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communicationCommunication is about what we say to people, and what they hear us say - it is an important skill for getting along with others.[1][2] Effective communication enables greater understanding of each other. On the other hand, poor communication can create confusion, and lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

Kids Helpline hears from many children and young people whose experience with difficulties in communicating, affects their relationships with others and/or prevents them from getting help.

This hot topic aims to help parents and carers understand the importance of effective communication for children and young people. Additionally, it offers strategies for developing and improving communication.

What is communication?

People communicate in many different ways and communication styles can vary from person to person. Communication can differ based on a person's gender[3], cultural background[4] and age[5], as well as change in specific social situations.

Communication occurs in three main ways:[3]

  • Oral
  • Written
  • Non-verbal (body language, tone of voice, etc)

Different types of communication may be better suited to some situations than others. For example, written communication may be less suitable to express emotions as it lacks non-verbal cues. Without non-verbal communication, it can be difficult to gauge how another person is feeling.[3] Some people may also prefer one form of communication over another, such as preferring to discuss something face-to-face, rather than over the phone.

Another important communication skill is listening. Listening helps us to hear what other people have to say, and get a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings.

How do young people communicate?

Just like adults, children and young people use oral, written and non-verbal communication, but often communicate in different ways. For example, they may use words and phrases that are unfamiliar to adults, or are out of context to their usual meaning such as 'sick' meaning good. They may also use non-verbal communication in different ways, for example, using gestures that copy a celebrity or TV character. Young people also often use technology to communicate, including email, social media, instant messaging and texting.

It is helpful to teach children and young people the limitations of the various communication methods, particularly around cyber communication. This can help reduce conflict and misunderstanding in their relationships. For instance, teaching that having a highly emotional discussion with a friend via text messaging can potentially lead to miscommunication.

Why are communication skills important?[3]

Effective communication can help to:

  • develop good relationships with others
  • communicate needs
  • solve problems
  • resolve conflict
  • seek assistance when issues arise
  • avoid cultural misunderstandings

Strong interpersonal skills, including the ability to communicate well, can also help children and young people avoid placing themselves at risk of harm.[6] For example, young people with strong communication skills are better able to inform a doctor about a health concern or ask someone for help to avoid being in a harmful situation.

Why are some young people not so good at communicating?

Some children and young people are better at communicating than others. Some reasons for poorer communication skills include:

  • developmental delays or difficulties (e.g. Autism, Asperger's, etc)[7]
  • social phobia or shyness[8]
  • insufficient modelling by others

Common communication mistakes[2]

Some of the ways in which poor communication can occur include:

  • Mind-Reading - This is a common mistake which takes place in many of our relationships. Mind reading means that one person assumes and expects the other person to know what they are feeling and thinking without discussing it with them. The assumption is that other people have the ability to understand us and our position without expressing it clearly. In the majority of cases it results in misunderstandings and negative feelings between people. Therefore, it is important to clearly express thoughts and feelings and not assume that they will figure it out by themselves
  • Avoiding Communication - Communication difficulties often occur because we don't reveal our feelings, thoughts and/or wishes. Often, people don't communicate due to feelings of embarrassment or a fear of upsetting the other person. This can lead to feelings of anger, resentment and frustration which may result in problematic relationships
  • Labelling - Another communication error is labelling the other person, for example, saying that because a person is old they think a certain way. When people are labelled, they feel attacked and this increases the likelihood of a hostile response, which could lead to conflict
  • Alienating Messages - Making 'you' statements to blame the other person, using negative comparisons, threats and sarcasm when communicating with others may lead to conflict rather than a successful outcome

How can communication skills be improved?

The following tips can be used by parents and carers to help improve young people's communication skills:

  • Be a role model - By developing your own communication skills and using them when interacting with children and young people, you are providing an example of how to communicate with others
  • Talk about communication - Find opportunities to raise communication issues with children and young people to help expand their awareness
  • Practice, practice, practice - Good communication skills require practice - the home environment is the perfect setting to practice these skills
  • Learn to listen - Teaching children and young people to listen is just as important as teaching them to express themselves. Good communication is two-way
  • Stay on topic - Sticking to the issue at hand limits the potential for confusion and misunderstanding
  • Avoid assumptions - Checking for understanding allows each person to make sure they have heard what is being said correctly. Sometimes, people incorrectly assume they know what the other person is intending to say which can leads to misunderstandings
  • Seek assistance for children/young people with delayed communication skills - If your child has delayed communication skills, or you have concerns about their communication abilities, consider making use of the many programs and specialists available to provide assistance - they can address any specific areas of need
  • Use games and role play - For young children in particular, games and make-believe role playing activities can be useful to teach communication skills in imagined scenarios
  • Suggest contacting Kids Helpline - Kids Helpline is a great way for children and young people to seek advice and support, either as a one-off or on an ongoing basis
  • Ask for advice - Contact your state's parent counselling service (see below for details) to discuss any concerns you may have about your child/young person's communication. These services can suggest strategies specific to your situation
  • Be aware of differences - People of different cultures communicate in different ways. Making children/young people aware of these differences can help avoid misunderstandings when interacting with people from different backgrounds

Who can I contact for more information?

You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.

Helpful links


  1. ReachOut Australia. (n.d.). Effective Communication. Retrieved from: on 9 June 2011.
  2. Verderber, K.S., Verderber, R.F. & Berryman-Fink, C. (2010). Inter-Act: Interpersonal communication concepts, skills and contexts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Boneva, B., Kraut, R. & Frohlich, D. (2001). Using e-mail for personal relationships: The difference gender makes. American Behavioural Scientist, 45 (3), 530-549.
  4. Sanchez-Burks, J., Lee, F., Choi, I., Nisbett, R., Zhao, S. & Koo, J. (2003). Conversing across cultures: East-west communication styles in work and nonwork contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (2), 363-372.
  5. Horton, W. & Spieler, D.H. (2007). Age-related differences in communication and audience design. Psychology and Aging, 22 (2), 281-290.
  6. Botvin, G.J. & Griffin, K.W. (2004). Life skills training: Empirical findings and future directions. Journal of Primary Prevention, 25 (2), 211-232.
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: APA.

Published: 18 July 2011