Communication is the way people share their thoughts and feelings. Communication skills are vital for building and maintaining relationships with friends and family, and for success in school and employment.
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 looks at the importance of effective communication for children and young people, and offers tips for parents who want to help their children develop strong communication skills.
What is communication?
Communication takes place when someone sends a message and another person receives it; it is a two-way process, in which listening is as important as talking. Communication can be oral, written or non-verbal (facial expressions, gestures, posture, tone of voice).
The success of communication depends on:
- What you say
- How you say it
- Why you say it
- When you say it
- What you don't say.
The importance of communication skills
Effective communication is essential for:
- developing good relationships with others - building trust and respect
- communicating needs
- solving problems and working in a team
- resolving conflict and managing peer pressure
- seeking assistance
- avoiding confusion and misunderstandings.
People communicate in many different ways and communication styles can vary from person to person. Communication can differ based on a person's gender, cultural background and age, as well as change in specific social situations. For example, Western cultures typically value eye contact, while in some Indigenous Australian cultures direct eye contact may be seen as disrespectful.
Communication styles can also depend on personality and the environment in which a person grew up. Some people seem naturally quiet, while others are more talkative. Some people find it easy to express their feelings, but others feel uncomfortable sharing personal thoughts or emotions.
Aggressive, passive and assertive communication styles
Aggressive communication is forceful, unfriendly, and abrasive. An aggressive style implies that the other person's needs are less important than yours. It assumes that communication is a win/lose activity, and may lead to conflict. When used with a person in authority, such as a teacher or employer, this style is likely to create further problems for the young person.
Passive communication also treats communication as a win/lose activity, but means putting the other person's needs above your own and not standing up for yourself. This style may avoid conflict, but a passive communicator is likely to end up feeling resentful and used. A young person who is overly passive in their communication may have trouble making real friends, because they allow others to treat them badly.
Assertive communication means clearly expressing your own thoughts and feelings without blaming, criticising or putting the other person down, and allowing the other person to do the same. The assumption is that both people matter equally, and the aim is to find a win/win finish to the conversation.
Assertive communication is typically the most effective style for avoiding conflict, solving problems, getting on with other people, and ensuring that both parties are happy with the outcome of the communication.
Why do young people sometimes have trouble communicating effectively?
Some people may have specific psychological or neurological issues that affect their communication skills, for example, developmental delays, Asperger's, or social anxiety. However, many children and young people find it difficult to express themselves in positive and constructive ways.
Development of communication skills is closely linked to social and emotional development. As the brain matures, young people learn to think abstractly, to understand that others have different perspectives to them, and become better at regulating their behaviour and emotions8 - all of which makes them better communicators.
However, even the teenage brain is still under construction, and the emotional centre of the brain often has more control than the parts responsible for logic and reason. In addition, teenagers are dealing with the stresses of school work, developing an independent identity, negotiating changes in peer groups, and starting romantic relationships. This is why teenagers often lose their temper for no apparent reason, display reactions that seem out of proportion to the circumstances, and appear overly sensitive to criticism. All of this can lead to conflict with both peers and parents.
Practical tips for your child or teenager
- Electronic communication (e.g., text messages, instant messaging, Facebook) is a big part of young people's lives today, but is fraught with difficulties. Without body language and tone of voice as a cue, it is very easy to misinterpret a written message, meaning that electronic communications can be a great source of hurt and misunderstanding between friends. Although it may be hard to do, it is always better to discuss serious or emotional issues face to face.
- Listening and hearing are not the same thing. Listening means:
- o paying attention to the other person's message
- o not interrupting
- o encouraging the other person (e.g., smile, nod, ask questions, show that you're interested).
- Be aware of non-verbal messages - both your own and those of the other person. Facial expressions, posture, tone of voice and gestures can enhance, diminish, or even change the meaning of a message (for example, a sarcastic tone of voice completely changes the meaning of the words).
- Think about the audience and purpose of the communication. For example, the way you talk with a teacher is very different to the way you talk to a friend, and while a text message may be appropriate for a friend, it may not be the best way to call in sick for work.
- 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 or make assumptions about what a person thinks based on labels e.g., assuming that all old people think a certain way.
- Avoid blaming the other person when you disagree or are saying something negative. Use "I" statements instead of "You" statements. For example, instead of saying, "You hurt my feelings. You know I wanted to come", try saying, "I feel hurt that you did not wait to go with me. I told you I wanted to come."9
- Don't have difficult conversations when you're feeling highly emotional. If you're really angry or upset, it's usually best to cool off before talking about the problem. This is especially important for teenagers, whose fight or flight response can easily get in the way of a rational conversation.10 When you have that difficult conversation, stick to the facts, and try not to get emotional.
- Avoiding difficult conversations isn't the answer. When people don't reveal their real thoughts and feelings due to embarrassment or fear of upsetting the other person, the result can be feelings of anger, resentment and frustration.
How can communication skills be improved?
The following tips can be used by parents and carers to help improve young people's communication skills:
- Practice, practice, practice - Good communication skills can be learnt through practice. Children whose parents talk to them more often and in more complex sentences have wider vocabularies and can express themselves more clearly and easily. This helps them to make friends, do well at school and participate in the wider community.
- Be a role model - One of the best ways to help your children learn to communicate well is to demonstrate positive communication skills yourself. For example, ask them lots of open-ended questions, and be a good listener - try not to multitask while listening.
- Praise good communication - Let children know when they speak clearly, use good eye contact, or smile at people.
- Talk about communication skills - Look for teachable moments in everyday life, for example, use the opportunity of a conflict with a friend to talk about the challenges of communication and the most effective ways to have a difficult conversation.
- 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.
- If you are concerned about your child's communication skills, seek assistance - If your child seems to have more trouble than others their age with things like making speech sounds, speaking fluently, or understanding what others say, seek advice. You can start by talking to your GP, or call a parent counselling service (see below for details).
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
- ReachOut Australia's Guide to Effective Communication - http://au.reachout.com/find/articles/more-tips-for-communicating-effectively
- Communication Skills for You and Your Family - http://extension.udel.edu/factsheet/communication-skills-for-you-and-your-family/
- 15 Common Communication Mistakes That You Might Be Making (But You Don't Even Know) - http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/15-common-communication-mistakes-that-you-might-making-but-you-dont-even-know.html
- Communication Difficulties (in young children) - http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=306&id=1877
- Petrie, P. (2011). Communication skills for working with children and young people. London: Jessica Kingsley.
- Verdeber, K.S., Verdeber, R.F., & Berryman Fink, C. (2010). Inter Act: Interpersonal communication concepts, skills and contexts. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Boneva, B., Kraut, R. & Frohlich, D. (2001). Using e-mail for personal relationships: The difference gender makes. American Behavioural Scientist, 45 (3), 530-549.
- 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.
- Horton, W. & Spieler, D.H. (2007). Age-related differences in communication and audience design. Psychology and Aging, 22 (2), 281-290.
- Queensland Health. (n.d.), Communicating effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Retrieved from http://www.health.qld.gov.au/deadly_ears/docs/hp-res-comeffect.pdf on 24 April, 2015.
- ReachOut Australia. (n.d.) Styles of communication. Retrieved from: http://au.reachout.com/tips-for-communicating#styles on 24 April 2015.
- Feinstein, S.G. (2009). Secrets of the teenage brain, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin.
- University of Wisconsin. (n.d.). Communication tips for parents and teens. Retrieved from: http://www.dce.k12.wi.us/pdfs/CommunicationTipsForParentsAndTeens.pdf on 27 April 2015.
- Things to do to practice better communication. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.pamf.org/teen/abc/buildingblocks/eightthings.html on 27 April 2015.
- Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
Published: May 2015