Less is More: 3 Steps To Connect And Communicate With Your Child


Communicate without using a lot of words to gain your child's cooperation.

I often work with parents who report that they are struggling with gaining their childs cooperation and that their child doesn't "listen".  Usually, when I ask for a specific example what I find out is that it is the parent who was not listening to the child, but not intentionally.  Children, particularly younger ones, communicate through their behavior which is often misunderstood by their parents.  Let me explain with an example.  One weekend our family was out furniture shopping and my then 3 year old daughter needed to go to the restroom.  When we walked into one of the bathroom stalls she started fussing and saying she didn't want to go in that stall and started getting more upset when I tried to encourage her to go ahead and go.  I could have easily interpreted this behavior as defiant and engaged in a power struggle with her.  But instead, I said, "there is something in here that you don't like and you don't want to use the bathroom in here".  I asked her if she would like to try out the other stall and she said yes.  We then walked into the other bathroom stall and she hopped right on and went potty.  I reflected, "there was something you didn't like about the other potty, but you feel okay about this one" and she stated, "that one was too loud, it scared me".  Someone had flushed the toilet right next to us, and it was loud.  In her mind it was connected to the stall we were in.  When we walked out, the woman who had flushed that other toilet said, "I am a school teacher and I am so impressed with how you handled that situation.  I often see parents who don't listen to their children and force them to do something not understanding why they are upset".  That was one of my better parenting moments and one that I often remember when I get frustrated with my children when they aren't cooperating.  I realize that I need to take a step back and see what might be happening with them that I'm not hearing or seeing.  By reflecting and noticing her discomfort, I was able to give her an option that provided her a sense of being heard and understood and we resolved the problem together.  Often times power struggles can be avoided by connecting with your child this way.

Parents often use a lot of words when communicating with their children and often times talk "at" them, particularly when trying to get them to cooperate and do something we want them to do.  If your child continues to be resistent, that is the time to take a step back and assess the situation, use fewer words and listen to your child.  By attempting to enter your child's world, you will likely be much more successful in gaining their cooperation.  These 3 steps will help you more effectively connect with your child and increase the chances of gaining their cooperation:

  1. Acknowledge you child's feeling.  Name what you think they are experiencing emotionally and communicate that you understand.  This doesn't necessarily mean that you agree i.e.  "I know you are angry that you can't watch any more television tonight.  I understand that makes you mad."  or "I understand that you are sad that you can't stay out later then 10 p.m.  I know that it feels unfair especially since your friends get to stay out that late".
  2. Communicate the limit.  This is where you state the boundary clearly and concisely.  Using the above examples, "You have already used your TV time for today" or "Your curfew is 10 p.m."
  3. Tell them what they can do and what their choices are and trust that they will make the correct choice.  "You can play with your legos or read a book" or "You can drive seperately from your friends or ride with them and your father or I can pick you up"

If your child continues to complain, argue or does not cooperate at that point you then you go through each step one more time and then state a final limit, "If you choose to argue with me about the TV, you are choosing to lose your _________  (fill in the blank with an appropriate consequence discussed more below), it's up to you, you decide" or "If you choose to argue with me about the curfew time, you are choosing not to go the part at all.  It's your choice, so you decide".

I want to highlight a few points.  First, notice that the word "no" was never used in these exchanges.  With younger children, saying no tends to trigger an automatic power struggle and/or tantrum.  With older children, it tends to cause a power struggle to ensue and escalate.  If you have to give a choose and consequence, it's important to use a consequence that is an effective currency for your child.  If you take away their outdoor playtime, but that holds no value to them, it won't motivate them to change their behavior.  Each child's currency is different, so you have to decide what will work for your child.  It is also important to use a consequence that is more immediate for younger children.  You don't want to take away TV time for the next day for a 3 year old because tomorrow is a long way off and not a concept they can grasp.  Make the consequence more in the immediate.  

It is also important to match the consequence with the situation.  If you are setting a limit around arguing, the consequence is going to be much different then if you are setting a limit about hitting.  When a child hits, parents often tend to react strongly letting the child know this is a great way to get a reaction.  The key is to stay calm and state, "I know you are angry that you can't watch anymore TV today.  People are not for hitting.  You can hit stomp your feet or hit a pillow when you are angry.  If you choose to hit, you are choosing to lose your play time with your friend today."  It's always important to tell a child what they can do as an alternative so they can find appropriate ways to express their feelings.  

Also note that in all of these examples there were no lectures or explanations about why hitting isn't nice.  There is no need to go into long justifications about why a 10 p.m. curfew is the rule or attempts to explain.  None of that is relevant and it won't make a difference in the argument.  For some situations obviously, with older children, there may be more discussion and negotiation around certain topics - but the rules and boundaries that you know are clear do not require any further explanations.

By setting limits for your child it provides a sense of safety and security.  When children know what the limits are they know what is expected of them and this makes it more likely that you will gain their cooperation!  If your child is tired, hungry or emotionally overwhelmed they are likely to act that out and that is when you start going through the steps of setting the limits and giving them choices and consequences.  This communicates that you trust your child to make a good choice and it helps teach them responsibility over their actions as well.  The likelihood of your child will respond to the limit is greater if you maintain a calm and non-critical tone.

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