Communication is about more than telling other people what we want. It's connecting our minds, sharing and reading emotions, seeing situations from someone else's perspectives and solving problems.
Playing together with your child is a great way to help them build communication skills. Back and forth communication—whether through words or body language—is the essence of shared play.
Here are some ways play can promote communication and help build skills that will last a lifetime.
Nonverbal communication: Say less, express more
Sometimes it's important to leave some things unsaid, so our kids can do the work of "filling in the gaps." This flexes their emotional detective skills, especially when they have to read our facial expressions, look at what we're gazing at, or follow gestures. To communicate nonverbally, families have to
pull away from screens and really check in with each other.
Put body language into play
Charades and dance parties are classic nonverbal turn-taking games. But you can also communicate nonverbally when you're doing something together like baking or cleaning. Instead of communicating with words, try using an eyebrow raise or a head nod! Even throwing a ball back and forth involves checking in to see if the other person is ready.
Connect your minds
When life is busy, we sometimes get hyperfocused on our own to-do lists. However, it's important to spell out what you're thinking and feeling to other people, and teach your kids to do the same. It's easy to blow up and yell; it takes more presence of mind to realize what the other person needs to know, and help them understand what you're going through internally.
Look through a photo album from your childhood and tell stories about what you did and how you felt. Tie these feelings to how your child sometimes feels, or how it shaped your personality. Think of it as your very own story book!
Check your tone
Remember, the HOW of what you say matters as much as the WHAT. Tone of voice carries a lot of emotions, from shame and disappointment to joy and silliness. Kids also tend to mimic our tone with others. Instead of yelling, for example, if we model using a calm and curious tone, they are more likely to use that tone with others, like younger siblings.
Ask for a do-over & talk through tantrums
If your child demands a toy in a sassy tone, pretend not to understand them. Ask them to "redo" their request politely. To help yourself practice a non-demanding tone, try some of the play ideas in "Defiant Behavior: How Play Can Help Children Cope With Change" that let your child feel a sense of control.
Unfortunately, sometimes kids don't communicate with words — they communicate with tantrums
! Just take a deep breath and try to think about what's going on in that little mind. If you can talk about how you think they're feeling, and how to handle it, they will build those emotion regulation skills much faster. It takes time, but pays off!
Raise a good listener
Listening is hard. It requires that we stop paying attention to all of our own interests flying around in our heads, and think about what the other person is experiencing. Teaching kids to hear things out before they "jump to conclusions" can be especially helpful to avoid conflict. You can practice by
reading books, listening to podcasts or having grandparents tell stories from their own childhood.
Go for a walk-and-talk
"Walk-and-talks" are key for encouraging listening and sharing. You may find that children are more likely to open up on walks or drives when they don't need to make eye contact with you. And be sure to thank your child when they really seem to process what you say!