Family Resources
Session Three: Communicating with Love

“Session Three: Communicating with Love,” Strengthening the Family: Instructor’s Guide (2006), 22–31

“Session Three,” Strengthening the Family, 22–31

Session Three

Communicating with Love

Words and behavior have the power to hurt or to help, to inflict pain and suffering or to soothe painful feelings, to provoke doubt and fear or to instill faith and courage.

Session Objectives

During this session, help parents:

  • Understand the value of good communication practices and the impact of poor communication.

  • Identify and stop destructive ways of communicating with their children.

  • Learn communication skills and practices that strengthen family relationships.

The Importance of Good Communication

Communication includes every thought, feeling, act, or desire that is shared verbally and nonverbally between parents and children. It is impossible not to communicate. As President Spencer W. Kimball observed, “Our expressions, our voice tones, our movements, our thoughts betray us.”1 Our actions and words communicate who we are, how we feel about things, and what we have become. Even the refusal to talk sends a message to others, though the message may or may not be accurately understood.

Poor communication is a symptom and a cause of family problems. Angry, frustrated parents and children often communicate in destructive ways, feeling less inclined to listen and more prone to say derogatory and hurtful things. Likewise, when subjected to derogatory, hurtful messages, parents and children often respond with inappropriate words and actions. Changing one’s attitude toward life, self, and others is sometimes needed before good communication is possible.

Parents can break destructive communication cycles by changing the way they listen and respond, thereby creating a healing environment that can lead to a change of heart in their sons and daughters.

Harmful Practices

Common communication practices that drive children away include:

  • Lecturing, moralizing, preaching, interrogating.

    “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Can’t you get it through your thick head that …”

    “You should be ashamed of yourself. Now look at what you’ve done.”

    “Why in the world did you do that?”

  • Discounting, placating, providing empty reassurances.

    “Calm down. There’s no reason to be upset.”

    “Okay, whatever it takes to make you happy.”

    “Everything will be okay. Lots of people have suffered worse.”

  • Judging, condemning, threatening.

    “The trouble with you is …”

    “You’ll never amount to anything.”

    “Try that again and you won’t sit down for a week.”

  • Blaming, criticizing, ridiculing.

    “It’s all your fault.”

    “You’re so irritating.”

    “I can’t stand it when you whine like that.”

  • Talking about one’s own feelings when a child needs to share his or her feelings.

    “I know exactly how you feel. When I was your age, I …”

Christlike Communication

Parents who communicate in a Christlike manner can more easily fulfill their “sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness” and to “teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens.”2

Appropriate values and beliefs are unlikely to be transmitted to children without a caring, sensitive exchange of information. The willingness of children to listen and talk often depends on the climate for communication that parents create in the home.

As Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ is our example: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). As the only perfect individual who has lived on the earth, He provided the supreme example of how individuals ought to be and how they ought to communicate with each other.

The scriptures indicate that Jesus was:

  • Slow to condemn, as with the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3–11).

  • Forgiving, as when He sought the Father’s forgiveness for the crucifiers (see Luke 23:33–34).

  • Compassionate, as when He wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus’s death (see John 11:33–36).

  • Considerate of His family, as when He made provisions for His mother while He was on the cross (see John 19:25–27).

  • Willing to return good for evil, as when He healed the ear of one of His captors (see Luke 22:50–51).

  • Loving of children, as shown by His blessing them (see Matthew 19:14–15; 3 Nephi 17:21–24).

  • Appreciative, as when He praised the woman who anointed Him with oil (see Luke 7:44–48).

  • Eager to serve, as when He washed His disciples’ feet, teaching them to serve others (see John 13:4–17).

  • Willing to sacrifice, as shown by His atoning for the sins of the world (see Matthew 26:35–45).

Effective communication is a natural outcome as men and women develop Christlike attributes of faith, hope, charity, love, an eye single to the glory of God, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, humility, and diligence (see D&C 4:5–6). President David O. McKay taught: “No man can sincerely resolve to apply to his daily life the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth without sensing a change in his own nature. The phrase, ‘born again,’ has a deeper significance than many people attach to it.”3 As parents follow the teachings of Christ, they overcome ineffective and harmful communication practices. As they acquire godly attributes, they are able to manage personal feelings better and respond better to the behavior of others; they are more apt to respond appropriately when children are disrespectful and unruly.

Improving Communication

Communication problems develop over time. Determining when problems began and who started them is often difficult, and it usually does more harm than good to place blame. Rather than placing blame, parents should focus on improving their communication skills.

The communication principles and skills taught in this session are particularly useful when children are upset and can benefit from talking with someone. As psychologist John Gottman pointed out, parents who appropriately interact with their children during troubled times exert a life-changing influence, helping their children learn to regulate their emotions better and manage their relationships with others.4 Parents can learn and successfully apply effective communication principles and skills. When they do so with a genuine desire to listen and understand, the quality and frequency of their interactions with their children usually increase. The following principles will help parents improve communication with each other and with their children.

Return Good for Evil

An effective way to break destructive patterns of communication is to follow Jesus’s example of returning good for evil. Parents should speak in an even tone of voice when being yelled at, talk respectfully if their children are disrespectful, be reasonable when their children are unreasonable, lovingly provide consequences when their children violate family rules (see session 9).

Being Christlike does not mean that parents give in to unreasonable demands. On the contrary, it means addressing problems rather than avoiding them. When parents are patient and loving, most children eventually respond in a positive way. Sometimes behavioral changes do not come until the child is convinced that parents genuinely want a better relationship. Consequently, parents will need to persist in their efforts to communicate appropriately, regardless of how their children act.

Look for the Good in Children

Parents need to pay attention to their children, particularly when their children behave appropriately. Attention is a powerful reinforcer. If parents listen and talk with their children during good times, they will encourage healthy behavior. Children will likely repeat behaviors that capture their parents’ attention. Parents should ignore obnoxious, inappropriate behavior when it is harmless. When behavior is offensive, inappropriate, or destructive, parents should impose a consequence that prevents the child from receiving undue attention (see session 9).

Listen to Children

Children usually behave appropriately when they feel valued and respected. Parents can help their children feel valued and respected by listening to them and accepting their feelings. Sometimes children have feelings that parents may not like. However, undesirable feelings often change when children are allowed to talk about them.

A child’s feelings of anger toward a parent often quickly turn to love when the child is allowed to talk about the feelings without being condemned. Listening to the difficult feelings of children is a way of providing emotional first aid. Children become frustrated and confused when their feelings are discounted or denied; they may even learn to distrust what they feel. Young children, in particular, depend on their parents to help them make sense of their emotions.

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve offered this counsel: “The time to listen is when someone needs to be heard. Children are naturally eager to share their experiences, which range from triumphs of delight to trials of distress. Are we as eager to listen? If they try to express their anguish, is it possible for us to listen openly to a shocking experience without going into a state of shock ourselves? Can we listen without interrupting and without making snap judgments that slam shut the door of dialogue? It can remain open with the soothing reassurance that we believe in them and understand their feelings.”5

The following principles will help parents listen more effectively.

Show interest and a willingness to listen. If the parents’ words express interest in what a child says but their actions show disinterest or impatience, the child will believe the body language. Parents should set aside other things they might be doing and give full attention to their children. Instead of standing and looking down at their children, which conveys power and superiority, they should try to communicate at an eye-to-eye level. They should be aware of their body language. Actions do speak louder than words.

Ask questions that invite the child to talk. For example, the parent may say, “It looks like something is troubling you. Want to tell me about it?” “How do you see it?” “Tell me more.” Questioning should be done in a supportive rather than a pushy way so children will not feel like they are being interrogated.

Identify and name the child’s feelings. Children will feel comforted when parents can identify and name their feelings. They know that someone else understands. A parent could say, “It hurt when John didn’t invite you to his party, didn’t it.” Some children grow up without hearing words that name their uncomfortable feelings. (See session 4 for more information on identifying and naming feelings.)

Listen actively by paraphrasing what the child says. When a child is troubled and wants to talk, some parents listen to a word or two, assume they understand the problem, and then interrupt and start giving advice. When parents do not listen fully, the child often becomes frustrated.

Parents should listen carefully without interrupting. During pauses in the conversation, they can restate what they understand the child is saying and feeling, allowing the child to correct them if they have misunderstood the message. They should be respectful and empathetic and refrain from distorting or adding to the child’s message.

Paraphrasing in this manner has been called reflective or active listening. It is an effective way of showing children that their parents care and understand what the children think and feel, as in these two examples:

A child enters a room, slams a book on the table, and glares at the parent.

Parent: “You’re angry at me. I’ve done something you are unhappy about.”

A child comes home from school, dejected.

Child: “I really blew it in chemistry today. The exam was terrible.”

Parent: “You’re worried that you didn’t pass the exam.”

Respond nondefensively when the child is upset. Parents find that listening is particularly challenging when a child is angry at them. Most parents want their children’s approval and feel threatened, defensive, and rejected when criticized.

Instead of reacting defensively, they should respond nondefensively by listening to understand. In addition, they should acknowledge the truth in what their child says about them. Even when accusations are greatly exaggerated, they usually have some grain of truth. (For example, a parent may say: “I made a mistake, and you’re upset at me. I shouldn’t have … ” If the parent’s concern is to defend him or herself, the parent will probably end up arguing with the child. Even if the parent wins the argument, the relationship may be damaged, and the parent will lose a chance to be helpful. Children are usually able to resolve angry feelings when they have a chance to talk about them with a listening parent.

The advice of Elder H. Burke Peterson of the Seventy may be helpful: “Remember, you can listen to understand, not necessarily to agree.”6

Share Feelings Appropriately When You are Upset

Parents often make their greatest errors when they are angry. Words of anger can inflict wounds that are slow to heal. Inappropriate expressions of anger often contain the word you and have been called “you” statements. For example: “Can’t you do anything right?” Such statements often belittle and condemn, and they provoke defensiveness in children.

A more appropriate approach is for parents to share how a child’s behavior affects them: “I feel frustrated when assigned jobs are not done.” These statements focus on the issue without demeaning the child. They have been called “I” statements. They invite a better response from the child. Children who are treated with respect often want to behave in respectful ways.

“I” statements are more accurate than “you” statements because they consist of a simple disclosure of personal feelings about a child’s behavior. (“I feel upset when … ”) It is hard for a child to debate a parent who says, “I’m upset and disappointed when the car is taken without permission.” However, if the parent says, “You are dishonest and a sneak” (a “you” statement), the child may believe that the parent’s assessment is unfair and excessive. The child may want to argue with the parent. Worse, the child may believe the parent’s assessment and act according to the label.

“I” statements invite a better response from a child. When a child hears a parent saying with emotion, “I’m heartbroken that my favorite vase is in pieces on the floor,” he or she is more likely to feel contrite and want to make restitution than if the parent says, “You clumsy idiot. Now look what you’ve done.” Children who are treated with respect often want to preserve that respect. Children who are mistreated often feel resentful and worthless and care little about helping the parent feel better.

Clarify What Is Expected of Children

Parents are often amazed to discover that their children do not have a clear idea of what is expected of them. In addition to sending an “I” statement, parents should send a clarifying message of what they expect. For example: “I feel taken advantage of when I take you places and never receive any thanks for it. It’s always appropriate to say ‘thanks’ when someone does something for you. I need to hear it, and others do too. Will you please thank people when they do things for you?”

The mother who made this request indicated that her daughter, now an adult, continues to express appreciation for the things she does for her. Obviously, not all children will respond so well. Repetition may be needed as well as other appropriate measures described in later sessions.

Resolving Problems That Impair the Ability to Listen

Sometimes parents have unhealthy and unrealistic attitudes and ideas that interfere with listening, such as the following:

  • Feeling responsible to solve all their child’s problems. Young children in particular often need their parents’ help to resolve problems. Older children sometimes need help as well. However, all children must learn to resolve some problems on their own. Confidence comes from facing and resolving life’s challenges and problems. Parents should be available as a resource when problems exceed their children’s abilities.

  • Feeling responsible to rear successful children rather than focusing on being a successful parent. (Review the definition of a successful parent in session 1.)

  • Wanting to control their children.

  • Being overly detached and permissive, allowing children a great amount of freedom without providing supervision, guidelines, and boundaries.

  • Fearing failure and public humiliation.

  • Believing they (the parents) are always right.

  • Needing to feel loved by children and fearing rejection by them.

If parents need help with any of these problems, they should counsel with their spouse, fast and pray for guidance, attend the temple, and, as needed, counsel with their bishop and ask about getting professional help.

The Power of Effective Communication

The Apostle Paul urged, “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity” (1 Timothy 4:12). In his letter to the Philippians, he also taught, “Let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Words and behavior have the power to hurt or to help, to inflict pain and suffering or to soothe painful feelings, to provoke doubt and fear or to instill faith and courage. As parents master the way they communicate, they can exert a tremendously positive influence on their children.

Elder L. Lionel Kendrick of the Seventy taught the importance of being Christlike in communication with others:

“Our communications reflect in our countenance. Therefore, we must be careful not only what we communicate, but also how we do so. Souls can be strengthened or shattered by the message and the manner in which we communicate. …

“… Christlike communications are expressed in tones of love rather than loudness. They are intended to be helpful rather than hurtful. They tend to bind us together rather than to drive us apart. …

“The real challenge … is to condition our hearts to have Christlike feelings for all of Heavenly Father’s children. When we develop this concern for the condition of others, we will then communicate with them as the Savior would. We will then warm the hearts of those who may be suffering in silence. … We can then make their journey brighter by the things that we say.”7


  1. In Conference Report, Apr. 1954, 106.

  2. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.

  3. In Conference Report, Apr. 1962, 7; or Improvement Era, June 1962, 405.

  4. From Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D. with Joan DeClaire, Foreword by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 1997 by John Gottman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. Pages 16–17.

  5. In Conference Report, Apr. 1991, 27; or Ensign, May 1991, 22.

  6. In Conference Report, Apr. 1990, 107; or Ensign, May 1990, 84.

  7. In Conference Report, Oct. 1988, 28–30; or Ensign, Nov. 1988, 23–24.