Quick Tip

Using Code Words

using code words bubblegum

In our family, as long as I can recall, we’ve used code words to ease and improve communication. 

When my kids were really little, they were visual cues. We reminded them to use a fork without saying anything out loud: we’d tap two fingers on the table gently. We asked them to lower their voices with a hand gesture instead of adding to the sound. (We still use that one, by the way!).

As they grew older, we started using verbal cues to help our kids learn to manage the intense emotionality that often comes with ADHD, Anxiety, and other challenges.

What's a Code Word?

Code words are verbal cues that we all agree upon, words that let us communicate with each other succinctly. They are a kind of verbal shorthand. Like a family whistle peeling through the air in a public space, code words help us get to the heart of a matter quickly. Better yet, they help us avoid unnecessary meltdowns and upsets.

Code Word Examples

Have you ever “cried uncle” when you were ready to give up on something, when you were ready to stop? That’s a code word that many people understand. Code words communicate important concepts in a flash. Here are some examples:

  • Bubblegum” is a word we've used forever. It means, “brace yourself, because you might not like what I'm about to tell you.”
  • "Broccoli Ice Cream” has been around even longer. It means, “someone is losing the ability to cope because they're hungry. Stop everything, now, and get some food!”
  • Rope” means, “okay, everyone, back off because I'm trying really hard not to lose my cool.”
  • Don't Poke the Bear” (okay, it's a code phrase) means, “leave your sister or brother alone because she's really not in the mood right now to be messed with.”
  • Poor Baby” was started by my oldest kid after a long day. They didn’t want me to “fix” the problems they were complaining about, they just wanted me to listen, say “poor baby,” and maybe rub their back and show a little compassion
  • One of the parents in our group coaching program, the Parent Success System, uses the code phrase “Take Two” whenever anyone (including the adults in the house) communicates in a way that feels harsh, unkind, or disrespectful. The person listening can say “Take Two” to prompt the speaker to try the communication again in a way that is gentler to receive. When done without judgement, “Take Two” is a simple way to redirect and avoid upsets.

To create code words, start by asking yourself what triggers in your family could be avoided with a few well-chosen code words. What patterns can you anticipate and avoid? If you’re not sure, ask your kids. Not only will they probably know, but they’ll likely do a better job of naming them than you. After all – would you ever have come up with broccoli ice cream?

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