How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk
1| Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings
I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.
Living with real children can be humbling. Every morning I would tell myself, “Today is going to be different,” and every morning was a variation of the one before: “You gave her more than me!” . . . “That’s the pink cup. I want the blue cup.” . . . “This oatmeal looks like throw-up.” . . . “He punched me.” . . . “I never touched him!” . . . “I won’t go to my room. You’re not the boss over me!”
They finally wore me down. And though it was the last thing I ever dreamed I’d be doing, I joined a parent group. The group met at a local child-guidance center and was led by a young psychologist, Dr. Haim Ginott.
The meeting was intriguing. The subject was “children’s feelings,” and the two hours sped by. I came home with a head spinning with new thoughts and a notebook full of undigested ideas:
Direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.
When kids feel right, they’ll behave right.
How do we help them to feel right?
By accepting their feelings!
Problem—Parents don’t usually accept their children’s feelings. For example:
“You don’t really feel that way.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re tired.”
“There’s no reason to be so upset.”
Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also teaches them not to know what their feelings are—not to trust them.
After the session I remember thinking, “Maybe other parents do that. I don’t.” Then I started listening to myself. Here are some sample conversations from my home—just from a single day.
CHILD: Mommy, I’m tired.
ME: You couldn’t be tired. You just napped.
CHILD: (louder) But I’m tired.
ME: You’re not tired. You’re just a little sleepy. Let’s get dressed.
CHILD: (wailing) No, I’m tired!
CHILD: Mommy, it’s hot in here.
ME: It’s cold. Keep your sweater on.
CHILD: No, I’m hot.
ME: I said, “Keep your sweater on!”
CHILD: No, I’m hot.
CHILD: That TV show was boring.
ME: No, it wasn’t. It was very interesting.
CHILD: It was stupid.
ME: It was educational.
CHILD: It stunk.
ME: Don’t talk that way!
Can you see what was happening? Not only were all our conversations turning into arguments, I was also telling my children over and over again not to trust their own perceptions but to rely on mine instead.
Once I was aware of what I was doing, I was determined to change. But I wasn’t sure how to go about it. What finally helped me most was actually putting myself in my children’s shoes. I asked myself, “Suppose I were a child who was tired, or hot or bored? And suppose I wanted that all-important grown-up in my life to know what I was feeling . . . ?”
Over the next weeks I tried to tune in to what I thought my children might be experiencing, and when I did, my words seemed to follow naturally. I wasn’t just using a technique. I really meant it when I said, “So you’re still feeling tired—even though you just napped.” Or “I’m cold, but for you it’s hot in here.” Or “I can see you didn’t care much for that show.” After all, we were two separate people, capable of having two different sets of feelings. Neither of us was right or wrong. We each felt what we felt.
For a while, my new skill was a big help. There was a noticeable reduction in the number of arguments between the children and me. Then one day my daughter announced, “I hate Grandma,” and it wasmy mother she was talking about. I never hesitated for a second. “That is a terrible thing to say,” I snapped. “You know you don’t mean it. I don’t ever want to hear that coming out of your mouth again.”
That little exchange taught me something else about myself. I could be very accepting about most of the feelings the children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way.
I’ve since learned that my reaction was not that unusual. On the following page you’ll find examples of other statements children make that often lead to an automatic denial from their parents. Please read each statement and jot down what you think a parent might say if he were denying his child’s feelings.
I. CHILD: I don’t like the new baby.
PARENT: (denying the feeling)
II. CHILD: I had a dumb birthday party. (After you went “all out” to make it a wonderful day.)
PARENT: (denying the feeling)
III. CHILD: I’m not wearing this stupid retainer anymore. It hurts. I don’t care what the orthodontist says!
PARENT: (denying the feeling)
IV. CHILD: I hate that new coach! Just because I was one minute late he kicked me off the team.
PARENT: (denying the feeling)
Did you find yourself writing things like:
“That’s not so. I know in your heart you really love the baby.”
“What are you talking about? You had a wonderful party—ice cream, birthday cake, balloons. Well, that’s the last party you’ll ever have!”
“Your retainer can’t hurt that much. After all the money we’ve invested in your mouth, you’ll wear that thing whether you like it or not!”
“You have no right to be mad at the coach. It’s your fault. You should have been on time.”
Somehow this kind of talk comes easily to many of us. But how do children feel when they hear it? In order to get a sense of what it’s like to have one’s feelings dismissed, try the following exercise:
Imagine that you’re at work. Your employer asks you to do an extra job for him. He wants it ready by the end of the day. You mean to take care of it immediately, but because of a series of emergencies that come up you completely forget. Things are so hectic, you barely have time for your own lunch.
As you and a few coworkers are getting ready to go home, your boss comes over to you and asks for the finished piece of work. Quickly you try to explain how unusually busy you were today.
He interrupts you. In a loud, angry voice he shouts, “I’m not interested in your excuses! What the hell do you think I’m paying you for—to sit around all day on your butt?” As you open your mouth to speak, he says, “Save it,” and walks off to the elevator.
Your coworkers pretend not to have heard. You finish gathering your things and leave the office. On the way home you meet a friend. You’re still so upset that you find yourself telling him or her what had just taken place.
Your friend tries to “help” you in eight different ways. As you read each response, tune in to your immediate “gut” reaction and then write it down. (There are no right or wrong reactions. Whatever you feel is right for you.)
I. Denial of Feelings: “There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It can’t be as bad as you make it out tobe. Come on, smile . . . You look so nice when you smile.”
II. The Philosophical Response: “Look, life is like that. Things don’t always turn out the way we want. You have to learn to take things in stride. In this world, nothing is perfect.”
III. Advice: “You know what I think you should do? Tomorrow morning go straight to your boss’s office and say, ‘Look, I was wrong.’ Then sit right down and finish that piece of work you neglected today. Don’t get trapped by those little emergencies that come up. And if you’re smart and you want to keep that job of yours, you’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
IV. Questions: “What exactly were those emergencies you had that would cause you to forget a special request from your boss?”
“Didn’t you realize he’d be angry if you didn’t get to it immediately?”
“Has this ever happened before?”
“Why didn’t you follow him when he left the room and try to explain again?”
V. Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand your boss’s reaction. He’s probably under terrible pressure. You’re lucky he doesn’t lose his temper more often.”
VI. Pity: “Oh, you poor thing. That is terrible! I feel so sorry for you, I could just cry.”
VII. Amateur Psychoanalysis: “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you’re so upset by this is because your employer represents a father figure in your life? As a child you probably worried about displeasing your father, and when your boss scolded you it brought back your early fears of rejection. Isn’t that true?”
VIII. An Empathic Response (an attempt to tune into the feelings of another): “Boy, that sounds like a rough experience. To be subjected to an attack like that in front of other people, especially after having been under so much pressure, must have been pretty hard to take!”
You’ve just been exploring your own reactions to some fairly typical ways that people talk. Now I’d like to share with you some of my personal reactions. When I’m upset or hurting, the last thing I want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology, or the other fellow’s point of view. That kind of talk makes me only feel worse than before. Pity leaves me feeling pitiful; questions put me on the defensive; and most infuriating of all is to hear that I have no reason to feel what I’m feeling. My overriding reaction to most of these responses is “Oh, forget it. . . . What’s the point of going on?”
But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me, and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem.
I might even say to myself, “My boss is usually fair. . . . I suppose I should have taken care of that report immediately. . . . But I still can’t overlook what he did. . . . Well, I’ll go in early tomorrow and write that report first thing in the morning. . . . But when I bring it to his office I’ll let him know how upsetting it was for me to be spoken to in that way. . . . And I’ll also let him know that, from now on, if he has any criticism I would appreciate being told privately.”
The process is no different for our children. They too can help themselves if they have a listening ear and an empathic response. But the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our “mother tongue.” Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods. Here are some ways to help children deal with their feelings.
TO HELP WITH FEELINGS
1. Listen with full attention.
2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word—“Oh” . . . “Mmm” . . . “I see.”
3. Give their feelings a name.
4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.
On the next few pages you’ll see the contrast between these methods and the ways that people usually respond to a child who is in distress.
INSTEAD OF HALF LISTENING,
It can be discouraging to try to get through to someone
who gives only lip service to listening.
I. LISTEN WITH FULL ATTENTION.
It’s much easier to tell your troubles to a parent who is really listening.
Sometimes a sympathetic silence is all a child needs.
INSTEAD OF QUESTIONS AND ADVICE,
It’s hard for a child to think clearly or constructively
when someone is questioning, blaming, or advising her.
II. ACKNOWLEDGE WITH A WORD—“Oh . . . mmm . . . I see.”
There’s a lot of help to be had from a simple “Oh . . . mmm . . .” or
“I see.” Words like these, coupled with a caring attitude, are invitations
to a child to explore her own thoughts and feelings, and possibly
come up with her own solutions.
INSTEAD OF DENYING THE FEELING,
It’s strange. When we urge a child to push a bad feeling away—
however kindly—the child seems to get only more upset.
III. GIVE THE FEELING A NAME.
Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that
by giving a name to the feeling they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite
is true. The child who hears the words for what she is experiencing is
deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged her inner experience.
INSTEAD OF EXPLANATION AND LOGIC,
When children want something they can’t have,
adults usually respond with logical explanations of
why they can’t have it. Often, the harder we explain,
the harder they protest.
IV. GIVE A CHILD HIS WISHES IN FANTASY.
Sometimes just having someone understand
how much you want something makes reality easier to bear.
So there you have it—four possible ways to give first aid to a child in distress: by listening with full attention, by acknowledging his feelings with a word, by giving a name to his feelings, and by granting him his wishes in fantasy.
But more important than any words we use is our attitude. If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative. It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to a child’s heart.
Of the four skills you’ve just seen illustrated, perhaps the most difficult is to have to listen to a child’s emotional outpourings and then “give a name to the feeling.” It takes practice and concentration to be able to look into and beyond what a child says in order to identify what he or she might be feeling. Yet it’s important that we give our children a vocabulary for their inner reality. Once they have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves.
This next exercise has a list of six statements that a child might make to her parents. Please read each statement and figure out:
1. A word or two that describe what the child might be feeling.
2. A statement you might make to the child to show you understand the feeling.
The child says...
A word that describes what he or she might be feeling.
Use the word in a statement that shows you understand the feeling. (Don’t question or give advice.)
That must have been
1. “I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!”
2. “Just because of a little rain my teacher said we couldn’t go on our field trip. She’s dumb.”
3. “Mary invited me to her party, but I don’t know. . . .”
4. “I don’t know why teachers have to load you down with so much homework over the weekend!”
5. “We had basketball practice today and I couldn’t sink that ball once.”
6. “Janey is moving away and she’s my best friend.”
Did you notice how much thought and effort it takes to let a child know you have a sense of what it is he or she might be feeling? For most of us it doesn’t come naturally to say things like:
“Boy, you sound angry!” or
“That must have been a disappointment for you,” or
“Hmm. You seem to be having some doubts about going to that party,” or
“Sounds as if you really resent all that homework,” or
“Oh, that must have been so frustrating!” or
“To have a dear friend move away can be pretty upsetting.”
And yet it’s statements like these that give children comfort and free them to begin to deal with their problems. (By the way, don’t worry about using words that are too big. The easiest way to learn a new word is to hear it used in context.)
You may be thinking, “Well, in this exercise I was able to give an initial response that showed I understood—more or less. But where would the conversation go from there? How would I continue? Is it okay to give advice next?”
Hold off on giving advice. I know how tempting it is to try to solve a child’s problem with an immediate solution:
“Ma, I’m tired.”
“Then lie down and rest.”
“Then eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Then don’t eat.”
Resist the temptation to “make better” instantly. Instead of giving advice, continue to accept and reflect on your child’s feelings.
Here’s an example of what I mean. A father in our group reported that his young son came storming into the house with the first statement you worked on in your workbooks: “I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!”
The father said, “Normally the conversation would have gone like this:”
SON: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
FATHER: Why? What happened?
SON: He threw my notebook in the dirt!
FATHER: Well, did you do something to him first?
FATHER: Are you sure?
SON: I swear, I never touched him.
FATHER: Well, Michael is your friend. If you take my advice, you’ll forget about the whole thing. You’re not so perfect, you know. Sometimes you start up and then blame someone else—the way you do with your brother.
SON: No, I don’t. He starts up with me first . . . Oh, I can’t talk to you.
But the father had just attended a workshop on helping his children deal with their feelings, and this is what actually took place:
SON: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
FATHER: Boy, you’re angry!
SON: I’d like to push his fat face in!
FATHER: You’re that mad at him!
SON: You know what that bully did? He grabbed my notebook at the bus stop and threw it in the dirt. And for no reason!
SON: I bet he thought I was the one who broke his dumb clay bird in the art room.
FATHER: You think so.
SON: Yeah, he kept looking at me all the time he was crying.
SON: But I didn’t break it. I didn’t!
FATHER: You know you didn’t.
SON: Well, I didn’t do it on purpose! I couldn’t help it if that stupid Debby pushed me into the table.
FATHER: So Debby pushed you.
SON: Yeah. A lot of things got knocked down, but the only thing that broke was the bird. I didn’t mean to break it. His bird was good.
FATHER: You really didn’t mean to break it.
SON: No, but he wouldn’t believe me.
FATHER: You don’t think he’d believe you if you told him the truth.
SON: I dunno . . . I’m gonna tell him anyway—whether he believes me or not. And I think he should tell me he’s sorry for throwing my notebook in the dirt!
The father was astonished. He hadn’t asked questions and yet the child had told him the whole story. He hadn’t given one word of advice, and yet the child had worked out his own solution. It seemed unbelievable to him that he could have been so helpful to his son just by listening and acknowledging his feelings.
It’s one thing to do a written exercise and read a model dialogue. It’s another to put listening skills into action in a real situation with our own children. Parents in our groups report that it’s helpful to role-play with one another and get a little practice before dealing with actual situations in their own homes.
On the following page you’ll find a role-playing exercise to try with a friend or spouse. Decide which of you will play the child and which will play the parent. Then read only your part.
I. The doctor said that you have an allergy and need to have shots every week so that you won’t sneeze so much. Sometimes the shots are painful and sometimes you hardly feel them at all. The shot you had today was the kind that really hurt. After you leave the doctor’s office, you want your parents to know how it felt.
Your parent will respond to you in two different ways. The first time, your feelings will be denied, but keep trying to get your parent to understand anyway. When the conversation comes to a natural conclusion, ask yourself what your feelings were and share your answer with the person who is role-playing with you.
Start the scene by rubbing your arm and saying,
“The doctor nearly killed me with that shot!”
II. The situation is the same, only this time your parent will respond differently. Again, when the conversation comes to a natural conclusion ask yourself what your feelings were this time and share your answer.
Begin the scene in the same way, by saying,
“The doctor nearly killed me with that shot!”
When you’ve played the scene twice, you might want to reverse roles so that you can experience the parent’s point of view.
I. You have to take your child for allergy shots every week. Although you know your youngster dreads going, you also know that most of the time the shots just hurt for a second. Today, after leaving the doctor’s office your child complains bitterly.
You’ll be playing the scene twice. The first time, try to get your child to stop complaining by denying his or her feelings. Use the following statements (if you like, you can make up some of your own):
“Come on, it can’t hurt that much.”
“You’re making a big fuss over nothing.”
“Your brother never complains when he has a shot.”
“You’re acting like a baby.”
“Well, you’d better get used to those shots. After all, you’re going to have to get them every week.”
When the conversation comes to a natural conclusion, ask yourself what your feelings were and share your answer with the person who is role-playing with you.
Your child will start the scene.
II. The scene is the same, only this time you will really listen.
Your responses will show that you can both hear and accept whatever feelings your child might express. For example:
“Sounds as if it really hurt.”
“Mmmm, that bad!”
“Wouldn’t it be great if someone would discover a pain-free way to treat allergies?”
“It’s not easy to get these shots week after week. I bet you’ll be glad when they’re over.”
When the conversation comes to a natural conclusion, ask yourself what your feelings were this time and share your answer.
Your child will start the scene again.
When you’ve played the scene twice, you might want to reverse roles so that you can experience the child’s point of view.
When you played the child whose feelings were brushed aside and denied, did you find yourself becoming more and more angry? Did you start out being upset about your shot and end up being mad at your parent?
When you played the parent who tried to stop the complaining, did you find yourself getting more and more irritated with your “unreasonable” child?
That’s usually the way it goes when feelings are denied. Parents and children become increasingly hostile toward each other.
Parent, when you were accepting of your child’s feelings, did you sense the fight going out of your interchange? Did you experience your power to be genuinely helpful?
Child, when your feelings were accepted, did you feel more respected? More loving toward your parent? Was the pain easier to bear when someone knew how much it hurt? Could you face it again next week?
When we acknowledge a child’s feelings, we do him a great service. We put him in touch with his inner reality. And once he’s clear about that reality, he gathers the strength to begin to cope.
At least once this week have a conversation with a child in which you accept his or her feelings. Jot down what was said while it’s still fresh in your mind.
A Quick Reminder . . .
Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings
Children Need to Have Their Feelings
Accepted and Respected.
1. YOU CAN LISTEN QUIETLY AND ATTENTIVELY.
2. YOU CAN ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEELINGS WITH A WORD.
“Oh . . . Mmm . . . I see . . .”
3. YOU CAN GIVE THE FEELING A NAME.
“That sounds frustrating!”
4. YOU CAN GIVE THE CHILD HIS WISHES IN FANTASY.
“I wish I could make the banana ripe for you
All feelings can be accepted.
Certain actions must be limited.
“I can see how angry you are at your brother.
Tell him what you want with words, not fists.”
Note: You may find it useful to make a copy of this and other “reminder” pages and put them up in strategic locations around the house.
PART II: COMMENTS, QUESTIONS, AND
Questions Parents Have Asked
1. Is it important that I always empathize with my child?
No. Many of our conversations with our children consist of casual exchanges. If a child were to say, “Mom, I decided to go to David’s house after school today,” it would seem unnecessary for the parent to reply, “So you made a decision to visit a friend this afternoon.” A simple “Thanks for letting me know” would be sufficient acknowledgment. The time for empathy is when a child wants you to know how he feels. Reflecting his positive feelings presents few problems. It’s not hard to respond to a youngster’s exuberant “I got ninety-seven on my math test today!” with an equally enthusiastic “Ninety-seven! You must be so pleased!”
It’s his negative emotions that require our skill. That’s where we have to overcome the old temptation to ignore, deny, moralize, etc. One father said that what helped him become more sensitive to his son’s emotional needs was when he began to equate the boy’s bruised, unhappy feelings with physical bruises. Somehow the image of a cut or a laceration helped him realize that his son required as prompt and serious attention for his hurt feelings as he would for a hurt knee.
2. What’s wrong with asking a child directly, “Why do you feel that way?”
Some children can tell you why they’re frightened, angry, or unhappy. For many, however, the question “Why?” only adds to their problem. In addition to their original distress, they must now analyze the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”)
It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?” or “Why do you feel that way?” It’s easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you’re feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.
3. Are you saying we should let our children know we agree with their feelings?
Children don’t need to have their feelings agreed with; they need to have them acknowledged. The statement “You’re absolutely right” might be satisfying to hear for the moment, but it can also prevent a child from thinking things through for himself.
CHILD: The teacher says she’s calling off our class play. She’s mean!
PARENT: After all those rehearsals? I agree with you. She must be mean to do a thing like that!
End of discussion.
Notice how much easier it is for a child to think constructively when his feelings are accepted:
CHILD: My teacher says she’s calling off the class play. She’s mean.
PARENT: That must be a big disappointment for you. You were looking forward to it.
CHILD: Yeah. Just because some kids fool around at rehearsal. It’s their fault.
PARENT: (listens silently)
CHILD: She’s mad because nobody knows their parts, too.
PARENT: I see.
CHILD: She said if we “shaped up” she might give us one more chance. . . . I better go over my lines again. Would you cue me tonight?
Conclusion: What people of all ages can use in a moment of distress is not agreement or disagreement; they need someone to recognize what it is they’re experiencing.
4. If it’s so important to show my child I understand, what’s wrong with simply saying, “I understand how you feel”?
The problem with saying “I understand how you feel” is that some children just don’t believe you. They’ll answer, “No, you don’t.” But if you take the trouble to be specific (“The first day of school can be scary—so many new things to get used to”), then the child knows you really do understand.
5. Suppose I try to identify a feeling and it turns out that I’m wrong. What then?
No harm done. Your child will quickly set you right.
CHILD: Dad, our test was postponed till next week.
FATHER: That must have been a relief for you.
CHILD: No, I was mad! Now I’ll have to study the same stuff again next week.
FATHER: I see. You were hoping to get it over with.
It would be presumptuous for any one person to assume he could always know what another person is feeling. All we can do is attempt to understand our children’s feelings. We won’t always succeed, but our efforts are usually appreciated.
6. I know feelings should be accepted, but I find it hard to know how to react when I hear “You’re mean” or “I hate you” from my own child.
If “I hate you” upsets you, you might want to let your child know, “I didn’t like what I just heard. If you’re angry about something, tell it to me in another way. Then maybe I can be helpful.”
7. Is there any way to help a child who’s upset other than by letting him know you understand his feelings? My son has very little tolerance for any kind of frustration. Occasionally it does seem to help when I acknowledge his feelings and say something like “That must be so frustrating!” But usually when he’s in such an emotional state he doesn’t even hear me.
Parents in our groups have found that when their children are extremely upset, sometimes a physical activity can help relieve some of the painful feelings. We’ve heard many stories about angry children who have felt calmer after punching pillows, hammering old grocery cartons, pounding and kneading clay, roaring like a lion, throwing darts. But the one activity that seems most comfortable for parents to watch, and most satisfying for children to do, is to draw their feelings. The two examples that follow happened within a week of each other:
I had just come back from a workshop session and found my three-year-old son lying on the floor having a tantrum. My husband was just standing there looking disgusted. He said, “Okay, child specialist, let’s see if you can handle this one.” I felt I had to rise to the occasion. I looked down at Joshua, who was still kicking and screaming, and grabbed a pencil and the pad near the phone. Then I knelt down, handed the pencil and pad to Joshua, and said, “Here, show me how angry you are. Draw me a picture of the way you feel.”
Joshua jumped up immediately and began to draw angry circles. Then he showed it to me and said, “This is how angry I am!”
I said, “You really are angry!” and tore another piece of paper from the pad. “Show me more,” I said.
He scribbled furiously on the page, and again I said, “Boy, that angry!” We went through the whole thing one more time. When I handed him a fourth piece of paper, he was definitely calmer. He looked at it a long time. Then he said, “Now I show my happy feelings,” and he drew a circle with two eyes and a smiling mouth. It was unbelievable. In two minutes he had gone from being hysterical to smiling—just because I let him show me how he felt. Afterward my husband said, “Keep going to that group.”
At the next session of our group, another mother told us about her experience using the same skill.
When I heard about Joshua last week, my first thought was “How I wish I could use that approach with Todd.” Todd is also three, but he has cerebral palsy. Everything that comes naturally to other kids was monumental for him—standing without falling, keeping his head erect. He’s made remarkable progress, but he’s still so easily frustrated. Anytime he tries to do something and can’t, he screams for hours on end. There is no way in the world I can get through to him. The worst part is that he kicks me and tries to bite me. I guess he thinks that somehow his difficulties are all my fault, and that I should be able to do something about it. He’s angry at me most of the time.
On the way home from last week’s workshop I thought, “What if I catch Todd before he goes into his full tantrum?” That afternoon he was playing with his new puzzle. It was a very simple one, with just a few big pieces. Anyway, he couldn’t get the last piece to fit, and after a few tries he began to get that look on his face. I thought, “Oh no, here we go again!” I ran over to him and shouted, “Hold it! . . . Hold everything! . . . Don’t move! . . . I’ve gotta get something!” He looked startled. I frantically searched in his bookshelves and found a big purple crayon and a sheet of drawing paper. I sat down on the floor with him and said, “Todd, is this how angry you feel?” And then I drew sharp zigzag lines up and down, up and down.
“Yeah,” he said, and yanked the crayon out of my hand and made wild slashing lines. Then he stabbed the paper over and over again until it was full of holes. I held the paper up to the light and said, “You are so mad . . . You are absolutely furious!” He grabbed the paper away from me and, crying all the while, tore it again and again until it was nothing more than a pile of shreds. When he was all finished, he looked up at me and said, “I love you, Mommy.” It was the first time he’d ever said that.
I’ve tried it again since and it doesn’t work all the time. I guess I have to find some other physical outlet for him, like a punching bag or something. But I’m beginning to realize that what’s most important is that, while he’s punching or pounding or drawing, I be there—watching him, letting him know that even his angriest feelings are understood and accepted.
8. If I accept all of my child’s feelings, won’t that give him the idea that anything he does is all right with me? I don’t want to be a permissive parent.
We too worried about being permissive. But gradually we began to realize that this approach was permissive only in the sense that all feelings were permitted. For example, “I can see that you’re having fun making designs in the butter with your fork.”
But that doesn’t mean that you have to permit a child to behave in a way that’s unacceptable to you. As you remove the butter, you can also let the young “artist” know that “Butter is not for playing with. If you want to make designs, you can use your clay.”
We found that when we accepted our children’s feelings they were more able to accept the limits we set for them.
9. What is the objection to giving children advice when they have a problem?
When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.
Is there ever a time for advice? Certainly.
For a more detailed discussion of when and how to give advice, see “More About Advice” on page 164 to 166.
10. Is there anything you can do if you realize afterward that you’ve given your child an unhelpful response? Yesterday my daughter came home from school very upset. She wanted to tell me about how some kids picked on her in the playground. I was tired and preoccupied, and so I brushed her off and told her to stop crying, that it wasn’t the end of the world. She looked very unhappy and went up to her room. I know I made her feel worse, but what can I do now?
Every time a parent says to himself, “I wish I hadn’t said that. Why didn’t I think to say . . . ,” he automatically gets another chance. Life with children is open-ended. There’s always another opportunity—later in the hour, day, or week—to say, “I’ve been thinking about what you told me before, about those kids teasing you at the playground. And I realize now how upsetting that must have been for you.”
Compassion is always appreciated, whether it comes sooner or later.
I. Children usually object when their exact words are repeated back to them.
CHILD: I don’t like David anymore.
PARENT: You don’t like David anymore.
CHILD: (with annoyance) That’s what I just said.
This child might have preferred a less parrotlike response, such as:
“Something about David bothers you.”
“Sounds as if you’re really annoyed with him.”
II. There are youngsters who prefer no talk at all when they’re upset. For them, Mom or Dad’s presence is comfort enough.
One mother told us about walking into the living room and seeing her ten-year-old daughter slumped on the sofa with tear-stained eyes. The mother sat down beside her daughter, put her arms around her, murmured, “Something happened,” and sat silently with her for five minutes. Finally, her daughter sighed and said, “Thanks, Mom. I’m better now.” The mother never did find out what happened. All she knew was that her comforting presence must have been helpful, because an hour later she heard her daughter humming to herself in her room.
III. Some children become irritated when they express an intense emotion and their parent’s response is “correct” but cool.
A teenager in one of our workshops told us that she came home one afternoon in a rage because her best friend had betrayed a very personal secret. She told her mother what had happened, and very matter-of-factly her mother commented, “You’re angry.” The girl said she couldn’t help snapping back with a sarcastic, “No kidding.”
We asked her what she would have liked her mother to say. She thought awhile and answered, “It wasn’t the words; it was how she said it. It was as if she was talking about the feelings of someone she didn’t even care about. I guess I wanted her to show me that she was right in there with me. If she had just said something like ‘Boy, Cindy, you must be furious at her!’ then I would have felt she understood.”
IV. It’s also not helpful when parents respond with more intensity than the child feels.
TEENAGER: (grumbling) Steve kept me waiting on the street corner for half an hour, and then he made up some story that I know isn’t true.
MOTHER: That is inexcusable! How could he do such a thing to you? He’s inconsiderate and irresponsible. You must feel like never seeing him again.
It probably never occurred to the teenager to react so violently to his friend or to consider so drastic a retaliation. All he probably needed from his mother was an understanding grunt and a shake of the head to convey sympathy for his irritation at his friend’s behavior. He didn’t need the additional burden of having to cope with her strong emotions.
V. Children don’t appreciate having the names they call themselves repeated by their parents.
When a child tells you he’s dumb or ugly or fat, it’s not helpful to reply with “Oh, so you think you’re dumb,” or “You really feel you’re ugly.” Let’s not cooperate with him when he calls himself names. We can accept his pain without repeating the name.
CHILD: The teacher said we’re only supposed to spend fifteen minutes a night on our math. It took me a whole hour to finish. I must be dumb.
PARENT: It can be discouraging when work takes longer than you expect.
CHILD: I look terrible when I smile. All you can see are my braces. I’m ugly.
PARENT: You really don’t like the way you look in those things. And it probably doesn’t help to know that to me you’re a pleasing sight—with or without your braces.
We hope our “cautions” haven’t scared you off. It’s probably obvious to you by now that dealing with feelings is an art, not a science. Yet we have faith (based upon years of observation) that parents, after some trial and error, can master the art. You’ll sense after a while what is helpful to your individual child and what isn’t. With practice you’ll soon discover what irritates and what comforts, what creates distance and what invites intimacy, what wounds and what heals. There is no substitute for your own sensitivity.
We teach the same basic principles to every group. Yet we never cease to be surprised at the originality of parents or the variety of situations in which these principles are applied. Each of the following stories is presented basically as parents have written them. In most cases the children’s names have been changed. You’ll notice that not every single thing the parents say is a “model” response. But their basic willingness to listen and their attitude of acceptance are what make the difference.
The parents who told these first two stories to the group found it difficult to believe that when they refrained from giving advice the child really did start to work toward his own solution. This mother introduced her story with, “Listen to how little I said!”
Nicky, age eight, comes home from school and says, “I’d like to punch Jeffrey.”
ME: You’re really mad at Jeffrey!
NICKY: Yeah! Whenever we play soccer and I get the ball he says, “Give it to me, Nicky, I’m better than you are.” Wouldn’t that make anybody mad?
NICKY: But Jeffrey’s not really like that. In first grade he was always nice. But I think when Chris came in the second grade Jeffrey picked up the habit of boasting from him.
ME: I see.
NICKY: Let’s call Jeffrey and invite him to the park.
My son is a first grader who is not aggressive and doesn’t get into fights. Therefore I tend to be overprotective because he seems so vulnerable. On Monday he came home from school and told me that a boy in his class, who is much bigger than he is, sent a “deputy” over to tell him that he was going to be “beat up” tomorrow. My first reaction was pure hysteria: keep him home from school, teach him overnight self-defense—anything to save him pain and fear.
Instead of showing him my alarm, I decided to listen attentively and just answered, “Umm.” Then Douglas launched into a nonstop monologue. He said, “Yes, so I’ve figured out three strategies for defense. First, I’ll try to talk him out of fighting. I’ll explain that you shouldn’t fight because it’s uncivilized. Then if that doesn’t work, I’ll put on my glasses, but (he paused and thought here) if he’s a bully that won’t stop him, and he must be a bully because I never even spoke to him and now he wants to beat me up. Then, if nothing else works, I’ll get Kenny to attack him. Kenny is so strong the bully will just look at him and be scared.”
I was shocked and just said, “Oh,” and he said, “Okay . . . it’ll be okay . . . I have plans to use,” and he walked out of the room relaxed. I was so impressed with my son. I had no idea he could be so brave or so creative about handling his own problems. And all this came about because I just listened and kept out of his way.
But I didn’t let it go there. I said nothing to Douglas, but I called his teacher that afternoon and alerted her to what was going on. She said it was good I called, because in today’s world no threat should be overlooked.
The next day it took all my self-control not to ask him what happened, but he said to me, “Mommy, guess what, the bully never came near me today.”
Some parents reported their amazement at the calming effect their “accepting” statements had. The old “Calm down!” or “Cut it out!” seemed only to agitate the children further. But a few words of acknowledgment often soothed the most savage feelings and changed the mood dramatically. This first example is from a father.
My daughter, Holly, came in from the kitchen.
“Mrs. G. really yelled at me in gym today.”
“She screamed at me.”
“She was really mad.”
“She yelled, ‘You don’t hit the ball that way in volleyball. You do it this way!’ How should I know? She never told us how to hit it.”
“You were angry at her for yelling.”
“She made me so mad.”
“It can be frustrating to be yelled at for no good reason.”
“She had no right!”
“You feel she shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“No. I’m so mad at her, I could step on her . . . I’d like to stick pins in a doll of her and make her suffer.”
“Hang her by the thumbs.”
“Boil her in oil.”
“Turn her over a spit.”
At this point Holly smiled. I smiled. She began to laugh, and so did I. She then remarked that it was really silly the way Mrs. G. yelled. Then she said, “I sure know now how to hit the volleyball to satisfy her.”
Usually I might have said, “You probably did something wrong to make her yell. Next time listen when the teacher corrects you and then you’ll know what to do.” She would probably have slammed the door and raged in her room about what an insensitive idiot she had for a father, along with a miserable teacher.
Setting: My kitchen.
I have just put the baby down for her nap. Evan comes home from nursery school all excited because he’s going to Chad’s house to play.
EVAN: Hi, Mom. Let’s go to Chad’s now!
MOM: Nina (the baby) is sleeping now, but we’ll go later.
EVAN: (getting upset) I want to go now. You said we could.
MOM: How about if I walk you over with your bike?
EVAN: No! I want you to stay with me. (starts to cry hysterically) I want to go now! (He takes the drawings he has just brought home from school, crumples them, and stuffs them in the garbage.)
MOM: (My lightbulb goes on.) Boy, are you furious! You’re so angry you threw your drawings away. You must really be upset. Here you were, so looking forward to playing with Chad, and Nina is sleeping. That’s so disappointing.
EVAN: Yeah, I really wanted to go to Chad’s. (stops crying) Can I watch TV, Mom?
Situation: Father was going fishing and four-year-old Danielle wanted to go with him.
DADDY: All right, honey, you can come along, but remember we’ll be standing outside for a long, long time and it’s cold outside this morning.
DANIELLE: (Confusion is spread across her face and she answered with great hesitation.) I changed my mind . . . I want to stay home.
Two minutes after Daddy left the tears began.
DANIELLE: Daddy left me and he knew I wanted to go!
MOMMY: (preoccupied at the time and not in the mood to cope) Danielle, we both know that you decided to stay home. Your crying is distracting and I don’t want to listen, so if you’re going to cry go to your room.
She runs to her room wailing.
Minutes later Mommy decides to try the new method.
MOMMY: (going to Danielle’s room and sitting on her bed) You really wanted to be with Daddy, didn’t you? Danielle stopped crying and nodded her head.
MOMMY: You felt confused when Daddy mentioned how cold it would be. You couldn’t make up your mind.
Relief showed in her eyes. Nodding again, she dried her eyes.
MOMMY: You felt you didn’t have enough time to make up your mind.
DANIELLE: No, I didn’t.
At this point I hugged her. She bounced off her bed and went off to play.
It also seemed to help the children to know that they could have two very different feelings at the same time.
After the baby was born, I always told Paul that he loved his new brother. Paul would shake his head, “Nooooo! Nooooo!”
This past month I’ve been saying, “It seems to me, Paul, you have two feelings about the baby. Sometimes you’re glad you have a brother. He’s fun to watch and play with. And sometimes you don’t like having him around at all. You just wish he’d go away.”
Paul likes that. At least once a week now, he’ll say to me, “Tell me about my two feelings, Mommy.”
Some parents particularly appreciated having the skills to be helpful when a child’s mood was one of discouragement or despair. They were glad to know they didn’t have to take on their children’s unhappiness and make it their own. One mother said, “I’ve just begun to realize what unnecessary pressure I’ve been putting myself under to make sure my kids are happy all the time. I first became aware of how far gone I was when I found myself trying to Scotch-tape a broken pretzel together to stop my four-year-old from crying. I’ve also begun to realize what a burden I’ve been putting on the children. Think of it! Not only are they upset about the original problem, but then they get more upset because they see me suffering over their suffering. My mother used to do that to me, and I remember feeling so guilty—as if there was something wrong with me for not being happy all the time. I want my kids to know that they’re entitled to be miserable without their mother falling apart.”
My son, Ron, came in with muddied overalls and downcast face.
FATHER: I see a lot of mud on your pants.
RON: Yeah, I suck at football.
FATHER: You had a hard game.
RON: Yeah, I can’t play. I’m too weak. Even Jerry knocks me down.
FATHER: It’s so frustrating to get knocked down.
RON: Yeah. I wish I was stronger.
FATHER: You wish you were built like Superman.
RON: Yeah, then I could knock them down.
FATHER: You could run right over those tacklers.
RON: I could find plenty of running room.
FATHER: You could run.
RON: I can pass, too. I’m good on the short pass, but I can’t throw a bomb (long pass).
FATHER: You can run and pass.
RON: Yeah, I can play better.
FATHER: You feel you could play better.
RON: Next time I’m going to play better.
FATHER: You know you’ll play better.
Ordinarily I would have greeted Ron with some remarks such as: “You’re a good player. You just had one bad game. Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.” He probably would have sulked and gone to his room.
I’ve made a tremendous discovery in this group. The more you try to push a child’s unhappy feelings away, the more he becomes stuck in them. The more comfortably you can accept the bad feelings, the easier it is for kids to let go of them. I guess you could say that if you want to have a happy family you’d better be prepared to permit the expression of a lot of unhappiness.
Hans has been going through a difficult period. He has a teacher who is very hard on him and whom he doesn’t like. When he is most unhappy with himself and most down in the dumps (usually when he is taking the school pressures out on us at home), he calls himself “stupid,” feels no one likes him because he is stupid, says he is the “stupid” of his class, and so on.
On one of these nights my husband sat down with him, with all the concern in the world:
FRANK: (gently) Hans, you’re not stupid.
HANS: I am too stupid. I’m a stupid stupid.
FRANK: But, Hans, you’re not stupid. Why, you’re one of the smartest eight-year-olds I know.
HANS: I am not. I’m stupid.
FRANK: (still gently) You’re not stupid.
HANS: I am too stupid.
On and on it went. I didn’t want to butt in and I couldn’t bear to listen, so I left the room. To his credit Frank never lost his temper, but Hans went to bed still saying he was stupid, still down in the dumps.
I went in to him. I had had a horrendous day with him. He had devoted most of the afternoon and evening to aggravating me, and I didn’t think I had it in me to cope with much more. But there he was lying in bed, miserably saying he was stupid and everyone hated him, so I went in. I didn’t even know what I had left in me to say. I just sat on the edge of the bed, exhausted. Then a phrase we used in class came to me and I said it almost mechanically: “Those are rough feelings to have.”
Hans stopped saying he was stupid and was silent for a minute. Then he said, “Yeah.” That somehow gave me the strength to go on. I just began talking randomly then about some of the nice or specialthings he’d said or done over the years. He listened for a while and then began participating with some of his own memories. He said, “Remember when you couldn’t find your car keys and you were looking all over the house and I said to look in the car and they were there.” After about ten minutes of this, I was able to kiss a boy good night who had restored his faith in himself.
Some parents were very comfortable with the idea of granting their children in fantasy what they couldn’t give them in reality. It was so much easier for these parents to say, “You wish you had . . .” than to have an all-out battle over who was right and why.
DAVID: (ten) I need a new telescope.
FATHER: A new telescope? Why? There’s nothing wrong with the one you already have.
DAVID: (heatedly) It’s a kid’s telescope!
FATHER: It’s perfectly adequate for a boy your age.
DAVID: No, it isn’t. I need a 200-power telescope.
FATHER: (I could see we were headed for a big fight. I decided to try to shift gears.) So you’d really like a 200-power telescope.
DAVID: Yeah, ’cause then I could see into the craters.
FATHER: You want to get a really close look at them.
DAVID: That’s right!
FATHER: You know what I wish? I wish I had enough money to buy you that telescope. No, with your interest in astronomy, I wish I had enough money to buy you a 400-power telescope.
DAVID: A 600-power telescope.
FATHER: An 800-power telescope.
DAVID: (getting enthusiastic) A 1,000-power telescope!
FATHER: A . . . A . . .
DAVID: (excitedly) I know . . . I know . . . If you could, you’d buy me the one at Mount Palomar!
As we both laughed, I realized what made the difference. One of the keys to giving in fantasy was to really let yourself go, to be “far out” fantastic. Even though David knew it wasn’t going to happen, he seemed to appreciate it that I took his longing so seriously.
My husband and I took Jason and his older sister, Leslie, to the Museum of Natural History. We really enjoyed it, and the kids were just great. Only on the way out we had to pass a gift shop. Jason, our four-year-old, went wild over the souvenirs. Most of the stuff was overpriced, but we finally bought him a little set of rocks. Then he started whining for a model dinosaur. I tried to explain that we had already spent more than we should have. His father told him to quit his complaining and that he should be happy for what we did buy him. Jason began to cry. My husband told him to cut it out, and that he was acting like a baby. Jason threw himself on the floor and cried louder.
Everyone was looking at us. I was so embarrassed that I wanted the floor to open up. Then—I don’t know how the idea came to me—I pulled a pencil and paper out of my bag and started writing. Jason asked what I was doing. I said, “I’m writing that Jason wishes he had a dinosaur.” He stared at me and said, “And a prism, too.” I wrote, “A prism, too.”
Then he did something that bowled me over. He ran over to his sister, who was watching the whole scene, and said, “Leslie, tell Mommy what you want. She’ll write it down for you, too.” And would you believe it, that ended it. He went home very peacefully.
I’ve used the idea many times since. Whenever I’m in a toy store with Jason and he runs around pointing to everything he wants, I take out a pencil and a scrap of paper and write it all down on his“wish list.” That seems to satisfy him. And it doesn’t mean I have to buy any of the things for him—unless maybe it’s a special occasion. I guess what Jason likes about his “wish list” is that it shows that I not only know what he wants but that I care enough to put it in writing.
This final story speaks for itself.
I’ve just been through one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. My six-year-old daughter, Suzanne, has had croup before, but never an attack like this. I was terrified. She couldn’t breathe and started to turn color. I couldn’t get an ambulance, so I had to drive her to the emergency room along with my son Brian and my mother, who was visiting for the day.
My mother was completely hysterical. She kept repeating, “Oh, my God! She can’t breathe. We’ll never make it! What have you done to this child?”
In a voice louder than my mother’s I said, “Suzie, I know you’re having trouble breathing. I know it’s scary. We’re on our way now to get help. You’re going to be all right. If you like, you can hold on to my leg while I drive.” She held on to my leg.
At the hospital, two doctors and a few nurses crowded around. My mother was still ranting and raving. Brian asked me if Suzie will really die like Grandma keeps saying. I didn’t have time to answer, because the doctors were trying to keep me out of the room and I knew Suzie needed me to be there. I could see by her eyes that she was terrified.
They gave her a shot of Adrenalin. I said, “That hurts, doesn’t it?” She nodded. Then they put a tube down her throat. I said, “I know the tube must hurt, but it will help you.” She still wasn’t breathing normally, and they put her into an oxygen tent. I said, “It must feel strange with all that plastic around you. But this is also to help you breathe and get well.” Then I put my hand through the zippered part of the tent and held her hand and told her, “I will not leave you. I’ll be here with you even when you’re asleep. I’ll be here as long as you need me.”
Her breathing became a little easier, but her condition was still critical and I stayed with her for seventy-two hours with practically no sleep. Thank God she pulled through.
I know that without these workshops it would have been very different. I would have been in a complete panic. By talking to her the way I did, by letting her know I knew what she was going through, I relaxed her so she didn’t fight all the medical treatment she was getting.
I really feel I helped to save Suzie’s life.