand on their emotional literacy, especially if they can tell their story (and problems) from beginning to end and articulate how they feel.
  • Be Authentic: Be a person when you talk to your child.  Respond to your child with real emotions but keep your reactions in check.  You do not have to try to fix everything, sometimes it is just good to be there, support them, listen and be genuine with who you are so that you can stay in touch with them.
  • Consider your child’s Opinion: When your child expresses their point of view or interest in something, show genuine interest in what they are saying.  It is something that is important to them and they trust you enough to share their opinions with.  Consider what they are saying, ask open-ended questions to understand their views and please be non-judgemental when they take you into their confidence.
  • Negotiate: My daughter learnt from a young age that if she can convince me that my point of view is wrong, then she will gain a benefit from our negotiations.  Sometimes it worked and other times her convincing skills just did not match up.  I must admit, I did not make it easy for her and we had long and hard negotiation conversations throughout her childhood.  It made her feel empowered over her own life and the choices that she made.  Our children have their own views of their own world and if we want to be part of their world, we need to understand how they see it.  This does not mean that we as parents or caregivers must be gullible.  We give them the benefit of doubt and give them the opportunity to prove us wrong with facts and experiences within a loving and safe environment.
  • Encourage Emotional Intelligence and Different ways to Express Feelings: When children are young, we often read them bedtime stories, or we tell them tales that we heard from our own childhood.  We put different voices to the characters and even portray certain emotions through the story that we tell.  Give your child an opportunity to tell you a story.  Encourage them to express emotions, come up with problems and solutions and describe in a fair amount of detail a bit about the characters.  It is important for you to show them that you are interested in the whole story by asking inviting questions and giving them your undivided attention.

Encourage your child to express their emotions in different ways.  This could be through drawing, writing, baking, singing, acting, exercise, music or any other appropriate methods.  We know that it is not always possible to shout out our situational frustration to the world and we therefore find other ways to express those pent-up emotions.  It is important for children to learn how to express their emotions safely, appropriately and at the right time.

  • Praise Positive Action: Positive reinforcement is always better than negative reinforcement.  Praise the positive actions that your child has been doing and offer encouragement throughout.  Everybody has setbacks, but it is that self-motivation that gets people back on track and going forward.  Encourage your child to set realistic goals, to form healthy habits and not to be too hard on themselves.
  • Model the Behaviour: You cannot really tell your child not to swear if you swear like a pirate yourself.  As parents, we must lead by example and model the behaviour that we wish to see in our children.  Sometimes children might be resistant to change, but when they see how you make the effort to change your own habits and behaviours, will motivate them to do the same.
  • You are Loved for who you Are and Who you will Become: When children feel secure within their relationship with you, it will open them up to when you wish to correct their behaviour.  Imagine saying to your child “I do not like it when you fight with your sister, but I still love you”.  Here they understand that their actions were wrong but no matter what, it does not diminish your love for them.  This way you help create a trusting relationship with your child and allow them the opportunity to discuss difficult subjects with you without feeling judged.
  • Everybody is a Learner and often we Learn from making Mistakes: As mentioned earlier, children do not come with instruction manuals and that is a good thing.  We do not want copies of the same.  Frankly, life would be boring.  We want our children to be unique and live authentically within their own skin.  You as parent is trying to be the best parent that you can be.  In a way, the same counts for children.  They are also just trying to be the best that they can be at that moment.  As parents or caregivers, it is important to gauge the frustration level of children when they cannot get something right the first time.  Through effective communication, you can take these frustration moments as an opportunity to teach them problem solving skills, perseverance and patience.  Learning something new takes time and if you can influence their mindset by highlighting their efforts and their abilities, they tend to outperform even their own expectations.
  • Speak Positively and Affirmatively: “You got this”, “I know you can”, “You worked hard for it”, “I am proud of you”, “Good start!” are all very positive motivators for a child.  Children are more likely to respond positively to affirmative language.  Imagine saying “I love you too much to let you go out after dark” instead of saying “You cannot go out because I said so and my rules are law”.
  • Do not Talk too Much: Most of us experienced the feeling of zoning out.  Children tend to do the same when parents go on and on, especially when they feel that they got the message within the first 30 seconds.  If there are to many issues being discussed, children might get confused, which could cause anxiety and doubt.  Try to keep the information that you are discussing with a child short to allow the child to digest the information one step at a time.  Set out the overall goals clearly, break them down into achievable steps and be willing to help should the child need it.
  • Avoid Nagging and Giving Multiple Warnings: “If you do not eat your vegetables, you will not get dessert”, “If you do not clean your room then you cannot go to the festival with us”, “I am waking you up earlier because you are never on time and you will need to get dressed right now” and so on.  As parents and caregivers, we are always in a rush and when one thing happens outside of schedule, the rest of the day seems to backfire in a ball of chaos.  Did you know that nagging actually motivates your child to ignore you?  They know that more reminders and warnings will follow down the road.  Yes, younger children do need more instructions and assistance, but as parents it is important to teach children to take responsibility where they can learn about consequences in a more natural way.  When you give extensive instruction and interfere with their lives to much, children tend to develop into overly dependent and non-confident people.
  • Avoid using Guilt or Shame to get Compliance: Children are focused on having fun and testing their own limits about what is acceptable or not.  They develop empathy as they become more mature.  Children do not have the ability to view your point from another perspective, except for their own.  Saying that a child is “selfish” or “not good enough” are statements and negative labels that children internalise and start believing about themselves very quickly.  As an alternative, label the behaviour as unacceptable, label the child as still lovable and keep a check on your own feelings, reactions and expectations.
  • Use your Child’s Name: Think of when somebody talks to you and uses your name during the conversation.  Our names are like music to our ears.  The same goes for children.  Repeat the child’s name until you get their attention.  Wait for their acknowledgement (that they know that you are talking to them) before continuing with your statement.  If the child has a nickname that you both love and that is not humiliating or demeaning, use it appropriately and in the right context.
  • Connect with Eye Contact: When I work with children, we both sit on pillows in my office while doing various activities and tasks.  Children connect better when we look at each other and sit on the same level.  Connect with the children by looking them in the eyes, this will help prevent a situation where one or both of you could be distracted by other things around you.
  • Check Understanding: Children will best cooperate with you if they understand what is expected from them.  It often helps to ask children to repeat what you have told them to check whether they understood what you said.  Children often get confused by instructions especially if the instructions were too long or complicated for them to understand.  When the instructions are too long or complicated, try to make it shorter or change your word choice that could be better understood by them.
  • Suggest Options and Alternatives: Try to offer alternatives instead of saying “no” immediately.  Saying “you cannot do …. right now, but why don’t you do …. now?” will give them an alternative to try which will also be stimulating and attention grabbing at that stage.  Using “when” in your vocabulary (“when you do …., then you can get ….”) will give the child a sense that they have options to choose from even though there is not really room for negotiation.  Ask your child how they can respond differently next time, broaden their perspective, ask for ideas and do not hesitate to give direction if it is necessary.
  • Watch your Voice Tone and Volume: When children run around at home, shouting and screaming, it is difficult to compete with the loud madness that surrounds you.  I would go as far as to say that continuous shouting at children while they are hyped up, shouting and screaming is almost a futile exercise.  The best option is to talk to the child or children when they have calmed down.  Children tend to block out continuous shouting and screaming from parents or caregivers, especially when they realise that there is no urgency in the raised voice.  Therefore, only used a raised voice when it is absolutely necessary, for example serious and urgent situations.  An alternative would be to join in on the madness for a minute or two, put the television off when it is a commercial break and bring your voice down to a calm and respectful tone.  The children will not only realise that you can have fun with them, but that they also come to realise that they need to respect your direction and that you are serious about what you want to tell them.
  • Model and Expect Good Manners: Good manners should not be optional and should not be up for negotiation.  As parents and caregivers, we need to model the behaviour that we expect from our children and this behaviour should be displayed on a consistent basis.  It starts with the basic “please” and “thank you”.  As mentioned, as parents we should be consistent in our behaviour, this means that just as we use “please”, “thank you”, “it is a pleasure” and other good manner behaviour with other adults, so should we use it with children.  Voice gentle reminders to the child should he or she not practice the good manners that you are trying to teach them.  Saying “Remember to say please/thank you” when the situation calls for it will serve as a reminder to them.
  • Be Gentle and Firm: If you made a decision, stick to it even if the child does not agree with your decision at the time.  Not only will it send the message to the children that you are serious but will also provide them with consistency and solid direction.  As an extra bit of information, use your voice to speak as though you mean it and that what you are saying is significant and important to hear.
  • Keep it Simple: To give a child to many instructions at once will only confuse them.  The chances that they will only remember the last thing that you said is much more realistic than to think that a child will remember a whole list of things that they need to do or what is expected from them.  Keep it short and sweet.  Break the list into sections that is manageable for them to remember and handle.
  • Show Acceptance and Interest: By reading this blog, you are showing commitment to improve communication with your child or children.  By displaying interest and acceptance towards children will allow them the opportunity to share their problems and feelings with you more openly.  When you show them that you love and accept them just the way they are, despite all their differences, they will realise and know that you will be there for them, no matter what.  Yes, we do not condone violence, bullying or other inappropriate behaviour, but teach them appropriate ways of dealing with these stressors.  Accept your children with love, for their personalities, characters and their various interests.  Show interest in their activities, in their stories and be open and willing to ask questions.  Talk invitingly about what excites them and what makes them worry, angry or sad.
  • Use your Listening Skills Effectively: The first step here would be to make time to speak to the child.  Give them your full attention, no distractions and with a calm demeanour.  Use open-ended and inquiry-based questions that invites them to expand on what they are telling you.  This encourages conversation.  If you do not understand what they are trying to tell you, ask whether you are understanding correctly and allow them to correct you.  Pay attention to details and to the superficial as it often leads to the real story.
  • Do not Interrupt: Allow your child the opportunity to finish their story before coming in with suggestions or warnings.  Being scolded or interrupted while the child excitedly tells a story, will only cause the child to withdraw and think twice before telling a story again.
  • Use the “I” Messages: Using “I would like for you to …. please” or “When you …. I feel …. because ….” is so much better than saying “Do that” or “Come here”.  Using “I” will bring the message across to children that you have feelings and that their behaviour makes you feel a certain way.  It may give them more consideration to their actions and will give them the responsibility to change their behaviour.
  • Do not Focus too Much on the Small Stuff: As mentioned before, children are good at tuning out what they do not want to hear.  When you continuously stress and discipline children about all the small things, they will tune you out very quickly, especially if it happens repeatedly.  Children need to learn how to think for themselves and learn to take responsibility.  Give them the opportunity to think for themselves and about what they should do.
  • There is No Need to be Harsh: Before I go any further, I want to ask you to please avoid body shaming.  There are many things that you should never do to your child and body shaming is one of them.  You are less likely to get good results when you yell or talk aggressively to a child.  Your child might listen, but this will only be short-lived if you yell or act aggressively towards them.  Rather talk in a composed manner where you are regulating your own behaviour and actions, this will allow your child to develop the skills he/she needs to regulate his/her own behaviour.
  • Use Age Appropriate Language: There is no use in using big and difficult words with a child who is not on the developmental level to comprehend what you are saying.  Use language that a child can understand.  Try to avoid using baby-language with 3-year olds as they have a bigger vocabulary scope than a baby.  Keep language appropriate to their age.  If they do not understand what you are saying, they will lose interest and zone you out.  Explain new words to them, especially if the words are a bit difficult to understand and make sure that the child understand the meaning of what you are trying to say.
  • Seek Professional Therapy: If you have communication, discipline or parenting problems with your child, please seek professional help from a qualified therapist or counsellor.  Therapy and counselling are always highly recommended when it comes to mental health related matters or behavioural issues.  Who knows, you might learn something new from a therapist or a counsellor that you have not read in a parenting book.

Even from birth you can encourage good communication with your child.  By talking a lot to your new-born and leaving pauses in between as though you are having a conversation assist in developing a strong bond and help develop good communication skills from the very beginning.

As always, I like to end my blog with a quote or two and the following might give you a bit more insight.  The first one is from Drexel Deal who said, “Story telling or teachable moments, provides us with a vast reference base of real-life antidotes for possible future problems.  They not only entertain and give us a resource of proven solutions, but they also help shape and mould our character.  Therefore, when we don’t take our time to communicate with our kids, then we rob them of critical life lessons that we and our forefathers learn the hard way – lessons that they would needlessly have to learn through trial and error themselves.”, and this one from Harry S Truman who said, “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”.

As a reminder, GEM Mental Health Therapy and Coaching offers Skype Video Calls, Zoom Video Meetings, WhatsApp Calls and WhatsApp Video Chats in order to reach as many people as possible.  I have also decided to incorporate Counselling via Email, which seems a bit unorthodox, but some clients do not have the freedom and privacy to discuss heart matters in enclosed environments.  Please do not hesitate to reach out so that we can work together on your mental health.

Thank you very much for reading my blog.  I truly hope that it helped somebody, somewhere.  Please send any feedback or comments to and remember to have a look out for a new blog every second week.

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