I don't know about you, but learning to have difficult conversations was a skill I probably didn't learn until I was in my 30's. For most of my life I was the peacemaker. I just wanted everyone to be happy. That meant that telling someone that I didn't want things to be the way they were or that I didn't like how they were treating me was akin to walking on nails. No one modeled for me how to stay present even when things got uncomfortable. It was so much easier to just give up or give in.
Now, of course, there are times when going with the flow is the name of the game, but if you want your kids to learn the balance between keeping the peace and learning to advocate for themselves in a constructive way, they are going to learn that much sooner if you teach it to them explicitly. Here is my first tip on how to do that.
Tip #1: Make It Safe for Your Kids to Express Their Emotions
Naturally, we don’t just love it when our kids whine, complain and argue. There is a strong instinct to shut that kind of behavior down quickly. Ironically, however, sometimes the quickest way to shut it down is actually to stop and listen—really listen—to our kids and to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings.
Let’s say that your younger daughter is upset because she doesn’t want to sit in the middle seat once again. You ask her to get into the car and first she whines, “No, I don’t want to.” Then she complains, “Why do I always have to sit in the middle? That’s so unfair.” Finally, she starts to argue, “Brother should have to sit in the middle, too. That would be more fair. We should take turns, and I sat here last time.”
Yes, you could just get tense and tell her tightly, “This is not the time to have this conversation. Right now I need you to cooperate and get in that car this instant.” Or, you could take the 30 seconds it takes to really look her in the eyes (maybe even bend down to eye height) and repeat back to her, “You are really sick of sitting in the middle. It really feels unfair to you that you have to sit in the middle all the time. You would like Brother to sit in the middle sometimes, too.”
I get that you don’t have time to have the actual argument right now, but at least your daughter is going to feel seen and heard. The next step is to offer a concrete time when you will be able to have an in depth conversation about who gets to sit where when in the car. If you have regular family meetings, add this to the agenda. If you don’t, what other time is a good time to discuss things in your family? For some families, that is as kids are saying good night. You don’t have to find answers in one sitting. The first night might just be about brainstorming different ideas. Deciding which solution to try out might be another night. That’s okay. It is enough for your child to know that you are considering the problem from her point of view.
TIP #2 Open Up Space for Your Kids to Express Negative Opinions
If we are only wiling to let our kids share the good stuff with us a) they are going to stop sharing and b) they are going to stop advocating for themselves. The trick is to not only teach them how to express negative opinions but to actually invite them.
Sometimes parents feel that if they ask their kids how they are feeling about things, they are just giving the child a chance to get worked up or to dig in his heals about a thing that can’t actually be changed. For example, assume that a family has moved and a child has to go to a new school. At the end of the week, the parent can see that the child is unhappy at the new school. Now the parent feels helpless as this school really was the best option and there really isn’t anything that can be changed.
The first mistake the parent makes is to brush over or deny the bad parts in a desperate attempt to get the child to focus on the positive. Perhaps when asked how his day was, Mark says that the teacher hates him and all the kids at the school suck. The parent hastens to assure him that of course his teacher doesn’t hate him and that there must be at least some kids at school who are actually quite nice. Mark now has two choices: contradict his parent and risk his parent getting mad or stuff his feelings and comfort his parent by saying, "I’m sure you’re right.”
Unfortunately, when our kids respond with anger, we ourselves are often unwilling to hear it and we over react. Met with statements of “You ruined my life, and I’ll never forgive you,” we are apt to get up on our high horse. “How dare you talk to me that way,” we might say. Or “You are so ungrateful. We made this move for you. You have no excuse getting so upset.” If the child throws more anger our way, the situation can escalate until the child is being punished for talking back and being rude. Now the child has even more reason to resent us.
On the other hand, if Mark just quietly agrees with his parents, the damage is still there; it is just hidden. Next time, knowing that his parent won’t really listen and will just come in with a pep talk when asked how his day was, Mark will mumble fine and try to change the subject. But that will do nothing to make him less miserable at school. It will just add to his misery because he will be alone with it and it won’t feel safe to express negative thoughts in the future. This is the child who tells me, “My parents just don’t get it,” or worse, “My parents just don’t care.” (Plus the repressed feelings of injustice will pop out somewhere else seemingly out of nowhere.)
So let’s rewind the scene. Imagine that the parents starts with, “Looking at your stooped shoulders and those down turned lips has me wondering if you had a pretty hard day.” This opens up the lines of communication for anything negative your kid wants to share. The child might deflect by saying, “No, my day was okay,” at which point the parent can double check by saying, “It’s okay to share if you had a bad day. I know the move has been stressful for all of us, but if something needs fixing, we can handle it together.” Now you have made it safe for your child to share that his teacher hates himi and the other kids aren’t being nice.
Now a wise parent goes to his active listening skills and repeats that back to him:
“So it really feels like your teacher hates you.”
“That must be really awful to feel that your teacher hates you.”
“Yeah. I shouldn’t have to go to a school where the teacher hates kids.”
“I hear you saying you shouldn’t even have to go to a school where the teacher doesn’t like you.”
“Yeah, it is totally unfair. I miss my old teacher. He was the best.”
“It feels unfair to have a teacher who might not like you, especially when miss your old teacher who was so awesome.”
“Yeah, Mr. Green let me read my book when I was done with my work. Stupid Mrs. Jones just threatened to take my book away if I didn’t put it in my backpack until recess.”
Notice that this parents hasn’t actually agreed with anything Mark has said; the parent just acknowledged his feelings about his situation. He could just keep going on with this until the conversation winds down, ending perhaps with something like, “I’m sorry you had a bad day.”
Tip #3 Support Your Child in Standing Up for Himself.
Active listening will do a lot to make a child feel better. Or, the parent might use this situation as a learning experience for standing up for oneself. After listening thoughtfully, the parent might ask, “What are you supposed to do if you finish your work early?” Mark might explain, “Go back and check your work, but I did that and there still time until the bell rang.” Now it is time for supporting your child in learning to advocate for himself. You might role play with him how to say, “Excuse me, Mrs. Jones, I finished my work and didn’t catch any mistakes when I double checked it. May I read my book until every one else finishes?”
Playing the part of the teacher, be difficult. Role play Mrs. Jones snapping, “No, you just sit there and wait.” [Side note: I am not advocating that students get into a big argument in public with a teacher. Coach kids to find a diplomatic, private time to talk.] Ask your child, what feelings came up when the teacher snapped at him. Perhaps he felt ashamed or humiliated (after all, his suggestion was reasonable and he asked politely). Perhaps he now feels angry and disdainful. Here’s where it is especially important that he role play staying his ground in a calm but firm way.
Have him try something like, “Excuse me, Mrs. Jones, I did not mean to make class difficult for you, and at the same time I am curious about why it makes sense for me to sit and do nothing rather than finding something constructive to do.” Point out to your child how phrasing can make a difference in being heard. Starting by saying you did not wish to offend should help. The wording of “and at the same time” is much softer than “but” (which automatically negates what comes before it). Finally, expressing curiosity does more to feel less like her judgement is being questioned and more like the student just doesn’t want to waste time. (At this point it might be useful to brainstorm why the teacher asked Mark to just sit and wait—like maybe she knew she was about to transition the class to a new activity in a few minutes).
It is also useful to model two endings—one where Mrs. Jones responds reasonably and works out with Mark good options while waiting that meet her needs and one where Mrs. Jones just gets huffier, and it is time for a strategic retreat. For the latter, one might then help the child brainstorm constructive things to do while seemingly doing nothing but sitting quietly (like reviewing multiplication tables or reciting poems in one’s head). [It is important to teach your children that while it is good to be able to have difficult conversation, they still might not like the outcome; the value is in making the try and in at least expressing your point of view.
4. Teach Your Kids to Not Make Assumptions
Something that can make people afraid to have a conversation with someone else is that they make a lot of assumptions about the other person’s motivations (like because a teacher snaps, she doesn’t like a student). Before they even talk, they build up a conflict where maybe there isn’t one.
I read recently about a tween girl who came to feel her father didn’t like her any more because Dad had started playing a lot of football with her brother. When she was younger, she and her dad had had a great relationship. She loved hanging out with him—going with him to the hardware store or to pick up pizza for the family’s Friday night dinner. But as she became a tween and developed more of her own interests, she spent less time tagging behind her father. At the same time, her brother (just 15 months younger than the girl) fell in love with football and demanded that Dad spend time with him throwing the ball around. The girl did not recognize the reasons for her father’s shift in attention and drew the false conclusion that while her dad loved her (He was her dad, after all), he didn’t enjoy being with her. She was so afraid of confirming this suspicion, she was afraid to ever say anything.
Dad, for his part, was also missing his old relationship with his daughter. He saw her new interest in dance and drama (both time consuming activities) as evidence of her not caring about spending time with him any more. Although he missed the time they used to just hang out, he figured that she needed space as a growing girl away from her parents.
Both daughter and dad made assumptions about what the other person was thinking, and in each case, the false assumptions caused the individual unnecessary pain.
If Dad had modeled getting curious and sharing his feelings, he might have heard what his daughter was really feeling. The conversation might have gone like this:
“I see that you are really busy with the play and your dance classes, so we aren’t spending much time together anymore, and what I am telling myself about that is that you need space to do stuff with your girlfriends and aren’t so into hanging out with your old dad.”
“Yeah, I am busy with the play and stuff, but I really miss our hanging out time. Besides, you’re always playing ball with Billy, so I thought you just didn’t like being with me that much anymore.”
“What?! Of course not! I totally miss our hanging out, but I didn’t think you’d still want to go to the hardware store with me.”
“Well, that’s true. But couldn’t we go to a movie? Or maybe you would help me practice my lines for the play.”
By being emotionally vulnerable, a parent makes it safe for his child to be emotionally vulnerable, too, which it turn makes it easy to check for information before assuming the worse.