How to effectively communicate with your children even when you're busy

How to effectively communicate with your children even when you’re busy

Communication is an important part of life. It helps people learn, share thoughts and feelings, connect with each other, and build relationships. However, communicating isn’t a straightforward process, as you’ve no doubt experienced. Too often, miscommunications and misunderstandings occur because the message received wasn’t the message intended. So it’s important to be mindful as your interactions with others have the power to nurture or harm relationships.

The desire to commune with others begins from the time a baby is born, and nurturing a loving relationship with a child is one of the most rewarding experiences for a parent. But as we all know, parent-child relationships are complex. Many parents feel disconnected and unable to communicate with their children, resulting in frustration and even heartbreak for both parties.

It’s crucial for parents to consider whether their communications — both their words and their actions — support or harm their relationships with children. Apart from the written and spoken word, communication can be non-verbal and expressed using body language, touching and even eye contact through giving someone a “look”, whether that be a loving, angry, quizzical or even that crazed look we sometimes see on a parent’s face when they are at their wits’ end. The key thing is that each of these forms of communication results in sharing messages and meanings. Do you know how your children interpret your conversations with them?


I can’t imagine any parent saying, “I don’t want my children to have good self-esteem”, yet inadvertently parents can harm their child’s self-esteem through their communication. How many times have you heard someone call their child “lazy, careless, clumsy, self-centred, greedy, bad, naughty, cheeky, selfish, silly” or even “stupid”? When correcting your children, it’s important to choose your words carefully so you help them understand that your communication is about supporting them to modify their behaviour, rather than about “labeling” and criticising them.

For example, if your children aren’t sharing, instead of calling them “selfish”, help them to learn the right behaviour by focusing your comments on the behaviours you want to see. Use words like, “I know you’d love to keep this all to yourself, that’s a natural reaction, but sharing is good for lots of reasons. You like it when others share with you and when you share, you build friendships. Sharing is hard at first but just try it — once you get used to it you’ll feel great about it. You’ll see for yourself that sharing is the caring thing to do.” Focus your communication on the life skill that your child is missing. In this way you’ll help them understand what they need to learn and importantly why it is a good thing to learn! Be patient; learning takes time. And mastering how to navigate the complexity inherent in learning social skills and building successful relationships is especially difficult.

The desire to commune with others begins from the time a baby is born, and nurturing a loving relationship with a child is one of the most rewarding experiences for a parent.

A helpful exercise to get you started on communicating for life skill development is to think about what life skill is missing for each of the labels: lazy, self-centred, greedy, bad, naughty, cheeky, selfish, silly, or even stupid. Then you can focus your words and actions on proactively educating your children about what to say and do, rather than putting them down and labelling them. While getting the words right is important, it’s only part of the story as your actions can also inadvertently harm your child’s self-esteem. You’ve heard the saying “actions speak louder than words”. Well, in fact, some of your actions may be interpreted by your children as meaning that you don’t care about them.

Life is so busy nowadays, with work, home, children and social activities all adding to parental stress and affecting how you communicate with your children. If you’re honest, how often have you heard yourself say to your children something along the lines:

“Go away, can’t you see I’m on the phone?” or

“Not now, I’m working. I don’t have time to listen” or

“I’m cooking, can’t you just please go and play by yourself?” or

hear yourself mindlessly mumble “that’s nice, that’s great, yes, good for you” without even looking up at your child while you continue working.

Are you cringing? Yes, we’ve all done it and if you do it occasionally, no harm is done — it’s part of life. However, imagine how you’d feel if your partner, your employer or your dear friends did this to you often. Would you feel special, valued and important to them? More than likely you wouldn’t and this is how you can hurt your children’s self-esteem without even realising it. It means so much to children not only to spend time with you physically in the house, but to have real connection with you, so you need to take the time to be present and mindful when you’re communicating with them.

The great news is that at the same time as your child is learning life skills through your interactions, you can learn parenting skills around improving your communication. Changing your communication in just small ways can make a positive difference in your children’s lives and make them feel special and important. It does take a few moments more to communicate mindfully but it can make a world of difference to your child. There are ways a parent can communicate that they are busy, but still leave their children with the right message … that they are a priority and are important.

It only takes a few moments to make simple changes to your communication by explaining things more fully and offering alternatives.

For example, when you are on the phone, instead of saying to your child, “Go away, can’t you see I’m on the phone?” ask the person you are speaking with to hold for a moment and then explain to your child that you are very interested in hearing what they have to say, and that you’re sorry you can’t talk right now but that you’ll be done in 10 minutes and you’ll talk then; and always be true to your word! Similarly, instead of sending your child out of the room while you’re cooking dinner, why not explain that you’re cooking the family a delicious and healthy dinner, and because it’s dangerous in the kitchen it would be better if they played in another room. Explain that it’s their safety you’re concerned about as you’d hate to see them get hurt. Or even better, ask if they’d like to sit in a safe spot and help out? Having time together means so much to children. Make sure you do actually take some time to look up and give your child five minutes of your undivided attention. After that it’s fine to tell them that you need to get on with the cooking but that you are listening.

It only takes a few moments to make simple changes to your communication by explaining things more fully and offering alternatives. These communications let your children know they are loved but that you’re simply very busy right now and that you’ll make time for them later. This extra care supports their self-esteem as the message they receive is that they are important to you.

On the other hand, if parents are often absent and, even when physically present, they still send their children the message that they are too busy for them, these children are likely to believe they’re not loved and that everything else, aside from them, is more important and worthy of their parents’ time. As you can imagine, this can impact negatively on your children’s self-esteem.

On the flip side, some parents try to overcompensate by rarely giving their children time on their own and showering them with excessive praise. No matter what little Johnny does, his parents shout praises for a “great job, well done, that’s wonderful”! But is praise a good thing for supporting healthy self-esteem?

To praise or not to praise?

Self-esteem is not about external praise. It’s about self-judgement and self-appraisal. External praise does not support good self-esteem but instead tends to get children used to the wonderful feeling they get when the smiles and praise come from outside. Although we all love a pat on the back, are we creating a generation of praise junkies? Did you grow up in a time where praise was rarely given out so that you wouldn’t “think you’re too smart, get a ‘big head’ or get too big for your boots”? Or did you grow up in a family where praise was given regularly? Now reflect on your parenting approach with your children. How much praise do you give out, how often and what kind of praise is it?

To help your children develop good self-esteem, you can use your communications to create opportunities for your children to reflect on their own achievements and on their beliefs about themselves. Here’s an example. Let’s say Johnnie’s been working on a drawing. On seeing the finished work, his parents should praise the “efforts” rather than the “outcomes” and ask Johnnie how “he” feels about his work. Here’s how a conversation might go.

Johnnie: “Mum, I’ve finished my drawing, do you love it?”

Mum: “I saw you working hard on your drawing, and I thought how wonderful it is that you can stay focused and work hard because the more you practise something the better you get at it. Now that you’ve finished your drawing do you love it?”

Johnnie: “Yes, I love it.”

Mum: “Did you enjoy yourself while you were working on it?”

Johnnie: “Yes, I did Mum.”

Mum: “Johnnie, you asked me if I love your drawing and I do, but what’s really important is that you decide how you feel about your work. Of course it’s great to get help if you need it and ask for other people’s opinions so you can learn, but don’t only rely on people’s opinions to judge your work and to feel good about yourself. OK?”

Developing your child’s communication skills

In the same way that children develop their reading and writing skills through many years of instruction, understanding the complexity of social relationships requires more than just trial and error or a simple awareness of the use of “manners” and “protocol”. Your child’s communication and social skills need to be developed systematically over time, and the activities can become more complex as is age appropriate. Through a comprehensive program of instruction, interaction, experience, reflection and practice, children will learn skills for life.

Effective communication and social skills enable children to develop strong relationships with family, peers and friends, and to work in a productive, harmonious and enjoyable way. Learning how to cooperate and work in a group as well as understanding when to lead and when to follow are valuable skills. Other social skills include understanding how to avoid unnecessary conflict and how to be an effective communicator. Building relationships is essential for creating a happy and productive life. Some helpful parenting tips to support your child’s development of their communication and relationship-building skills include:

Listening and sharing

Help your child understand that communication is about an exchange so there are times when they can speak and times when they need to listen. One of the main ingredients of good communication is active listening. Research shows, however, that most people are not good listeners. People want to be heard and understood and it is for this reason that active listeners tend to have more successful interpersonal relationships. Give your child opportunities to practise their listening skills.

You can also practise your listening skills by asking your child if they feel they have enough opportunities to share with you what is going on in their lives and if they feel that you share openly what is going on in your life. Relationships are about open communication from both sides, so these kinds of activities help parents and children become closer.

Instigate a short daily talk with your children to “catch up” and share what is happening in your life and theirs. This activity opens a regular communication channel between parents and their children, supports relationship building and trust and, most importantly, provides the opportunity for your child to share their concerns and for you to discover any difficulties before they become big problems. It’s best to simply listen rather than jump in to fix things or offer advice and solutions. Ask if they need help first and if so, offer a variety of ideas they can choose from rather than providing “the” answer. This will help your child develop problem-solving skills for themselves and feel that it is OK to reach out for help without being “lectured to” or told what to do.

Understanding non-verbal communication

Relationships are complex and people often don’t say what they mean; sometimes their words don’t match their true feelings or thoughts. It’s helpful to explain the complex nature of relationships and to invite your child to practise using more than their ears when they communicate with others. For example, invite them to observe a person’s body language and to learn to trust their instinct when they feel a person is not being truthful with them. By being truthful with your children you model trustworthy communications. Your children know if you’re not telling the truth, so if you’ve had a bad day and come home feeling unwell then don’t say “I’m fine, it’s nothing” if your children ask you what’s wrong. Model open communication and that is more likely what you’ll get back when you ask your child, “What’s wrong?”

Don’t be afraid to tell children what is actually going on in your life (bearing in mind their age). They’ll know something is wrong and it is more frightening not knowing and making up a story than knowing the truth. If you instigate the talk, you can thoughtfully share what’s important and set their minds at ease.

Making friends

It is heartbreaking for a parent to hear the words, “I’ve got no friends, nobody wants to play with me”. Can your children make friends easily? Do your children have the “right kind” of friends or do they have friends that pressure them into doing things they know they shouldn’t? Help them identify the qualities they are looking for in a friend so they are more likely to attract and nurture supportive friendships.

Helping children know what it means to be a good friend and to develop communication skills will help them make and keep the right kind of friends. Research shows that having even only one good friend can be a major support and can reduce the incidence of depression and suicide when times are tough and children need someone to lean on.

Expressing anger healthily

Feeling anger is a normal and natural part of life. Things can go wrong and people can get angry! However, some people take their anger out on others and this can destroy relationships. You can help your children manage and express their anger in a way that does not hurt others. For example, you can model or encourage your children to walk away from a situation when they feel angry and take time out to look at the situation calmly. Once they have some perspective they can discuss what has upset them with more clarity and less emotion.

Many young children can hit or bite or throw things when they get angry. When you see this you can help by first acknowledging their anger rather than ignoring or reprimanding them. You might say in a firm voice, “I see you are very angry, yes very angry.” Then pause to allow them to see that you’ve acknowledged and respected how they feel. You may need to do this a few times until they calm down sufficiently to tell you what the problem is. Then you might say something like, “Please use your words, tell me why you’re angry but don’t just scream or hit. Use your words, I’m listening. Together we can work something out!” Adults and children will eventually calm down once they’ve got what they’re angry about off their chest and see that you understand and care.

Ask your children if they’ve noticed that when they’re angry they often say or do things they feel sorry about later. For example, when they’re angry they may say hurtful things to a friend or family member and then have to apologise when they calm down. Help your children understand that they are smarter when they are calmer because anger affects the mind. Using age-appropriate language, explain how the process works.

Ask your children if they’ve noticed that when they’re angry they often say or do things they feel sorry about later.

When people get angry (adults and children), certain processes occur in the body: heart rate goes up, blood pressure increases, body temperature rises and hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) enter the brain. Anger is associated with the fight, flight or freeze response to a situation when the person feels threatened. When that response kicks in, the part of your brain responsible for making decisions, the conscious brain (logic and sense-making), takes a backseat to the unconscious, primitive part of the brain responsible for reacting quickly to stress (running, freezing or fighting).

It’s good to help your child remember that it’s their primitive brain functioning when they’re angry so what comes out is usually not very smart! That’s why it is best not to act or speak when they’re angry except, of course, to get out of harm’s way. Help your child understand that it’s best to calm down before responding. That way they will have less to apologise for as they will be able to respond from the smarter “conscious” brain rather than the primitive “unconscious” brain.

It’s clear that mindful communication with your children supports positive self-esteem and nurtures loving and truthful relationships. Taking a proactive approach to your children’s life skill development in the area of communication will help them express themselves powerfully, listen effectively and create fulfilling relationships — all of which support a successful and happy life.


Rosina McAlpine

Rosina McAlpine

Dr Rosina McAlpine is a parenting expert, author, speaker and award-winning educator. Her practical, research-based Win Win Parenting programs support parents to raise happy, healthy and capable children using an approach based on empathy and life skills education rather than rewards, discipline or punishment. Workplace parenting programs are available at and

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