FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS: TALKING TO YOUR CHILD IN A CONFLICT-FREE MANNER
Childhood is not an easy time of life. Most of us forget this, although if you stop for a few moments and reflect on your childhood, you are sure to remember the occasional sense of helplessness, loss of control, anger, and disappointments that you experienced when you were young. How did the adults around us react to our feelings? Were feelings dismissed, not talked about, or, were feelings, particularly unpleasant ones, not acceptable in your own family?
Despite our own childhood experiences, and the fact that we are now more sophisticated about child development, most of us continue to believe that childhood should be a time of carefree existence where emotions are fleeting and insubstantial, and sadness can be whisked away by a trip to the zoo. A bully at school, a tough homework assignment, a failing grade, loss of friendship, or a fight with an older sibling, may create disruption in your child’s day, but how sincerely are we coping with our children’s emotions? How are you dealing with these unexpected bouts of emotion, and what is being done to manage the difficult behavior that ensues when your child is feeling intense emotion?
When we become mindful of our children’s emotions and acknowledge that childhood is a difficult time in life; a time when so many things are of the child’s control, and so difficult to understand, we can begin to give importance to our children’s feelings.
It is important to remember that children’s feelings manifest themselves in different ways than adult feelings. Children’s emotions are fleeting. I have worked with parents who lost a significant family member. The parents would tell me that their child cried at the funeral, but soon after, at home, their child was outside playing, hanging on the jungle gym, laughing at the upside down world. This doesn’t mean that the child had not grieved at the funeral. The child’s behavior is merely a reflection of the mercurial aspect of childhood emotion. Therefore, it is important not to minimize your child’s feelings if they appear to be fleeing and temporary.
Second, children have different defenses they put into play when they are experiencing intense feelings. For example, children will revert to magical thinking, repression, and acting out when they are in the grips of strong emotions. Pre-school, school-age children, and even adolescents, are prone to acting out emotions in behavioral ways. Obstinacy, fighting, school refusal, failing grades, and sleep and eating problems, are more likely to occur in children who are struggling with strong emotions.
Children are not able to talk a great deal about feelings, and more importantly, they are often unable to identify what they are feeling. For example, many children will complain that they are “bored” when they are actually sad, lonely, frustrated or angry. Parents’ usual response to this is by questioning, “Why are you bored? Look at all the toys, games, and activities we have set up for you? “ This often leads to frustrating encounters because your child can not tell you why he or she is bored since “bored” is often a mislabeled emotion.
Therefore it is up to parents to teach children to identify and express their feelings. Identifying and dealing with emotions is a very critical aspect of human behavior and, if taught properly, the child can benefit from “emotional guidance” for the rest of his or her life.
And most importantly, children do not like to talk about their feelings. They are afraid if they linger on bad feelings and share them with others, they will feel the uncomfortable emotion forever. They try to avoid any confrontation with their feelings since they don’t completely understand the dynamics of feelings. Learning that they can give their feelings words and manage them effectively are critical skills in social and emotional development.
With these points of reference in mind, you can be better able to approach your child during difficult times.
Now it is time to put these concepts into practice. The steps you will learn are easy to follow and work like a charm. It is the most effective way to talk to children about their conflicts and feelings? The following steps will guide you in a highly effective method of talking to your children.
Step One: Reflection
This is a highly critical step in beginning the conversation with your child. It is stage one in effective communication at all levels. Make sure you have heard what your child is saying and reflect clearly, and in the child’s words, what he or she is saying. For example:
Six-year-old Jeffrey has decided that he does not want to go to kindergarten anymore. He had a bad day; his best friend wouldn’t play with him. He is adamant that he wants to stay home with mom from now on.
Step One involves repeating this information back to Jeffrey.
“Jeffrey, I hear that you don’t want to go to school anymore because you are having trouble with your friend, is that right?”
By reflecting the child’s words, you will communicate to your child that you hear the child’s words and that you understand. By reflecting your child’s feelings in a non-judgmental manner you are validating his or her emotions.
Step Two: Normalize the feelings
By normalizing the child’s feelings, the child begins to understand that other children have these feelings, and they are not alone. This gives the child a foundation from which he or she can gain perspective on their problems and realize that other children struggle with these feelings.
Jeffrey is still pouting in bed and refusing to get up. But you have his attention now that you are really listening. After acknowledging his feelings it is appropriate to say,
“ Jeffrey, I hear that you don’t want to go to school. Some kids don’t want to go to school and leave their parents. Especially when a friend is being mean. That’s really hard, isn’t it?”
This step will help you align with your child through understanding, compassion, and validation. You are normalizing the feelings and reflecting your child’s concerns.
Step Three: Define the problem
Jeffrey is now aware that you are “on his side.” He feels listened to and understood. Now the harder part comes in. Reality. Once the problem is addressed in a nonjudgmental manner, it is important for a child to know that the problem has to be addressed and resolved.
“Jeffrey, I hear that you don’t want to go to school, and I understand, when friends are mean kids might not want to go to school. But we have to go to school. It is a law that all children have to be in school.”
By identifying the problem, you are setting the stage for you and your child to problem solve together. This way the child can feel a part of the decision. This empowers a child in a healthy manner.
Step Four: Problem Solve
“So Jeffrey, we know you don’t want to go to school, other kids would feel the same way if their friends wouldn’t play with them, but you have to go to school today. So what do you think we should do?
You might be thinking that Jeffrey will reiterate his or her initial stand, “I don’t want to go to school.”
But if you continue to vocalize the first three stages, offer suggestions for problem solving and ask your child to help with ideas, you can eventually come to an agreement. Since not going to school is not an option, what can Jeffrey do?
“Perhaps we could arrange for mommy to bring a snack to your school today? Perhaps we can go somewhere special after school. You will be excited all day and not care if your friend plays with you. Maybe you can find another friend and we can ask him or her over for a play date this weekend?”
You will be surprised at how cooperative your child will become once you get to this stage. You are teaching your child healthy ways to resolve conflict while validating and listening to your child’s feelings.
Step Five: Encouragement and Praise
Review the last four stages, and then praise your child for problem solving with you.
“Jeffrey, I know you didn’t want to go to school today. Your friend wouldn’t play with you and you wanted to stay home. Most kids would feel this way. I know it’s hard but you have to go to school. You have decided that you want to make a new friend and invite him or her over for a play date. That’s excellent. I am really proud of you for doing this. You are a great problem-solver.”
By using these five steps, you will be ensuring that your child will always feel acknowledged, validated, and cared for. It will strengthen your child’s ability to deal with conflicts and emotions, and empower them to make healthy choices in their lives.