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How to Talk to Your Kids—Even When You Think You'll Lose It

While we as parents want to be compassionate yet clear communicators with our children, sometimes our messages get lost in translation. Whether it's because we forget to give our kids a heads up when change happens, or we're too stressed to offer a calm response.

Either way, childcare experts and Smart Parent/Smart Child authors Cynthia and Phyllis Anka tell parents that they need to be consistent and follow through with what they say. The experts, who are featured in Hank Azaria's Fatherhood Web series, also explain how parents can keep emotions under control before responding to kids, because "children don't really listen when their parent yells."

What is the biggest misconception parents have about communicating with their young children?

The biggest misconception parents have is thinking it is NOT necessary to communicate with their children. The truth is, children need to be spoken to, they need to always know what's expected of them, need to be made aware of what is going on, need to be made aware of changes in routine as well as communication as everyday conversation. We feel very strongly this is one of the most important aspects of parenting, and it should start from the moment their child is born. Communication from the beginning comforts them, engages them, let's them know what is going on around them and to them, and begins the language-learning process. Parents must be 100 percent consistent in what they say, mean what they say at all times, and follow through. This instills trust and honesty and values in their relationship with their children.

With spanking becoming more taboo, I've read that more parents are yelling at their kids instead.

Neither one is effective or beneficial to either parent or child. With a clear understanding of the rules and behavior guidelines, the parents' role will be to reinforce discipline and directives in a firm, assertive way while providing a clear message. Coming from this definitive place will enable parents to address an issue directly and prevent them from having to resort to either spanking or yelling. Parents should not defend or elaborate. Be consistent until the action or request is completed.

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How can parents best communicate with their children without getting heated themselves?

Children don't really listen when their parent yells. You are much more effective if your voice is controlled, firm and confident.

If a parent feels emotionally out of control, step aside and count slowly to 10 (simple, common sense that works). Here are a few suggestions for steps to take:

* Don't continue until parents' feelings are under control.

* Allow the children to remain occupied until parents are ready to continue.

* Review the child's action that caused the situation. Give the child some space to explain themselves (if old enough to communicate). What will follow is either the child will listen and do what is being asked or a consequence will be implemented. Be clear and concise and fair with the consequence that is given.

How do parents help kids learn to stay in their own beds at night?

First, tell them at bedtime that you want them to stay in their own bed and it is not OK for them to come into yours. Explain that night time is when everyone sleeps and has their own space. You will see them in the morning.

If they do come in—which they will initially—calmly walk them back to their beds and repeat the same directive. Continue to do this for as many times and as many nights as it takes until they stop. An option is for a parent to sit outside the child's bedroom door after the first two to three walk-backs. Don't give up and don't give in. The more consistent the parent is, the smoother this transition will be accomplished.

It is important to note that children should not sleep in the parents' bed when sick. One consequence to not adhering to this is that a child could not only look forward to being sick but may FAKE IT! If a parent feels it is necessary (i.e., a high fever), place a mattress or air bed in the child's room until he is feeling better. Then the parent can return to his own room.

When there is a change in a child's life—new school, a move, separation, sibling—what's the first step parents should take to help a child feel safe and loved?

The first and most important step is to communicate any change to children before it happens. Children are smart and can sense when the truth is not being told to them. It is also not recommended to brush them off and disregard their intuition, concern and feelings. Children deserve to be told the truth all the time. If appropriate, point out realistic positives during the discussion.

Let them have a role is what is about to happen—prior, during and/or after. This will help them make a connection and have a clearer understanding of the change and probably lessen the chances of having a negative experience.

Always keep in mind that children DO NOT like surprises. What will happen is that their imagination will take over and that could be more harmful than knowing the truth. Be respectful of their intelligence.

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(Photo: Phyllis Anka, left; Cynthia Anka, right)

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