5 Evidenced-Backed Tips to Improve Communication with Your Child

Are you familiar with the 3 basic parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive? Before the media took hold of parenting labels like "free-range parents" or "helicopter parents," these 3 categories formed the basis of much of the psychological research on parenting. 

Sitting in my graduate classroom years ago studying these classifications, I only understood them in theory. This was prior to having kids. Now these 3 styles are a daily reality in my life and my parent friends. In reality, we are probably a bit of each of these on any given day or situation. However, which category we fall into most of the time in interacting with our kids is really what matters in terms of the effects on their well-being.

Let's take a look at how authoritative parenting influences the types of communication we have with our kids. I'm happy to welcome guest writer Sanya Pelini, Ph.D. from Raising Independent Kids. Much like me, she is using her background in education to bring helpful research-based information to parents.


Every teacher knows that failing to install clear guidelines about acceptable and unacceptable behavior from the get-go can signal their doom. Unsurprisingly, disciplining children effectively is an issue that many parents also struggle with. A recent survey by the Pew research Center found that discipline is one of parents’ biggest challenges in raising children. Other surveys have come to the same conclusion.

How to effectively discipline children has attracted much attention ever since the behaviorist school of thought showed that you can teach your child to respond to his/her environment. Subsequently, many studies have focused on how to effectively control behavior.

In the 1960s, Diana Baumrind undertook a study that sought to determine the extent to which parenting styles influence child outcomes. Her findings have withstood the test of time: children raised by authoritative parents have more positive academic, social and psychological outcomes.

5 Evidence-Based Tips to Improve Communication with Your Child

Other studies have come to similar conclusions:

· One study found that children raised by authoritative parents are less likely to drop out of school.
· Another study found that these children are more likely to meet their parents’ expectations.

Authoritative parenting is not authoritarian parenting. It is about finding the right balance between parents’ needs and children’s needs.

While authoritative parents encourage children to express themselves and recognize their need for autonomy, they are also assertive and have high expectations for their children.

What can you learn about communication from the authoritative parenting style?

1)    Set clear expectations. When you think about it, all relationships are based on having clear expectations. The same is true for parent-child relationships. Building a strong relationship requires both you and your child to be aware of expectations and consequences.  
  • ·What is acceptable behavior?
  • ·What is unacceptable behavior?
  • ·What are your priorities when it comes to behavior?
  • ·Is your child aware of these priorities?
Setting clear expectations also means being clear on relevant and age-appropriate consequences and being 100% consistent. As far as possible, consequences should be related to misbehavior and you should always warn your child: 
  • ·If you don’t eat your lunch, you will have nothing else to eat until 4p.m.”
  • ·If I ask you one more time to lower the volume, I’ll take the video game away.”
  • ·If your homework is not done by 5p.m., they’ll be no TV today.”  

 2)    Be democratic. Being democratic means explaining your reasons and your expectations and listening to your children, even when you disagree. It means taking the time to explain why there are negative consequences for specific behavior.

Being democratic also means being ready to negotiate. There is evidence that families in which negotiation is frequently used as a conflict-management tool enjoy closer parent-child relationships. Moreover, children raised in these families are more likely to adopt positive behavior.

Negotiation is a useful tool that can help you avoid power struggles.

For instance, insisting that your children need to participate in household chores might work better if you let them participating in developing a “chore rotation plan”.

 3) Look for the roots of misbehavior. Children don’t always know how to react to their emotions and these can come across as “acting out”. Emotions in children are a very big deal.

Research has shown that encouraging children to practice self-regulation increases their self-efficacy and makes them feel accountable for their own success.

According to Professor Adele Diamond, you can teach your child to develop emotional regulation by encouraging him/her to put feelings into words by speaking out loud. Don’t hesitate to help: “do you feel angry?” “do you feel sad?”

Teaching your child to identify different emotions and the warning signs helps teach him/her to express those emotions in an appropriate manner. It also makes it easier to teach children that they are responsible for their emotions.

Children’s models (friends, siblings, parents, TV personalities, etc.) may also have an impact on how children think and act. There is some evidence that children exposed to television and video violence are more likely to behave aggressively.

4)  Encourage decision-making. Autonomy granting is a key element of parenting. It involves the transfer of decision-making from parents to children through parent-controlled processes, even among young children: will you brush your teeth now or in 5 minutes?”

Some studies have found that the gradual transfer of decision-making to a child is better than premature independence or prolonged dependency. What’s more, children who participate in the decision-making process are more likely to stick to decisions.

A child’s ability to make decisions without parental involvement increases from age 8. This is an opportune time to teach your child about decisions and consequences: “You can do your homework whenever you want but you have to be done by 7 p.m”, “you can play video games for 30 minutes but only after your shower and when your homework is done.”

5)  Use positive reinforcement. There is much evidence that when specific behavior is positively reinforced (praise, gifts, privileges, etc.), that behavior is more likely to be repeated.

What can you do? 
  • ·Focus on the positive. Make it a habit to “catch your child being good”
  • ·To be effective, reinforce immediately after the behavior.
  • ·Do not bribe your child. Positive reinforcement is about rewarding good behavior “you can have one cookie if you play quietly with your brother for 15 minutes” rather than about rewarding misbehavior “you can have a cookie if you go back to bed”. Notice the difference? 

Actionable steps 

· Do you often discipline in reaction to your child’s behavior or are you both aware of the boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed?

· Think about one issue you’re having trouble with. What are you willing to negotiate about? A word of caution: Be clear on your non-negotiables before you attempt negotiation with your child.

· Spend 10 minutes with each of your children before they sleep to talk about emotions. Ask them about the best and the worst part of their day (what made them smile, what made them sad). Ask them how they dealt with it. Tell them about the best and worst part of your day. Tell them how you dealt with the worst part of your day.

· Children are influenced by the company they keep. Hang out with your child and find out more about his/her friends. How well do you really know your child’s friends? What’s he/she watching? Can you describe what his/her favorite programs are about?

Sanya Pelini holds a Ph.D. in Educational research. She transforms research into practical tools and resources on her blog. You can follow her on twitter at @sanyapelini.

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