May 31, 2020

PARENTING: Interpreting Kid Talk

“We live in an emotion-dismissing culture,” says John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, “but if you build an awareness about your child’s emotions and your own, particularly an awareness of smaller emotions, then it may not be necessary for emotions to escalate.”

Hearing and Listening: Are you hearing but not listening?

It is important that we translate what others say to us — particularly when our children talk to us. Often we hear the words, take the  meaning literally and get distracted from what the context and delivery offer in the broader more accurate interpretation.

We can never be absolutely sure of meaning for any given communication. Words are only a small part of meaning. Context, tone, volume and facial expressions also need to be considered. Only the sender can know for certain the meaning or intent; sometimes the sender gives a mixed message.

Children want to be understood; they want their parents to stop and listen. When a child is not allowed to do some activity, he may say, “I hate you” or “you are a bad mommy.” Parents often get rapidly upset with those words and give attention with a lecture, punishment or give in to a tantrum letting the child have his way.

It is more useful to translate the communication. Acknowledge the feeling yet minimize attention. A parent’s response might be “I know you are disappointed (or angry) that your friend can not come over.” Be done with it; go on to what’s next.

Explanations are often particularly odd, saying a child is not allowed a certain feeling such as hate or a certain opinion. The oddness comes to play because nobody can control a child’s feeling or their opinion. Typically the feeling or stated opinion is not what is really going on.

Explanations generally serve to give more attention. For many children, the intensity and length of a lecture reinforces what they wanted — parental attention. If they get the attention, they may also eventually get their way.

Realize: “A tantrum is not a bad thing. It is actually an important developmental experience all kids need to have. Kids who don’t learn to express powerful feelings may have more trouble expressing them later. Your goal many not be to stop the tantrum, but instead to help your child work through it in a way that’s right for his development.” Gillian McNamee, Ph.D, Director of Teacher Education, Erickson Institute

If you can not ignore the words, Consider Time Out! It’s a much better solution for these situations.

Finally, in the midst of communication, give your children the most generous interpretation of what they say. It is not that they “hate” you or think you are “a bad parent.” It’s the here and now struggle with not getting their way.

Acknowledge that and move on.

Bill