How to get kids to express themselves confidently and kindly

From toddlers to teens, here's some useful advice to help you and your child communicate better with each other.

Every parent experiences moments of complete panic trying to work out why their child is upset, angry or frustrated.

Whether it's toddlers on the rampage because they are unable to express themselves fully or sullen teens refusing to talk about it, life can be tricky when you're worried about your child's behaviour and development.

So we've come up with some simple guidelines to help you encourage your children to express how they feel confidently - and kindly, too.

Communication at ages two to five

Most young children's stock phrase is "I don't know", which can be an extremely frustrating answer when you're trying to figure out what's wrong or what they need.

To avoid "I don't know" becoming their go-to response, it's important to ask specific questions to get specific answers. Instead of "How are you feeling?" or "How was nursery today?" ask, "Who did you play with today?" or "What story were you told this afternoon?".

When they give you information, it's important to pay attention - sounding and looking interested is key, as it tells kids that their response is important to you.

A great idea is to have special one-on-one talking' time each day - whether that's on the drive home from nursery, or while dinner's cooking - so your child knows that time is available for them to openly share.

A focused activity, like reading together, is a clever move too. Not only are you equipping your child with new ways of expressing themselves via the book's characters and language, but you're showing that you're available to talk and listen.

When you do communicate with your child, focus on taking turns while you talk, and practice role-play if you can - pretending to be other children, or a teacher, for example, can be a great way of getting them to open up.

Be mindful of your child's development too: studies indicate that as many as one in 10 children have speech and language difficulties. If you're noticing they have difficulty with sentence structure, concentration or the meaning of words, it's always worth seeking an expert opinion.

Communication at ages five to 12

Children's communication techniques are often picked up from parents, so it's worth thinking about the way you talk with your own parents, friends and family. Do you raise your voice often? Interrupt people when they're talking?

A good move is not to put young children under pressure in conversations - instead of beginning conversations with a question, talk to them casually as you go about your day, discussing anything from what you're cooking to when the dog needs walking. That way, they'll feel more comfortable talking too.

When they express themselves or say something that surprises you - perhaps they don't like a teacher, or a school friend has upset them - be mindful of your reaction. A dramatic one can scare a child into withholding information next time. Instead, remain calm and open, and resist the temptation to find an answer immediately - just getting your child to feel comfortable discussing personal subjects is a big step.

Leading by example when it comes to body language is important at this age, too. When you talk to them, or others in front of them, check your own body language - are you closed off to the conversation? Do your arms flail around you when you're angry? Do you roll your eyes when you're irritated? Adapting your body language, and pointing out the importance of this to your own child when it's needed, is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Communication during the teen years

It's tempting to bombard your teen with questions as soon as they walk in the door, but a better idea could be to hang back a little and wait until they initiate a conversation with you - that way, they won't feel under pressure.

Day-to-day, think about their preferred forms of communication - do they keep in touch with their friends on WhatsApp, for example? Then perhaps if you're struggling to get through to them, send them a message! Even if they're sitting across the table from you, it could be a funny way to break the ice.

It's important to give a teen privacy and not to crowd their space - if they think you're snooping on their emails or phone calls, for example, they'll only close themselves off more.

Research by psychiatry professor Albert Scheflin shows that men prefer side-by-side communication over face-to-face, whereas women prefer the opposite, so bear that in mind if you're raising a teenage boy - can you have an informal daily chat in the car, for example?

Because children imitate behaviour, lead by example when problems or difficult scenarios arise. If they see you slamming the phone down or storming out, they'll do the same when things become heated.

While talking's great, if you know there's something troubling them that can be remedied easily, such as dandruff or hormonal pimples getting them down, don't labour the point and embarrass them. Instead, just leave a little bag of goodies outside their door, including a bottle of Head & Shoulders Clinical Solutions Anti-Dandruff Shampoo and a good face wash and say no more about it.

Also, to help them to form and express opinions, encourage them to read and listen to the radio or podcasts, and if they enjoy writing, suggest they start a diary. Never read it, though - it's the fastest way to lose your teen's trust and all lines of communication.

Have we missed a trick? If you'd like to share your own advice on how to encourage your children to express themselves confidently, let us know in the comments section below.