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Making The Connection: How To Talk To Kids So They Respond!

By Lori Petro, BS

Are you wondering how you can connect more deeply with your child? Would you like to know how to talk to kids using peaceful conflictresolution strategies to ease tension or calm aggressive behavior in children?

Often, we can be triggered by our own unresolved traumas—both big and small—and this can make it extremely challenging to remain compassionate as we confront our kids’ big, explosive emotions.

I had a class member write in and share her son’s feelings on the shift she is making toward more inviting and kind communication. Kids are great for reminding us when we veer from the path. Here’s what she wrote:

My son asked, “Mom, why aren’t you doing what that lady said on the phone call?” Ouch. But thankfully I have had enough self-care to let go of self-criticism and hear him. “Do you know how when you get angry, and hit and bite me, and you just can’t seem to stop yourself?” He nodded. “That’s a habit,” I said. “I have them, too. I’m working hard to change them.” My answer seemed to make sense to him. Then, today, here’s what my son said about yelling: “Do you know why I said I was sorry when I yelled at you

today?” he asked. “Because I don’t want to yell at you. I want to treat my parents better.” (Insert big emotion in heart here.) “We are both trying really hard to speak to each other kindly,” I told him.

Yes! Love. Connection. Repair. Our kids feel it and respond to it!

The biggest challenge to using the kind of respectful language that we want our kids to emulate is our own patterns of behavior, and our habits of reacting based on fear.

That emotional baggage that we all carry can be unzipped without our consent. Then, we unleash unrestrained emotions driven by automatic, unconscious memories and feelings.

Our past can trip us up, trigger us into reactionary patterns and cause us to get stuck in a cycle of disrespect, defiance and demands.

Perhaps you had a punitive childhood. Can you think back to a time when you were younger, smaller, less experienced—maybe sometime in the first 15 years of life—when you were judged for your behavior, or maybe punished or shamed or isolated?

Maybe it was a time you felt unheard as you tried to explain your thought process, or anxious or angry as you tried to get what you needed.

What did it feel like to be evaluated, and told that you were naughty, ungrateful or “a mess,” or that you would suffer the consequences or be isolated from peers, family or activities you loved?

What parts of your body are awakened when you let those emotions surface now?

Now, what would it have felt like if the adults in your life had:

  • held the limits firmly and with compassion and non-judgment for your less-than-experienced ways?

  • calmed their anger and approached you with an honest intention to help, rather than to control or convince?

  • had tolerance for your youthful curiosity and patience for your unskilled demands and bargaining?

What would it be like if we could spend the first 20 years of our lives knowing and hearing that we were doing our best? Try using “connecting words” instead. (Some examples of situations where connecting words can be used are on the previous page.) Here’s another response, from a different class member.

I asked my 7-year-old daughter, “If you saw a boy sitting on the floor in the store, what would you think?”

“That he was waiting.” She responded in a very matter-of-fact way, as if it were obvious.

[Great idea, I thought. Start there, with an observation.]

Then I asked: “Why do you think he chose to sit on the floor?”

Without hesitation, she said, “Because he was tired…or bored!”

[Ahh—makes sense! Both are valid feelings, representing real, honest needs.]

How would she handle it, I wondered? So I probed further: “And what would you say if you wanted him to get up?”

My daughter started dancing around the kitchen table. “I’d say, ‘Come on, come on—it’s time to get moving and groovin’, you silly billy!'”

[That’s it! Offer help via respectful invitations. Try play! Make it fun. Be approachable. Try to understand, rather than rule.]

Disconnecting Words

Don’t you make me stop this car!(challenge)

Do you want me to get into an accident?I can’t drive with this fighting!(guilt, shame)

Now, knock it off! Just be quiet forfive more minutes, we’re almost home!(demands, negotiation, logic)

One more word out of either of you and NO park today.(punitive consequence = fear)

Connecting Words

I’ve pulled over to the side of the road because this isn’tworking for me. (observation)

I can’t drive safely while distracted.I recognize this is important to you.(acknowledge EVERYONE’S needs)

You and your sister are having words.You’re feeling very upset about something.(validate feelings)

I’m not going to drive until it is safe.What is your idea for solving this?(hold off until we get home, speak inlower tones, take some time to cool down)

I am willing to help when we get home,when I can focus on what you’re telling me.Are you willing to wait?(requests + cooperative solutions = quality feedback)

Disconnecting Words

How dare you speak to me like that!(challenge)

Use your manners! Be patient.(demand, judgment)

You’re not making me happy.I’ve given you three chances!(shame/blame)

If you can’t wait your turn and ask nicely,then you lose your chance!(punitive consequence = fear)

Connecting Words

I hear how angry you are.(observation)

It was important to you that I listen to your idea.(acknowledge needs)

You got excited and worried that you wouldn’tbe included. It was hard to wait.(validate feelings)

Those words don’t help us find a solution.Would you be willing to…?(ask in a different way, slow down and start over,help me understand more about your idea)

I will be more mindful, too. This will help usboth respond in ways that are respectful.(requests + cooperative solutions = quality feedback)

When we feel understood, we can hear and process new information. It’s not about scripts, saying the exact words, or all-or-nothing choices. Nor should our goal be “making kids obey.”

It’s not that you need to say these exact words, or even all of the words. It’s that you go in with the attitude and intention of the connecting words, rather than the attitude and intention of the disconnecting words.

It is so easy to presume that we know what our kids are intending when they act out—to superficially judge their decisions as “wrong” and want to dominate their behaviors. Whenever you go in with the attitude of “you’re wrong,” you’re likely to receive defensiveness in return.

Assumptions about right and wrong tend to cause the other person to shut down to anything you say after that. No one likes to be accused of being wrong. Even when the person is “wrong,” compassionate requests are more likely to get you heard.

Fear gives us an easy, seemingly negligible, tool to use for obedience. A raised eyebrow coupled with a certain tone—”growly,” as my daughter’s favorite book character, Junie B. Jones, would say—are effective sometimes. But only sometimes.

Ultimately, fear keeps us focused on the outcome— it leads us to want to control behavior so we can feel better faster. But look at what that teaches kids about the world:

  • that others can influence our behavior (rather than leading us to reflect on how our behavior has affected others).

  • that it is okay to use our power to dominate others.

  • that it doesn’t matter what we think or feel; we simply must obey.

Conscious parenting is about thinking in new ways, ways that build your relationship. When you consciously parent, your kids will want to cooperate with your requests. When you communicate respectfully, your children will do the same!