Tips for Talking with Your Kids
Tales from the Parent Zone
I know a woman who can't get started protesting one action without dragging every complaint, injustice, and old hurt into the conversation. You can imagine how her son feels—Mom can't ever just complain about Jerry leaving the refrigerator door open (again). He ends up hearing about the time (last year) that he was two hours late (“You have no respect for me!”) and the time he got a “C” in chemistry (“You never pay attention!”). And he ends up not willing to respond to the initial problem (the refrigerator door).
To avoid gunny sacking and to improve communication with your child, never use the word never, and always avoid the word always.
It's a Good Idea!
Family communication happens best when it happens every day, each time family members interact with each other. Every communication with your child should communicate respect, affection, and your expectations and goals.
Two other verbal messages to banish from your vocabulary when talking with your child: “You should” and “You have to.”
You may think you are helping improve your child's behavior when you sit down for a good critique session. You are probably wrong. Criticism tends to put people on the defensive, and defensive people aren't open to learning, or change. Criticizing too harshly or too often can damage a child's sense of self. Try encouraging your child first (that's in the next chapter). If you do use criticism:
- Make it very specific.
- Be gentle.
- Don't go on and on.
- Be very clear and explicit that it is the behavior you are criticizing, not the child. You should say this, not just assume the child understands.
- Stop yelling!
- Q: What do parent/child talks have in common with large warehouse stores?
- A: Volume discounts.
Your child cannot hear you if you yell at her. (There's that at again! Very rarely will a parent yell with a child.) Keep the volume down. It's a well-known fact that a whisper is often louder than a scream.
Nix the Nagging, Lose the Lectures, Avoid the Advice
Nagging never made a child change his evil ways, and it's most likely to result in major, unbearable attitude. And no self-respecting kid is going to listen to yet another lecture on what she should or shouldn't do or be. While you're at it, cool it with the advice. Nobody asked you (unless they did). Kids are deaf to stories with a moral. I know, it's a challenge. Rise to meet it, it's important.
Don't Set Them Up
You're on your child's side, right? Then why are you trying to trap her like a little mouse in the cheese? It's not right to trick your child into a confession, and it's also wrong to force her into a situation where she must lie to save face or protect herself. When you trick or manipulate your child into a trap, you are showing a basic lack of trust and respect. You're trading immediate results for later resistance, recrimination, and loss of trust and respect.
You're the parent, you (presumably) have more insights, long-term perspective, wisdom, and patience than your child. Therefore, it's your job to keep squabbles from escalating into wars. The hotter the fight, the fewer the positive results. How can you prevent “discussions” from becoming “arguments”? Try these preventive measures:
- Take a deep breath. The tenser you get, the shallower your breathing gets, and the more distressed you become.
- Help your child breathe. When Annie gets worked up, I hold her gently by the shoulders and tell her to blow out. A couple of deep breaths, and she's usually able to verbalize what is wrong without screaming and losing it.
- Count to 10 or 100. In other words, focus for a moment on something else to stop yourself from reacting.
- Take a little personal time-out. Excuse yourself to the bathroom (try not to slam the bathroom door). Splash some cold water on your face, breathe, count, and don't forget to flush.
- Announce a general time-out. “Okay, everybody run around the block! We'll talk about this again in seven minutes in the kitchen!”
- Crack a joke to diffuse the tension with laughter. Warning: This only works before people get too tense. People have died because jokes have misfired. Make sure your joke is funny, and never, ever, ever, ever, ever laugh at your kid. (There's that at again!) In other words, be Bill Cosby, not Don Rickles.
Words to Parent By
An “I” statement is a declaration of your feelings, views, needs, likes, or dislikes that begins with the word I. “I” statements tell the listener that you're speaking from your own point of view. A “you” statement begins with the word you and can appear to be accusatory or self-righteous.
“You” statements are risky, especially when your child comes back at you with another “you” statement. Escalation! Blame! Misery!
All About “I” Statements
Kids hate listening to a parent who is accusatory and self-righteous. As a parent trying to talk with your child, danger lurks when you use “you” statements, that is, statements that begin with the word you (“You make me feel unhappy,” “You always,”). If, on the other hand, you begin statements about your perceptions, feelings, or preferences with the word I, you don't seem accusatory, and you're obviously speaking only from your own point of view.
- Imply that you're willing to at least hear another opinion or perception.
- Help you to clarify your own perceptions, feelings, and preferences.
- Don't call special attention to themselves. You can do them anywhere, anytime, without announcing it.
- Imply that you're open to hearing your child's perspective.
- Avoid the risk of escalation, blame, and misery associated with tit-for-tat “you” statements.
- Used in response to “you” statements can de-escalate tensions.
- Open, instead of close, conversation.
The “I” Statement Formula
“I” statements are easy to build. They're always a variation on the following: a description of an occurrence, your emotional reaction, and your desire for the future.
“When (the event) happened, I felt (emotion). Next time, please (action/response).” Try it out!
More on: Communicating With Your Child
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child © 1999 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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