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Communication Mistakes Parents Make

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Thursday, July 21st, 2016
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African American father talking to son
African American father talking to son

Just as there are common negative behaviors that most children make, such as yelling when angry and refusing to share toys, there are also common ineffective tactics parents turn to when communicating with their children. These communication mistakes can leave the child feeling belittled, prevent a teaching moment, and possibly damage a relationship over time. During frustrating moments we often turn to reactions that our parents used with us. Those early interactions and communication habits we learned as a child become our inner voice and a natural reaction. Now, I’m not saying that we should be angry at our parents for passing down negative habits, because they did the best they could, just as we do, but it is nice to be aware of what we turn to first when we aren’t sure how to respond. Then, once we recognize a negative reaction, we know what to work on. Here are the most common communication mistakes I observed while working as a social worker.

1. Asking unanswerable questions

This mistake came to my mind first because it is an ineffective tactic I find myself using too frequently. These are the questions like, “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking?” I don’t think we really expect an answer, so why do we ask these questions? I believe that asking these questions can induce some kind of guilt or blame and we want our children to know that they’ve done something wrong. But if you place yourself on the opposite side of the situation these questions seem unproductive. For example, let’s say I accidentally leave the milk out on the table overnight and in the morning my husband finds the soured milk. If he came to me and asked “Why did you leave the milk out?” I wouldn’t have a response. Or what if I pick up a full garbage bag and it breaks and everything falls out the bottom, and my daughter says to me, “What were you thinking, Mom?” I wouldn’t know how to respond when asked this question either. Asking these types of questions doesn’t bring understanding to why your child behaved that way and it definitely doesn’t teach how to respond differently, so it’s best to just leave the question out and instead turn to Observe and Describe. Then, if necessary, turn to Preventive Teaching or giving a consequence to reinforce what behavior should be done instead. If we take a step back we may see that sometimes accidents happen or our children act before thinking of the consequences of their action.

2. Empty threats

Threats usually involve a consequence too large for the negative behavior that you never intend to follow through with. Threats are the ineffective version of if/then statements. If/then statements are when you see a negative behavior occurring and you say, “If you continue to do __________, then you will earn ____________ as a negative consequence.” Then, if they do it again, follow through with the consequence. Children easily understand the difference between threats and if/then statements. If you follow through with consequences quickly after you acknowledge a negative behavior then they learn you are being serious when giving if/then statements. But many parents will threaten over and over again (e.g. Santa won’t come for Christmas, we’ll leave the restaurant, I’ll make you walk home) in an effort to scare the child into behaving appropriately. Instead of changing their behavior, children learn not to respect your boundaries and on a larger scale may not know how to respond appropriately when given a real consequence outside the home. It creates frustration on both sides. You are frustrated because they’re not listening or stopping the behavior and your children are frustrated from being told the same thing over and over.

3. Lecturing vs. listening

This mistake is more commonly used with older children. Although it seems like a great tactic to calmly talk with your child about a negative behavior, children tune out the talking very quickly and their minds start wandering. Other negative tactics also tend to creep up when lecturing, such as “When I was your age…” stories of how a parent behaved well or learned a lesson from behaving negatively and comparing to others (siblings, friends, neighbors, etc.). Most the time, if you give children the opportunity to talk they may give you a better understanding of the situation and why they behaved negatively. This will then help you know what to teach to prepare them for future situations. Brief teaching interactions can be very effective without turning into an endless lecture. The skill of Correcting Behaviors has 7 simple steps that can be completed in 5 minutes or less. The child clearly hears the negative behavior and the consequence he earned, what he should do differently next time, and then practices the appropriate way to respond. Then you can both move on with your day without the child feeling ashamed for what they’ve done or having no opportunity to modify the behavior.

4. Minimizing their emotions

This communication mistake is used to calm our child and to reduce the negative emotion they’re feeling. We think, if they can see the situation rationally then they’ll realize it’s not that big of deal. The intentions are good, but it does not produce the desired effect. Instead of calming a child down, it makes them feel misunderstood and maybe even dumb for feeling that way. This discourages a child from confiding in you again in the future. Empathy is so important in helping a child feel better and should be the first response when talking with a child, especially before correcting or giving advice.

If you’ve noticed one of these communication mistakes in your own daily interactions, as I sometimes notice in myself, don’t become discouraged. The first step of changing behavior is recognizing there is something to change. Choose one behavior to work on first. Put reminders up around the house, give yourself rewards when you do succeed, and have your children kindly remind you when you didn’t respond appropriately in a particular situation. Start somewhere. Children are very understanding and forgiving and appreciate when their parents are working to improve their behavior alongside them.


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