Parenting Talk Tools - From Dad's Point of View
by Ron Huxley, LMFT
The following parenting talk tools are designed to be a primer for improving communication between parent and child. Although each tool can be used for any age child, some of the talk tools have specific ages listed for the most appropriate age.
Conversation Extenders are parenting talk tools that encourage children to converse with their parents. For instance, if a child says, "I like Billy," then the parent might respond by saying, "Tell me about what you like about Billy." The child, because of lack of good social skills and development, may only give one-word answers to the parents questions. When this happens, the parent can help extend the conversation by asking more questions that elicit more information. It is important to use the child's own words as this sounds less robotic. This also reassures the child that the parent is listening to them and values their thoughts. See the Open Ended Questions and Reflections parenting tools for more information on extending children's conversations.
Describing is a parenting talk tool which describes a problem to the child that the PARENT is having, without blaming or attacking the child. In order to use this tool, parents must accept the fact that they own the problem and not the child. It is not a problem to the child that they have a messy room or have not combed their hair. If children were bothered by such things they wouldn't have to be corrected or reminded in the first place because they would have already taken care of it. Children, if left to their own devices, would rarely change their underwear, fold the laundry, or eat their vegetables. Is this because children are "uncivilized animals" as some authoritarian parents might believe? No! Children must be taught to change their underwear, fold the laundry, or eat their vegetables. Balanced or democratic parents not only teach their children right from wrong but also how and when to care for themselves. The most effective method for doing this is for the parent to model the behaviors they desire in the child. Children are more likely to do what a parent does rather than what a parent says. Accepting ownership of a problem reduces the parents frustration at the child and allows the parent to take a more educational approach to discipline.
Describing is one way that parents can model desirable behavior and still teach a child to take responsibility for its solution. Instead of yelling at a child, parents can describe the problem to the child. A parent might say, "I noticed wet towels all over the bathroom floor." This gets the message across as effectively as saying: "How many times have I told you not to leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor." You can also describe a problem that needs solving by only using ONE WORD. Using the example of the wet towel, a parent simply, but firmly state the word "Towel" indicating the need to pick it up and put it away. The child will know exactly what the parent means since the parent has said it hundreds of times before. Of course, this doesn't mean the child won't pretend they have never heard it before. In the event that this tool does not produce the cooperation required of children, parents may need to use firmer tools such as natural and logical consequences or behavior penalties along with the description parenting tool.
Ages: All ages
Humor is a parenting tool that has saved many parents from potentially abusive situations. Humor can act as a release valve for all the stress that accumulates during the day between parents and children. Raising children is a challenge, during the best of times. During the worst of times, it can be extremely frustrating.
Humor can take many forms. One application is for parents, during a stressful situation, to laugh at themselves. We all make mistakes and chuckling at ourselves during these dangerous moments can not only relieve the tension in the room but can also teach your child that life shouldn't be treated so seriously. By laughing at themselves, parents can show their children that one's self-esteem is not based on what you do (a conditional attitude) but on who you are (an unconditional attitude).
Parents can also make a soft joke of their child's mistake. These jokes should be in good taste and take into consideration the sensitivity level of the child. Some children are crushed by what others would consider a harmless jest. Remember, the object of this parenting tool is to decrease stress not increase bad feelings. This second application of humor also teaches children that life shouldn't be treated too seriously. It encourages children to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go on after a mistake was made.
An example of the tool in action might include the stressful situation of getting everyone ready for work and school in the morning. If on the way to school, parents sense a dark cloud in the car, they can utilize this parenting tool. Parents can change the mood by singing a funny lyric or telling a knock-knock joke to keep the mood affable. Children will get into the spirit of the humor by telling their own jokes, even if they are made up on the spot.
Ages: All Ages
"I" messages are one of the most common and most powerful of all of the parenting tools. So much of parent's communication with children begins with the word "You" instead of the word "I." The word "You" creates a defensive reaction in the child. Children are more apt to resist and fight parents when in a defensive mode. This is especially true for teenagers. Parents will need to practice using "I" at the beginning of a statement to their child, especially when asking for a desired behavior.
"I" messages have three parts: 1) Feeling/Desire; 2) Behavior; and 3) a Consequence. An example of an "I" message for a younger child would be: "I feel angry (feeling/desire) when the bicycle is left in the driveway (behavior) because I nearly ran over it when coming home (consequence)". "I" messages link your feelings to the consequence and not the child. It also communicates value and respect. An example of an "I" message for an older child may go something like this: "I am worried when you do not come home on time and do not call me to tell me you are going to be late because I am afraid that something has happened to you".
Good timing is also important to using this parenting tool. Talking to children during conflict or a dispute may not be the best occasion for an "I" message. It may be necessary for both parent and child to take some time to cool off and then discuss the situation of concern. "I" messages also communicate ownership of a problem.
Ages: All Ages
Open Ended Questions are another type of parenting talk tool that encourages a child to talk to the parent. Open ended questions require that the child respond with more than a one word answer. Questions that require only a one word answer are called closed questions. Examples of closed questions include: "How old are you?" or "What grade did you get on your spelling test?". Both of these questions can be answered with one word. To get children to expand their conversation, use an open ended question, such as, "What did you like about school today?" or "What happened on your spelling test?". It is possible for a child to answer "nothing!", in response to these open questions. If that happens, there are usually two approaches. First, leave the child alone. They may not ready to talk about their day. Or second, use other parenting tools, such as Conversation Extenders and Reflective Listening parenting tools. Some children have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings. Using various tools together may be more efficient, and less mechanical, in getting a child to talk.
Generally, older children have better communication skills than do younger children. But parents can use this parenting tool with preschoolers as a way of developing their new language abilities. In fact, communication skills can decrease aggressive actions, like biting, when the problem underlying the aggressive behavior is frustration over not being able to communicate a need or want. Open Ended Questions provide young children with new, safer outlets for their frustration and teach them how to get more of their needs met!
Ages: 2-5, 6-12, Teenagers
Reflections are one of the most powerful of all the parenting talk tools. It is powerful because it focuses on the child-as- person. Contrary to what most parents might believe, children want their parent's approval, especially at an early age. A child's self-concept is determined, to a large degree, by what a parent says and what a parent does to their child. A child who is valued, in word and deed, will have a good self-concept while a child who is mistreated and ignored will not. Reflections are an excellent way for parents to ensure that their children have a good self-concept.
Reflections operate in a similar fashion to a mirror. Just as a mirror reflects your physical image, a parent can reflect a child's emotional image. Knowing what we look like is difficult unless you have some reflection to determine our shape, color, and form. Children, similarly, do not know how to feel about themselves without some feedback and description. But children are not looking for physical descriptions. They are in need of emotional descriptions. Parents can use the reflecting parenting tool to provide this description.
The reflections parenting tool validates a child's feelings about themselves and the situations they experience every day. Reflections are statements made by the parent about the emotional world of the child. The parent must demonstrate that they are open to hearing what the child has to say, on the surface (the story) as well as deeper down (the emotional feelings). The goal is to communicate to the child that "I am listening" or "I understand what you are experiencing." Interrupting, interrogating, and psychoanalyzing will not produce this effect. Parents can probably remember a situation, talking to a supervisor, friend, or loved one, where their feelings were disregarded or the problem analyzed rather than simply understood. Those kind of responses hurt old as well as young alike.
The actual procedure for this parenting tool is really very simple. There are only three steps: Remove distractions, communicate attention, and reflect the child's feelings. The first step is to remove distractions. Parents do this so that they can give the child their full attention, not their half- attention. Parents cannot pay attention by listening to their child and watching the television or cooking dinner at the same time. If possible, remove all distractions by turning off the television or turning off the pot off on the stove. If it is not possible to remove the distractions, than try and minimize them as much as possible or ask the child to wait until you can give him or her your full attention. It is better to wait until after the program or after dinner than try and compete with some other activity.
The second step is to communicate your attention. This step asks that parents provide their children with a physical and a verbal acknowledgment that they are being listened to. Children have a way of knowing when parents are not really interested in what they have to say. Physically, parents can turn and face their child, looking them in the eye. Verbally, parents can inform their child that they are ready to listen by stating, "Tell me more about what happened" or "How did that make you feel when that happened?" As children answer the question, parents can insert grunts or short statements that say, "I'm still with you and I'm still listening." An example might be the statements: "I see", "wow", "yeah", "oh!" or "uh-huh." The third step is to actually reflect the child's feelings. Up until now parents have succeeded in making a connection with their child. This is not reflection but the act of preparing to reflect. So far the picture is warm but still fuzzy. Parents can make it clearer by using the format: "You feel (child's emotion) because of (situation that caused the feeling)." An additional piece to this would be to clarify the child's values by including the statement, "and it is really important to you that (value that child is expressing)" to the preceding format. As an example, let's imagine that a parent is faced with a child who did poorly on a test at school because other children were pestering him or her. The parent would reflect this by stating, "You are angry at those kids for pestering you and making you get a bad grade at school." Anger is the feeling word not overtly expressed by the child and reflected back by the parent. If the parent wants to clarify the value as well, they might state: "...and it is important to you to do well in school."
Another example of reflections might include a child telling their parents, in a very animated manner, about an upcoming field trip. A parent could reflect, "You are excited about your upcoming field trip." Most children will take as much as 20 minutes to relate the same information a parent reflects back in just a few seconds. This is called paraphrasing. Paraphrasing summarizes the child's story by listing the main points of the story and the labeling the child's feeling about it. Sometimes parent must listen very close in order to capture the feeling behind the words. Don't worry if the child's feelings are not captured the first time around, most children are willing to give the parent a second chance. After all, reflections feel pretty good and most kids are willing to have you try again. They might even tell you the feeling word you missed. Simply restate the correct feeling word to the child and go on with the reflections.
Some parents may be having trouble reflecting a child's feelings when the child is talking about something with which the parent does not agree. It is possible to reflect their feelings about the situation without agreeing with the behavior. Reflection of a feeling is not the same as condoning a behavior or a belief. Parents can discuss that after they have made a connection and reflected the child's feelings. The child will also be in a better place to receive parents advice about what it is right or wrong about a situation or behavior. Experience has shown that children who feel right about themselves, act right. Children who feel hurt or angry, act hurt or angry to those around them. This is fitting given that children are egocentric (i.e., "the world revolves around me" attitude) by nature. Therefore, children are more likely to listen to parents when they feel that their parents are listening to them. Two words of caution. The first is don't be a parrot. Many parents try and reflect a child's feelings by repeating their exact words. If parents continue along this path without capturing the essence of the child's communication, the child may become annoyed and/or stop communicating all together. Secondly, don't give up. It is normal to feel awkward at first. But with practice, parents become fairly accomplished at using this tool. After witnessing the dramatic changes in their children's self-esteem and behavior parents will question why they didn't use this powerful talk tool sooner.
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