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Indirect Communication in Kids and How to Change it

“Wow, those pop tarts look so good,” said my little niece, Marie, as she looked in my pantry. I replied, “Yes they do.” She looked at me expectantly but said nothing further. I returned the gaze without a word.

Slowly, Marie turned to walk away from the pantry looking a little disappointed. I asked her, “Is there something you want to ask me?” She stopped and turned around to look at me, as if she hadn’t considered this before, “Well, yes. Um, can I have a pop-tart?” “Of course you can,” I replied, “You are who I bought them for.” Happily, Marie opened the box and grabbed a treat.

Was I being difficult or mean to her? Nope. I was teaching a lesson on direct communication. Many of us hint at what we want, but forget to ask for it directly. Sometimes we don’t speak candidly out of fear of the response, habit, or simply we don’t have the skill to do this. Asking for what we want and need is really an invaluable skill that many parents forget to teach outright.

Let’s look at another example of indirectness from my second niece. My sister is trying to hurry her out the door to go to a play date. Julia, although excited for where she is going, starts to cry because she can’t find her other shoe. “Momma!!!!” sob, “You don’t care about helping me!!!” This statement annoys my sister, and since she doesn’t immediately come over to help her, Julia starts crying even more. “Hurry up and get in the car! Stop crying.” At this Julia falls on the floor and refuses to move. A scene very familiar in many families.

So how does direct communication help in this situation? If my sister had asked her, “What are you asking of me?” Julia would have to pause to think about what she actually wanted. “Can you help me find my shoe?” might have followed my sisters question. Allowing a child a moment to think through things gives them time to stall and will help them regulate their emotions.

I can hear many parents thinking, “My kid is never going to be able to do that.” How about giving it a try? Learning how to directly communicate is a behavioral skill just like learning how to tie a shoe or say “please” and “thank you.”

Good Questions to Ask Your Kids

You can start the teaching with a easy question like, “Is there something you want to ask me?” or “Did you have a question?” Don’t make it too complicated. Remember they are kids. These questions are a great way of teaching children to assess their needs and do it relatively quickly.

The next step is then to respond directly, without any vagueness. It doesn’t matter if the answer is one the child will or won’t like. Most of the time knowing the answer is what will calm their emotions down anyway. In the case of Julia, the direct response might not be one she likes, but nonetheless would give her more information. “No I can’t. I need to load up the car. Please find another pair of shoes to wear.”

Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. It takes practice on the parent’s part to learn this skill too. You’ve learn other parenting skills, this is just one more to add to your toolbox.

Indirect Communication in Kids and How to Change it

Hope Arnold

Hope is a Radically Open DBT Senior Clinician and 1-day trainer for Radically Open LTD organization. As a self identified overcontrolled person, she works to help her clients learn to relax, take themselves less seriously and be the person they want to be. Perfectionism, anxiety, rigidity, detailed focus, risk aversion and loneliness are some of the areas that overcontrolled people struggle to navigate. In her writing Hope uses humor and real life stories to help overcontrolled individuals make the changes that will bring happiness to their lives. Hope is licensed as a LCSW in Colorado, Texas, and Virgina. She has a private practice in Denver, Colorado.

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APA Reference
Arnold, H. (2018). Indirect Communication in Kids and How to Change it. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
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