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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

Talking So Your Kids Feel Seen and Heard

Elisabeth Stitt


by Elisabeth Stitt

Communication Tips you may have learned in an office setting or couples workshop work great with your children, too.

Let's look at how active listening and I-Statements might play out with your kids.  Remember, the purpose of the skills is to open up space in the relationship, to establish good will, and to get and share information.  

Active Listening is a great one to use when your child is upset.  Imagine that your child is mad because you have asked her to clean up the puzzle she is working on before dinner.  You have given her a five minute warning, you have cheerfully given the command, clean up!  You have moved in to help her get started--and not just yelled from the other room.  In short, you have have done everything you can to set the transition to dinner up for success.

But still she is screaming at you!

It is time to move in with some active listening.  The conversation might go like this:

Mom:  Clean up!  Dinner in 5 minutes. [Mom moves into room and touches child lightly on the shoulder.]

Child:  [screaming] No, I'm not done yet.

Mom:  You're frustrated because you thought you would finish.

Child:  No, I'm mad at you Mommy.  I have to finish my puzzle.

Mom:  Mmmm... yes...  tell me more.

Child: It's not fair.  I have to finish my puzzle.

Mom:  It is really important to you to finish that puzzle.  

Child:  Yes, I have to finish it or it won't get done.

Mom:  You feel like you'll never get to finish it if you don't finish it now, is that right?

Child: Yes, that's it. I have to finish my puzzle now.  Let me do it! [screaming again and trying to put her hands on her puzzle].  

Mom:  [Low and soft and looking child in the eye] What's important to you about finishing the puzzle?

Child:  I know I can do it.  I can.  I can do it all by myself.  

Mom: You care a lot about showing you can do this puzzle on your own.  

Child:  Yes, I do Mommy.  I want to show you.  All by myself.  

Mom:  You are a capable girl and like doing things independently.  I can see that.  

At this point Mom has some choices.  She can still insist that the puzzle be picked up before dinner, but maybe she can offer to carefully break it into big chunks and put it in the box so it can be reassembled easily.  Perhaps she can leave the puzzle out until after dinner.  Perhaps she and her daughter can brainstorm where in the house it would be possible to start a puzzle and leave it out until the puzzle was done.  Maybe it is not possible to leave out the puzzle, and her daughter destroys all her work because she is is still so frustrated.  That is not the best outcome, but in terms of Mom's relationship with her daughter, she has taken the time to really hear her.  She has also been reminded of how much her daughter wants to do things on her own from start to finish.  This allows Mom to try to structure things in the future so that her daughter can get that need met.  Mom can also help daughter plan out for next time she gets out a puzzle by reminding her about last time:   She can ask, "How are you going to feel if you don't get a chance to finish the puzzle?  Is it worth it to you to start even if you have to pick it up for dinner?"  All this conversation ahead of time gives her daughter choices which gives her control (and we all like to have control over our lives).  

I-Statements with your Child. 

You can train children to solve problems peacefully just the way you train them to do anything else--by modeling and by scaffolding.

First, model I-Statements with your kids from your own point of view:

Mom:  Sweetie, when I have asked you nicely and you still do not pick up the puzzle, I get really frustrated because dinner is getting cold and I put a lot of effort into getting dinner ready. 

Child:  But Mommy, I have to finish my puzzle.

Mom:  I hear that you want to finish your puzzle, but when I have cooked dinner, and you don't come eat right away, I feel deflated like a big balloon that has popped because I tried hard to make a good dinner.  

Child:  You're not a balloon, Mommy!

Mom:  But that's what I feel like--a popped balloon with all the air out of me--when I have worked hard to cook dinner and it gets all cold.  

Notice how the child's attention has shifted away from her puzzle.  For the moment, in a small way, she is putting herself in her mother's shoes.  This is the beginning of teaching empathy.  The child may shift back to her obsession with the puzzle, but Mom has introduced the idea of an I-Statement.  (As a side note, although metaphors are a pretty abstract idea in some ways, I find they often work with kids because they engage kids' imaginations and shift the child to something visual which is more concrete than a feeling.)  

The next step is to help your child use an I-statement bit by bit (that's the scaffolding).  

This time when Mom comes in to transition to dinner, and her child gets upset, Mom might encourage her child to use an I-Statement.    

Mom:  Clean up!

Child:  No.  I have to finish my puzzle.

Mom: [Putting her hands over the puzzle and making eye contact]  You had your five minute warning; now it is time to clean up!

Child: [Screaming] No, No, Mommy.  I have to finish my puzzle!

Mom:  [Using I-Statement phrasing]  When I asked you to clean up, that made you really mad because you really want to finish this puzzle. 

Child: Yes, yes, I want to finish it now!

Mom:  Can you use your words to tell me that?  Start by saying, "Mommy, when you asked me to clean up..."

Child: [doubtfully] "Mommy, when you asked me to clean up.."

Mom:  Say, "I felt mad..."

Child:  "I felt really, really mad!"

Mom: Say, "Because I wanted to finish this puzzle."

Child: "Because I wanted to finish this puzzle."  I have to finish this puzzle!

Mom:  Let's put it together.  You say it, and I will say it with you.

Child and Mom:  "When you asked me to clean up, I felt mad because I wanted to finish this puzzle."

Mom:  Thanks for telling me how you feel in a respectful way, Sweetie.  

By this time, Child has probably calmed down.  She knows she has been heard.  Plus the process of calmly expressing herself has given her over-wrought nervous system a chance to regulate.  

I had an exchange much like this one with a child I was baby-sitting.  After the I-statement, she took my cheeks in her hands and looked at me seriously and said, "I was really, really mad.  But now I'm sad."  Wow!  What a great job tuning into her feelings.  I was then able to ask her if a hug would make it better.  She agreed yes, and after a great big hug and a gentle raspberry, her mood was re-set, and she was able to let go of finishing the puzzle right then and there.  

The I-Statement might feel formulaic and awkward to you, but kids like structure.  It gives them something dependable to reach for.  Once you have modeled it and walked them through it a bunch of times, you will be able to require it by asking, "Can you please use an I-Statement to tell me how you're feeling?"  Knowing that she will be listened to and that she is going to get a chance to explain herself will help a child calm down.  Most parents are more willing to cooperate with a polite child so a positive feedback loop is quickly formed here.  

Once your children have gotten good at using I-Statements, you can ask them to use them with each other.  The next time your kid comes running to tattle on a sibling, you can say, "It sounds like you're really upset.  Did you use an I-statement with your brother?  No?  Well, why don't you practice with me, and then you can go tell him."  I have my own theory about I-Statements here.  Because it is a little bit tricky to make sure you have all three parts covered (When you... I feel.... because....), a child has to really slow down and think.  My guess is that the process itself is calming.  

You can teach the other child to use some active listening in response (All he has to do is repeat the I-Statement back: When I took the red pen, you got mad because you were about to use it.).  Now it is his turn to use an I-Statement.  He might say something like, "When you hogged all the pens, I felt hurt because I wanted you to share with me."  

At first your kids will need a lot (a lot!) of support with each of these steps.  What really works for the adult in this situation is that you are not in the middle in the sense that you are arbitrating or trying to decide who was right.  You are simply supporting their constructive expression of their emotions.  Once everyone has calmed down enough, you can help brainstorm solutions.  

Teaching our children to express their emotions and to get their needs met calmly is enormous.  Huge, in fact.  As a teacher I could always tell whose parents had taken the time to arm their kids with good communication skills.  Those were the kids who were ready to come to school and learn.  Of course they had conflicts with other kids, but they approached the conflicts with a certain amount of confidence that they could make it okay for every one.  

The trick to teaching kids these skills is to feel fluent in them yourselves, so make that your goal.  Really try to create the time and space to listen actively.  Even an exchange of 2-3 sentences where you are acknowledging feelings and asking for more information will make a difference over time.  

Give it a go, and then leave a comment here let us know on the Joyful Parenting Facebook Page