Old Habits Die Hard
One of the most common questions I hear from parents – in coaching sessions, on training calls – is, “How do I say that so that my child will respond?” How do you give your kids directions without triggering a reaction? How do you get them to do their homework without starting a fight? You know the challenges – the list could go on all day.
While there is a lot of guidance Diane and I teach about how to communicate with our kids in a way that fosters connection and independence, sometimes we have to start by breaking old habits. It is every bit as important to pay attention to what we DON'T want to say to our kids, as it is to what we DO want to say.
Meaning Well Is Not Enough
I've been noticing when these topics come up in my coaching sessions with parents, paying attention to the common messages that tend to generate negative responses from our kids. Most often, our intentions are good, but we say things in a way that accidentally put our kids on the defensive, or sound judgmental when we might not mean to. You don't mean for that to happen, of course, so when your child responds negatively, you may get triggered in return … and a vicious cycle continues.
Changing the language you use everyday is a great start to effective communication and improved relationships, so start simply, with these…
6 Things to STOP Saying to Your Kids
1. Why did you… ?
Let's be serious, if our kids knew why they did some of the crazy things they do, they probably wouldn't do them! They don't really know why – and that sorta makes them crazy. Remember, most of the time they have a neurological explanation for their antics – they're impulsive, or emotional, or crawling out of their skin with energy. Generally, they don't mean to be naughty.
So before you ask the reason “why,” which will automatically put them on the defensive, shift the question a little bit. What do you really want to know? Maybe ask, “What was going on for you when…?” This enables you to be an investigator, to help your child become aware of her behaviors and responses and learn to manage them, instead of feeling like she needs to defend herself. We want to raise her awareness without feeling “wrong” for making a mistake.
2. Why Can't you Just… ?
“Why can't you just…. sit still? …keep your hands to yourself? …calm down? …stop talking? ” Think about it and you'll realize that, most of the time, you actually know why – your child has a neurobiological challenge that he has not yet learned to manage and master. What are the markers of your child's challenges? Impulsivity? Trouble with memory? Hyperactivity? Emotionality?
Start by helping your child see what he's struggling with. Instead of unintentionally making your child feel bad because he doesn't have the self-control that he wishes he had – and that you wish he had – shift your focus a bit. Since you DO know why he can't just… help him begin to understand it, himself. Try something like: “It's really hard for you to sit still, isn't it?” or “Wow, you felt really strongly about that!”
3. “You…” (that is, don't start a Sentence with “You…”)
“You” is another word that really puts people on the defensive – especially when the sentence starts with the word. “You said you were going to…” or, “You know I asked you to do it” immediately sends a second message: “You idiot, you failed again!” Now it may not have ANYTHING to do with you – sometimes the problem is all about how your comment is received by your child (or spouse). Though sometimes, it may be subliminal – a part of you may feel a little judge-y and blame-y because you're tired of asking the same thing all the time.
So first, when possible, try hard to replace your judgment with compassion. If you have a tendency to get judge-y, go back and read #1 and #2 to remind yourself that managing the basics of life can be hard stuff for our kids.
Then, instead of saying, “You were supposed to feed the dog….,” try to avoid the pronouns. “Hey, the dog needs to be fed by 6 and it's after that – can you come take care of that now, please?” Or instead of, “You can't speak to me like that,” try, “Wow, it stings when I hear that. Is there another way to say that to me?”
4. “I want you to … “ or “I need you to…”
One of the ways in which we tend to enable our kids, instead of supporting them, is by setting expectations that they do things for US, instead of for themselves. To some extent, this is understandable for little ones – they are motivated by pleasing us, after all. But don't wait too long to start shifting their motivation from you to them.
“I want you to take a bath,” or, “I need you to do your homework” is asking them to do something for you. “It's time to take a bath,” or “when do you want to get your homework done tonight?” begins to put the responsibility on them. And remember, the goal, here, is to begin to transfer managing the details of their lives from us to them!
5. “Why don't you try …"
We parents are fixers, and sometimes our kids need us NOT to try to fix their problems. Start with a little listening, or a little acknowledgement. Just let them talk, or think, before you start encouraging them to look for a solution. When we jump into problem-solving – without first validating what our kids are experiencing – we inadvertently diminish what they're saying to us. Start with “Poor baby” or ask, “What else?” before you dive into suggestion-mode. You'll be amazed at how much more traction you'll get when it's time to take action.
6. “*$%@#&*^*% …”
When you're triggered, or angry, or frustrated, scared or otherwise triggered – just don't say anything. Model emotional management for your kids by calming yourself down before you say anything you might regret – or that might trigger someone else in the family. And beware of the “calm voice” that kids know isn't really calm. It's not just about not screaming. It's about waiting to communicate until you are actually feeling calm and not feeling triggered.
The End Game
Our goal as parents is to foster independence and help our kids begin to take ownership of their lives. While we can do this in many ways, sometimes it helps to start by getting out of habits that aren't working for anyone. These 6 strategies take conscious effort, and can help you shift your language ever so slightly so that you can avoid triggering defensive reactions from your kids (and spouses).