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Age Appropriate Communication and Distraction Techniques

Age Appropriate Communication and Distraction Techniques

Young children and communication

Positive two-way communication is essential to building a child’s self-esteem. While children thrive with words of encouragement and praise, listening to a child boosts their self-esteem and enables them to feel worthy and loved.

It is worth remembering that children can understand language long before they can master speech. You can keep up with a child’s evolving language development by paying daily attention to them and using clear and open communication patterns.

Positive communication with young children

A child’s ability to manage stress, feel confident and motivate themselves in later life has a lot to do with their early childhood experiences. A person’s ‘self-concept’ is their sense of who they are and how they feel about their place in their family and community. This begins to develop between the ages of two and six years.

Positive relationships between parents and children are an important part of building a child’s positive self-concept. A child who feels constantly blamed, judged and criticised may grow up to become an adult with a negative self-concept.

Listen to children

If you want a child to be a good listener, make sure you’re a good role model. Take the time to listen to them. Busy, distracted parents and adults tend to tune out a chattering child, which is understandable from time to time. If you constantly ignore a child, however, you send the message that listening isn’t important and that what a child has to say isn’t important to you.

Some suggestions include:

  • Pay attention to what a child is saying whenever you can.
  • Make sure to allocate some time every day to simply sit and listen to a child even within a busy schedule.
  • Encourage a child’s ideas and opinions. Positive communication is a two-way street in which both parties take turns listening and talking.
  • Resist the urge to correct their grammatical errors or finish their sentences – concentrate instead on what they are trying to say.
  • Allow important or difficult issues to be discussed without the fear of over-reaction, criticism or blame.

Communicating with babies

A baby’s brain is ‘hard-wired’ to pay attention to the sound of a human voice. Their mastery of language depends on listening to you speak. Long before your baby can form understandable words, they will respond to you with noises, facial expressions and body language.

You can actively listen to a baby and encourage their language development in many ways, including:

  • Accept that crying is your baby’s primary method of communication.
  • Attend to their needs as soon as you can once they start crying, to let them know they have been acknowledged and understood.
  • Spend some time actively listening to a baby’s cooing and noise-making by looking them in the eye and encouraging them with smiles and talk.
  • Talk to your baby frequently about anything and everything. You can also read to them from books and the daily paper.

Communicating with toddlers

A toddler may have a vocabulary of two hundred or so words and can start stringing words together to make simple sentences. Mastering grammar and sentence construction is difficult and a toddler will make plenty of mistakes.

You can encourage a toddler’s language development in many ways, such as:

  • It is more important to listen attentively to a child than to correct their grammatical errors.
  • Allow a toddler sufficient time to finish what they are trying to say.
  • Don’t show impatient body language, such as sighing or foot-tapping.
  • Answer any questions using simple language.
  • A child that constantly interrupts adult conversations may be feeling starved of attention.

Communicating with an older child

By the time a child is in their later years of primary school, their language and ability to convey ideas has improved a lot. They even alter their speech to suit the circumstances. They may speak more formally in front of a teacher than they do with family and friends.

You can show that you are actively listening to an older child in many ways, including:

  • Make time to listen exclusively to a child without distractions.
  • If a child tends to give ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, try asking open-ended questions such as ‘What was the best thing about school today?’
  • Allow a child to have differences of opinion and respect their point of view.
  • Try not to interrupt, lecture or criticise.

Body language communication with young children

Actions speak louder than words. Remember that the way you say something is important. Suggestions include:

  • Squat down to the same level as the child instead of towering over them.
  • Maintain eye contact with young children. Remember, though, that older children and adolescents often don’t like this, so chatting while you’re walking along or driving in the car can be more effective.
  • Smile. A child will respond better to a smile than a frown.
  • Avoid talking to them when your back is turned or when you are walking away from them.
  • Use a gentle tone of voice, especially if tempers are starting to fray. Yelling only encourages more anger.
  • Cuddle children often (no matter how old they are).
  • Avoid impatient body language like eye rolling, foot tapping or sighing. This can discourage a child from talking.

Distraction: Behaviour Management Tool

Distraction is a simple strategy that’s good for situations when behaviour might be a problem. In a first aid situation this might be when children:

  • are feeling anxious
  • have been hurt
  • are experiencing pain

Pointing out something interesting, starting a simple game, pulling funny faces – are all tricks that may distract a child and be great options for managing a child’s behaviour in many situations.

A University of Queensland Child Health Research Centre (CHRC) study has found parents’ behaviour in medical appointments affects how children cope during regular treatments. And while it is common for carers to reassure a child with comforting phrases such as “it’s okay, it’ll be over soon, be brave’, these words actually keep the child’s attention on the pain.

Instead parents and educators should remain calm and confident and divert the child’s attention away from the procedure or injury by using distractions such as games, asking simple questions, using tablet devices, making jokes or using a favourite toy.

Distraction Ideas

For planned appointments and procedures explain to a child that often pain isn’t as bad if they aren’t concentrating on it too much. Decide ahead of time which distraction techniques a child would like to do during the procedure – you could even practise them before the appointment. Remember to take along the relevant toy/book/device.

It’s also a good idea to bring things for you and your child to do while waiting. This helps manage fear and boredom.

Distraction techniques for infants under six months:

  • rocking, stroking their face, gentle patting
  • having family present
  • rattles or other baby toys
  • singing
  • sucrose and breastfeeding.

Distraction techniques for toddlers (six months to two years):

  • blowing bubbles or a windmill
  • toys and books that make noise or with buttons to push
  • singing your child’s favourite song
  • light-up toys
  • reading a book.

Distraction techniques for older children:

  • big belly breathing, blowing away the scary feelings or blowing away the hurt
  • blowing bubbles or a windmill
  • counting games
  • reading a book, or a search-and-find book
  • mind pictures, e.g. think about a favourite sport, family holiday, school game or activity; let your child tell a story or answer questions about what is pictured in their mind.


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