Communicating with your children

‘Create a space for your children to have your attention so they can talk about their day. This could be around the dinner table, or on the way back from school. Getting into the habit of asking about their day and how they’re feeling helps you get used to speaking to and listening to each other.’

Communicating is about noticing, listening and talking. Depending on what’s happened in your family, it’s good if you can focus on the present rather than what’s happened in the past. How you are with your children (and an ex-partner) will set the tone for the family. Your children need you to be consistent, kind, loving and respectful with them (even when you don’t feel that way inside).

When it comes to talking about separation, Voices in the Middle has a conversation guide on video with questions to ask, tips on planning the discussion, and advice from young people who have been through it. The Voices in the Middle website could be helpful if you have teenagers, with downloads and tips on how to talk to your teenager and work on your relationship with them. 

Relate also has a video guide with practical tips on how to talk with your children about separating, and lots of information about dealing with children’s feelings and behaviour.

Young Minds has information for parents on supporting your children and your children’s mental health. This includes 20 activities for 20 minutes to create a relaxed space for conversations.

There’s more on this in My relationships.

Taking an interest in your children’s lives

Your children are more likely to confide in you if you take an interest in them and what they like doing:

  • Spend time with them and do things with them
  • Make time to talk and listen
  • If they want to talk, make time and listen
  • Talk with them, not to them
  • Ask them questions and encourage them to ask you questions
  • Listen to what they say and take it seriously
  • Encourage them to discuss things with you
  • Share your values with them, but don’t impose them
  • Share information about yourself with them (it’s not a one-way system – you can’t expect your children to share things with you if you don’t do the same)
  • Respect their right not to tell you everything: children need privacy and secrets too. Depending on their age and stage, they won’t want to be under a constant spotlight

It’s good to be an active part of your children’s education (even if your experience at school wasn’t always positive). It makes a big difference to how they learn and how well they do (for life). Schools are keen for parents to be involved – it’s an important part of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence which children follow from age 3 to age 18. Parentzone Scotland has info about how parents can be involved.

How and when you and your children speak about more difficult issues will depend on their age and what they’re like. Try talking while you’re out for a walk or doing something together – having other things to focus on while talking might help your child feel more open and relaxed. Sitting round the table eating isn’t likely to be a great time because your child might feel like they’re being put under pressure. It can help if you take the lead from them, and notice what works for your child.

Useful links

Being open with your children

There are many kinds of communication and children are smart – they pick up a lot:

  • Don’t assume they haven’t heard something just because you’ve not said it directly to them
  • Within limits, it’s better to include children in difficult conversations than not
  • When they know something is up, but aren’t sure what, they can blame themselves or create worse scenarios in their heads
  • Be honest with your children. For example, at handover times to their other parent, prepare them for the handover. Explain what will happen and when and how
  • Let your children know that you’ve made mistakes in life and tell them some of the things that you would do differently if you had the chance. This gives children permission to confide in you about any mistakes they make too

Useful links

 Being a role model to your children

How you are with your children and other people sets an example. They look to you to see how to cope or express feelings or say what they need. They will likely copy how you go about things. 

So, it’s good to think about the example that you are setting your children. 

You can’t be perfect. No parent can. If you can: 

  • Be open
  • Be kind
  • Let them know that their opinions and feelings matter, and that they have a say about their life
  • Help them learn how to cope so they can deal with difficult things and their own emotions 
  • Respect what they say or think as that will help them respect what you say or think
  • Avoid being cruel or sarcastic or ridiculing your children
  • Lower your voice and sound firm rather than shouting or pleading if you need to call them out

All of this is easier if you look after yourself and have people to talk to when you need to. You can find more advice about this in our wellbeing pages.

Separation usually involves working out how to communicate effectively with your child’s other parent. This might be difficult at first, but there’s lots of advice and support around.

If your child has contact with their other parent, it’s really important that they see the two of you communicating positively and not being negative about each other.

But this advice depends on the circumstances. You have no control over what your child’s other parent does or says.

If your child’s other parent either can’t or won’t have contact with them, or if their contact is inconsistent, this can be upsetting for your child, whatever the circumstances around it. It’s important to explain to your child why this is happening in a way which lets them know it is not their fault and that they are loved and valued.

Even when things are like this, it is best not to speak harshly about their other parent, especially when they may be too young to fully understand the situation. Doing this could make them feel worse, and it might get in the way of your relationship with them. It’s better to allow your child to make up their own mind in their own time, while also being realistic with them about what to expect.

When domestic abuse is a factor, safe contact or any communication may be impossible. You and your child may need specialist support. Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is for anyone affected by domestic abuse. It’s open 24 hours for phone, webchat and email support.

Useful links

  • This NHS site has information about bringing up a child on your own.
  • Relationships Scotland has ‘parenting apart’ materials for children, young people and parents, and offers courses and mediation for parents wanting support. It runs child contact centres around Scotland which can be used when it’s difficult or unsafe for both parents to meet at ‘handover’ times. 
  • Scottish Women’s Aid has useful materials and links to local Women’s Aid groups. Local Women’s Aid groups have specialist children’s workers.