Tips for Teaching Kids Communication Skills

A common challenge for kids today is communicating feelings in ways that help instead of hurt. Effective techniques can be learned, and then it’s just a matter of putting these tools into practice. Whether it’s anger, hurt, fear, sadness, or guilt, research tells us that feelings want to come out. Feelings held inside often result in withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole rash of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, tummy aches, and difficulty sleeping. On the other hand, feelings expressed in hurtful ways— put-downs, meltdowns, or acting out—create a whole host of other kinds of problems for kids.

Children learn about communication from:

  • the model of adults in the family interacting with one another
  • the way that the adults communicate directly with their children
  • relationships with brothers or sisters
  • examples seen and heard on TV, movies and music
  • friendships and relationships with peers

Why siblings matter

Since sibling relationships are one of the most important templates for how kids get along with peers, we urge parents to teach social skills to kids and encourage healthy sibling relationships. Think of life inside the family as a laboratory for learning how to get along with others.

Recycling relationships

Bickering between siblings is one of the most common symptoms that surface when kids lack tools for working out feelings. One of our favorite questions for kids is “Do you guys ever recycle or do you throw everything in the trash?” We’ll get affirmative answers around recycling things like bottles, cans and newspapers, and then follow up with, “That’s great, but do you know how to recycle your relationship with your sister when things get strained?” (Instead of throwing a relationship in the trash bin, recycling means letting go of upsets and starting over with a clean slate.)

Feeling understood

Studies show that kids and adults alike report greater life satisfaction and fewer physical symptoms on the exact days when they feel more understood by others in verbal interactions. Neuroscientists explain that when people feel heard and understood, their emotional brains settle down in a way that’s almost miraculous… similar to a car on the freeway that ‘s stuck in second gear and then suddenly shifts into fifth… Ahhhhh….

The Repair Kit

One of the most effective and easy communication tools that we teach parents and kids is called “The Repair Kit.” It provides a path toward understanding, forgiveness, conflict resolution, and bringing out the best in one another. Once acquired, this method can be used as frequently as needed to help things run more smoothly.

Person #1 starts as the speaker, and person #2 as the listener, and they are positioned to sit face-to-face so knees are almost touching. Deep breaths are suggested to help the listener from becoming anxious or defensive.

Steps in the process

Person #1 shares with person #2 each of the following:

  1. A genuine appreciation toward the other.
  2. Something he or she is upset about.

Example: “It made me mad when you teased me about my shirt today.”

“I didn’t like it when….” Or “I don’t like it when…”

  1. A wish or a want that would help fix the thing they are upset about.

Example: “I want you to be nice to me and not tease.”

Reverse roles

After sharing one way, the flow reverses so that person #1 becomes the listener and person #2 becomes the speaker. Participants should also pause to take deep breaths while reversing roles. Breathing consciously is one of the fastest and most effective de-stressors available.

Practice in a family meeting

It works best if parents first introduce the repair kit to kids as part of a family meeting, when things are going well. Explain that, “When things are broken, like a flat tire, they need repair. It’s also true that when people aren’t acting in caring ways toward each other, something needs fixing.” The adults can first model how to do it, and then have each family member practice by initially “pretending” to be upset with one another about something.

For all ages

The repair kit can be used with kids as young as five or six years old, and kids of all ages learn the benefit of this process by listening to the Happy Kids Song, “Talk It Out.” A free download can be found at the link below.

If you’re thinking that you and your partner may need some couple’s tune-ups with this process first, don’t be embarrassed! That’s often the case, and you can use the exact same model. Thousands of couples have benefited from this practice.

Final thoughts

Healthy communication is essential. In happy, loving families, family members take time to check in and talk and listen to one another. They know how to repair hurt feelings instead of withdrawing or becoming hurtful to each other. As hard as connecting can be in the hurried pace of our day-to-day lives, quality communication is more important than ever. It’s best to teach these skills when children are young, leaving plenty of opportunity for practice and use over the course of a lifetime. What a different world we’d live in if everyone learned how to communicate better.


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