Most people will tell you that at one point or another, they have had the aggravating experience of being in a public place--such as a supermarket, restaurant, or airplane--when a child is unceremoniously screaming at the top of his or her lungs. While are we quick to judge parents in these situations, often for their inability to control their child, we are less apt to do a deeper dive and consider the reasons why the progeny in question are reacting this way, or to assess the specific ways parents could be more mindful of their son or daughter’s behaviors. In many cases, we know one thing and one thing only--this child is LOUD.
After reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, you will be able to effectively observe the behavior patterns among the children you see out and about, and you will be better equipped to intervene in the destructive routines that you see in your own children, too. You will come to recognize that showing your feelings to your child is even more important than the words you say.
Like adults, children are quick to become stressed when their basic needs are not being met. Unlike adults, children often lack the vocabulary to effectively convey these unmet desires to the people around them. While your child would be completely pacified by the sudden appearance of a tasty popsicle, they might express this need through constant, glass-shattering wailing and expect you to understand what it is they want.
Obviously, you can’t.
But, with a bit of redirection, you can figure out what they want. Rather than chastising your child for being loud in a space where it is inappropriate to do so, consider cutting them some slack in this regard...and acknowledging their feelings instead.
This could look like the following:
“Jason, I think you might be hungry! It has been quite a while since lunch, huh?”
And then, if you are not in a position to procure the object of desire at this very moment, lighten the mood by explaining the situation in relatable, kid-friendly terms while being as honest as possible.
“Jason, if I could get you a popsicle by snapping my fingers and making it magically appear, I would! I can’t do that, though, so you will have to wait until we get home. That will be soon--we won’t be here much longer, so please try to hang in there!”
Your child will pick up on your acknowledgment and validation of their feelings which will make them more likely to cooperate with the call to action, which is to wait patiently and stop fixating on the immediate concern.
We often hear the expression, “You catch more flies with honey.” In essence, this is an indirect way of saying that you better be nice or you will not be successful in achieving your goals. While this concept holds true in many settings, it is an undeniable reality when it comes to parenting children.
Children do not respond well to anger. No matter how many times you yell, threaten them, or make a sarcastic remark, it is unlikely that you will reach your child through these methods, not without causing long-term damage to your relationship.
So, what do you do instead?
You follow this two-step communication process.
First, you describe the problem you are seeing.
- “Teddy, while I understand that brushing your teeth is not fun, the issue with you not doing it is that you will get cavities.”
Second, offer some additional information to support your claim.
- “You’ve never had a cavity, Teddy, so you might not know this, but they are very painful and require lots of extra trips to the dentist...which I know is not your favorite place to go!
It can be a challenge to get children to acknowledge the potential long-term consequences of their actions, but this is certainly an area where you and your child can work to improve. Not only is it advisable to talk about the negatives of what happens if the child does not resolve the problem, but you will also want to include mention of the positives that will emerge when the situation improves.
For example, the parent could reassure Teddy that if they do successfully brush their teeth each night, they will grow up to be healthy and strong.
If you tell your child “do not press that button” or “do not enter that room,”, chances are, they will both press the button and enter the room in quick succession. Biologically, we are more inclined to want to do the things that we are expressly told to avoid. While this is a humorous example, the reality is that this sort of rebellious thinking--common among children--can actually be dangerous in certain situations.
Think about a scenario where you tell your child that they need to put on their helmet when they go to ride their bike. In this case, you would not be able to let the subversive behavior go unnoticed, because your child’s physical health would be at risk.
So, without getting angry, how do you approach an important conversation with a non-compliant child?
Once again, we return to talking about our feelings, as below:
“Jenny, why do you not want to wear your helmet? Are you sad that it is a requirement in order to ride your bike?”
Once the child has shared their feelings, thank them, and say that it is now time for you to share yours.
“I am scared that if you ride your bike without wearing your helmet, Jenny, you will fall off and get hurt. That would make me very sad.”
If your emotional appeal alone is not enough to convince your child that the concession in question--in this case, wearing a helmet--is a necessary one, consider implementing a compromise. This should be done together, with both the parent and the child bouncing ideas off of one another until a mutual understanding can be reached.
At some point, you may have to draw a hard line and refuse to allow your child to ride the bike without a helmet, but by using these techniques, you should be able to diffuse any intense emotions by showing that you and your ‘policy’ are not the enemies--you are simply trying to resolve a situation that impacts you both.
The dialogue could end like this:
“Jenny, if you wear your helmet, I will allow you to ride your bike all the way to the park. I know you usually don’t go that far, but I think I’m willing to allow it this time as long as you wear your helmet the whole way.”
As parents, we are forever aiming to strike the balance between letting our children stand on their own two feet and supporting them should the need arise. While this constant straddling of challenging and comforting our offspring presents itself very differently depending on the age and disposition of the child, the fact remains: age-appropriate autonomy must be encouraged, as it is a key element in building confidence.
Here, we are not talking about letting your ten-year-old go for a joy ride in the family minivan. Instead, start small. For instance, at some point, your child will start receiving homework. Rather than always dictating that homework must be done at say, 4 PM, consider allowing them to choose a homework hour on their own. If the work doesn’t end up getting done, you may need to pull back on the independence and resume some control, but it is likely that the child will feel empowered by making their own decisions and consequently, they will be more likely to comply with the things they need to do.
If your child expresses reluctance towards making a decision on their own, encourage them to ask siblings or friends or even teachers for advice. This teaches the child the value of asking for input and demonstrates that it’s okay (and even advisable) to want to gather information from multiple sources before making a tough choice.
If your child is scared to even take this small step, try to instill in your child that they are already making many decisions each day, even if it is something as simple as whether to eat the carrots or the chicken first! Knowing that they are already pros at decision-making is likely to make the child less anxious to engage in the process consciously.
Offer Praise and Avoid Labels
“Great job,” you say emphatically, patting your child on the back as they finish the math problem they were stressing over. “You are so smart.”
Wasn’t your child already smart before they completed the math?
Praise is a tricky topic. While it can help children develop self-esteem, the most beneficial praise comes from the child itself. Rather than saying, “Great job, you are so smart,” try to directly acknowledge what the child has completed, like, “You successfully finished the math problem!”
The inference is still that the child is smart and successful, but this time, they are arriving at the conclusion on their own rather than having it explicitly stated. When we talk in terms like “smart” or “beautiful” or even “creative” in connection with a child’s accomplishments or even appearance, we could be fostering a link that we do not want to make.
For example, if we convey to our child that she looks beautiful in a certain outfit, what happens if the outfit no longer fits? Or if she doesn’t like the outfit, but feels that she needs to wear it in order to be beautiful? What if she starts to think that her peers are not beautiful because they don’t wear outfits like that?
We want to be careful to avoid labeling, especially based on a specific condition. You want your child to know that they are always smart, beautiful, and creative, even in their moments of weakness and struggle. Some might argue, that’s when it matters most.
At the end of the day, children and adults alike respond to a similar sentiment above anger and aggression: empathy. Like ourselves, our children want to be understood and heard and validated, even in the instances where we might not agree with their opinion. The world is rarely black and white, so in order to best prepare tomorrow’s youth for the struggles they will encounter, we must teach them to acknowledge their emotions, compromise, and recognize and consider the emotions of others, too. Through self-expression and effective communication, children develop autonomy and begin to cultivate a unique sense of selves that will carry them through to adulthood. What you say matters, undeniably, but ultimately, children care about what you do.