Communication with your kids is never as easy as you imagined it would be. Whether you have easily distracted toddlers, or secretive, sensitive teenagers, there are a few formulas you can use that will help improve your communication.

Ask open questions

If there's an obvious yes or no answer to your question, that may be all you'll get. Ask open questions that encourage longer answers. For example, try 'What did you think of X?' instead of 'Did you like X?' or 'What happened at school today?' Rather than, 'Was school OK today?'

Be specific

Specific questions are more likely to illicit an in-depth answer. 'How was school?' may be an open question, but your child can still answer with 'OK'. More specific questions such as 'Who did you play with?' or 'What did you have for lunch?' or 'Did anybody cry/fight/get a merit point today?' can spark more interesting conversations.

Tell them what you want, not what you don't

As this article over at discusses, words like 'no' and 'don't' often get filtered out by our subconscious mind. That's why rules like 'No running in the hallways' aren't as effective as 'Always walk in the hallways.' At a very young age, saying 'Don't play with fire,' is just giving your child the idea that playing with fire is a possibility.

When you use positive words and paint a mental picture of what you want your child to do, that's what sticks in her mind. Saying 'I love it when you look after your brother and share your toys with him and make him smile,' creates a mental picture. 'Don't hit your brother,' doesn't.

Ask them what they heard

By asking a child to repeat back to you what you said, you can tell if they were listening, if they heard what you said, and if you said what you think you did. Don't make them feel like you're testing them. You can say something like, 'Can you repeat back to me where the meeting place is if we get separated? It will help us both remember it better.'

Show don't tell

When you're teaching your child to do something new, or follow a specific set of instructions, it's better to show him than to tell him. And even better if you can then get him to show you how to do it.

As Benjamin Franklin reportedly said:

"Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn."

Teach them to have a conversation

There are all sorts of reasons why family dinner is a good idea. One is that it teaches your children the simple art of conversation, in a relaxed, low pressure context. It's important not just that they know how to have a conversation with you, but that they trust the process.

As they get older, communication with tweens and teens can become strained for no reason, as they become convinced that you're 'prying' or that you have an agenda in asking them about their friends and activities. Family dinner teaches them that often people chat for the sake of chatting.

Stay flexible

Older children often don't want to talk to their parents, so you'd better be ready when they do. Try and build flexibility into your schedule so you're able to drop what you're doing and listen to them when they're in the mood to open up.

Turn off the distractions

If they want your attention, it's only polite that you turn off your phone or other device, and actually listen, even if they don't always do you the same courtesy. Sometimes with kids the important information is between the lines. You don't want to miss picking up on something important because you're multitasking.

Respond without judgment

Quickest way to stop a child (and particularly a teenager) from confiding in you? Show negative judgment towards them, their ideas, their values or their friends.

Sometimes you simply have to respond calmly and get more information about the situation, so you can help them deal with it. Sometimes you have to do this even though you really don't like what you're hearing.

Listen to understand

According to author Steven Covey:

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."

As parents, we're often guilty of this, jumping in with a solution when we've only heard half the problem, or offering advice, while our child is still in the middle of venting. Hear her out. Really listen. Don't reply until she's ready to hear you, or you'll be wasting your time.

These simple habits can improve your communication with a child of any age and help build a stronger relationship over time.

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