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Sending clear messages to kids

Sending clear messages to kids

Every day our children are bombarded with messages that often confuse them: Be aggressive, but not too aggressive. Be strong, but not too strong. Love yourself, but don’t be too into yourself. On and on it goes.

Our goal as parents is to give our children messages they can understand. We’re not doing much better than the mixed messages they receive elsewhere. Has your child ever said to you, “But, I’ve done this before and didn’t get in trouble. Why now?” I know I’m guilty of this. I’ve sent mixed message on what I expect or what makes me proud.

There are a 101 reasons why we give our children mixed messages. We’ve come home late from work and that pile of dishes seems more daunting than normal, and all of the sudden, hot having their backpacks put away is a MAJOR problem. Yet on another day, it’s not their backpacks that are a problem, it’s the trash not taken out. Now off the sudden our kids aren’t sure. Is it backpacks or the trash out that is the problem?

Part of the problem is that our kids are still kids. They haven’t yet figured out that the root of the problem may not be either the backpack or the garbage, but rather that both deal with them not following instructions. For many kids, making that connection from point A to point B is just beyond their capabilities. We can draw the conclusion between points A and B because we’ve had a lot more years of practice. And that practice probably made our parents pull out their hair on an occasion or two. Just like your kids are doing to you!

Giving your children messages they can understand isn’t a lost cause. It just means we need to tailor our approach to their age and their understanding. We’re really good doing this when they’re young. We speak in baby speak. We give small instructions. We give instructions, and if that doesn’t work, we give instructions again in a different way until we make sure they understand. Somewhere along the way, we forget that they’re still processing information and we start treating them like an adult.

Next time your child is not getting the message you want, try these things.

  • Take some time to calm down. Usually, we send mixed messages when we’re tired, hungry, over whelmed. Once you’re calm, approach the situation again.
  • Break down your instruction into smaller steps. Sometimes we send our kids mixed messages when we give them too much information at once. When we tell them to clean their room, and do their homework, and be ready for football practice all at the same time they don’t know where they should start. Is it with the room, the homework, or getting ready for football practice. When we break it into smaller steps, we make sure the information we give gets processed.
  • Practice reflective listening. Reflective listening is having your children repeat back what they understood you to say. If what they repeated back wasn’t what you said, then you try it again and again until you know they understand. Sometimes that may mean you need to use different words and phrases. You can learn more about the skill of reflective listening in the skill of Effective Communication.


  • Be consistent. It’s hard to send mixed messages when your consistent. If your child knows that they will always receive A punishment for A behavior, then they will think twice about doing the behavior. Growing up, my mom would use the “gunny sack” if we did’t get our chores done. The problem? We never knew which “gunny sack” we’d get. Was it the “gunny sack” where we’d get everything back in a day, or was it the “gunny sack” where things went into the garbage. That uncertainty always made “gunny sack” time very stressful for me as a little child.
  • Don’t always try to fix their mistakes. Sometimes our kids need to learn their are consequences to their actions and if you are constantly swooping in, how will they learn that?
  • Speak to your child’s understanding level. Even the most awkward of topics can be geared towards your child’s level of understanding. No seriously, even sex, drugs, and national tragedies can be simplified so that you child feels like their question is answered. That doesn’t mean you need to tell your 3-year-old every thing about sex, but telling them enough to answer their question sends a message to your child that even difficult topics are not off limits.
  • Don’t brush off your children. Your children are going to want to talk about the most important—and not so important—subjects at the most inopportune time. If you brush off your child, they will believe you don’t care. If they don’t think you care, they will wonder why they will need to listen to you.

Remember, the more clear the messages you can send your children are, the more all aspects of your family’s life will improve.