by Justin Coulson
3 Weeks, and 3 easy ways to make positive changes in your family starting now
Understanding Your Kids
More than almost anything else, our children want to be understood. When our kids feel that we understand them, they seem to be able to cope with the world.
One day my daughter told me she didn’t want to catch the bus to school because the previous day her bus driver had called her a stupid idiot. She told me that she had been sitting somewhere unsafe and was doing the wrong thing. I could have told her she deserved it – which she probably did. But to do so would have reinforced the bus driver’s sentiment that she was stupid. I could have gotten angry with the bus driver for calling her names. That would have been justified and may have made her feel a little better. But she’d still done the wrong thing.
Instead I had to think about why she was telling me. She wanted to be reassured that I love and understand her. So I said, “You must have felt embarrassed when that happened.”
I mentioned, “It feels horrible to be called names like that.”
She knew I understood. Then she said, “I guess I need to make sure I sit in the right place next time.”
Problem solved without recrimination and without having to do any problem solving.
Attunement in Relationships
To really tune in to our children’s emotions requires more than a simple ‘cognitive’ recognition – although that’s part of it. Our children need us to do a couple of additional things to show that we really understand and are attuned to their emotional world.
First, give the emotion your child is feeling a name. Label it! In so doing we help them realise that the emotions they feel are normal.
Second, be patient with their emotions. Recognise that emotions are strong. In fact, they can be overwhelming (even for adults sometimes)!
Third, after you have labelled their emotion (“You’re feeling sad/angry/frustrated”) just wait. Listen. Be available. You might offer an “I understand. What happened really left you feeling _____”. But simply be patient.
Emma was 10 years old. Her family had watched a movie one Friday night and the ghost in the story had scared her. At bed time, Emma was clingy and upset. Her father demanded she go to sleep.
Have you ever had someone demand that you go to sleep? Does it relax you?
Emma became more and more worked up until eventually her father pulled her from her bed and dragged her around the outside perimeter of the house exclaiming that there are ‘no ghosts or monsters here’.
But Emma didn’t look at her dad and say, “Gee Dad, thanks for clearing that up for me. I feel much safer now and I think I can drift off to sleep calmly and happily.” Instead, she was even more frightened, and ultimately Emma went to sleep sobbing into her pillow.
Had her father been able to ‘understand’, and be attuned to Emma, I suspect that this is what would have happened:
Emma would have been clingy and upset at bed time. Her father might have said “Emma, you seem upset. The ghost movie has made you feel worried and perhaps a little scared.”
Emma would have nodded. Her dad might then have said, “When I’m scared or upset I like cuddles to help me feel safe. Would you feel better if I cuddled you while you go to sleep?”
I suspect Emma would have agreed that this was a good idea. Her dad would have laid down with her, and within a few short minutes she would be sleeping.
How to do it
1. To really understand our children, we need to be emotionally available.
2. Then we pay close attention to the emotions they are experiencing, label them, and empathise.
3. We focus on helping reduce the emotions through understanding and patience.
4. Then we ask how our children might fix the problem themselves (only if they’re calm).
5. Finally, we offer our own ideas, or we offer encouragement to our children based on their ideas.
Parents who take the time to understand their kids will find that they don’t have to become police, judge, and jury. They don’t have to keep fixing problems. They just have to understand and leave it to the kids to work through it.
You can find Week 1 of Parenting Boot Camp here.
Dr. Justin Coulson is a parenting expert and the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family available from ACER press. He blogs at Happy Families. Justin and his wife Kylie are the parents of 5 children.