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This Is How You Listen to a Truly Angry Kid

It only takes three steps

Published on: May 29, 2018

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Angry girl

My preschooler came out of her room and stomped once. I carried her back to bed. As I turned to leave, she called out:

“When we were camping, C wanted to be alone and I kept at him, and he hurt me. He hit me first. I hit him second. Next time we go camping, I’m going to hurt C.”

“Then I’m afraid we can’t go camping with C,” I said gently, hoping she would see the error in her ways (but not see I was making that up). “We go camping to have fun, not to hurt people.”

My response was typical enough of many parents, I think. Logical consequence + You’re wrong + What’s right x Lots of talking. And it doesn’t work.

“I’m going to hit C next time!” she vowed.

This is what parenting coach Sandy Blackard means by “Children must communicate until they feel heard.” I hadn’t acknowledged my daughter’s feelings. And she was going to tell them to me until I did.

I’ve been thinking and reading about discipline a lot lately. I mean, I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old! And I haven’t come across a more beautifully simple framework for positive parenting than Blackard’s.

She calls it Language of Listening. It has only three steps:

  1. Say what you see. (Say what your child is doing, saying, feeling, or thinking.)
  2. If you like it, name a strength.
  3. If you don’t like it, offer a can-do. (Say what your child can do instead, including a firm boundary if needed.)

This works in, essentially, any situation. Like my daughter vowing to beat up one of her best buds. I switched gears.

“You’re mad at C.” I said this emphatically, to better match her feelings. Now, instead of needing to defend her feelings, she felt free to talk more about what happened.

“Yeah, I went to the tree and I stomped, and I kicked him.” She stomped her mattress.

“Mm-hmm.” I was partially successful at sounding impartial. “You were mad,” I repeated. I thought about strengths — could I find something in there? I decided to ignore the kicking part, based on the concept that “you get more of what you pay attention to.” I said, “When you stomped, you knew what you needed to do to get out your anger.”

This apparently made her think of other ways to calm herself down. She said something else about hurting her friend, but then she sat up in bed and started taking deep breaths. Instead of making my escape, I joined her.

Say what you see. “Ah, deep breaths.” If you like it, name a strength. “You know how to calm yourself down,” I said, kissing her forehead.

“Next time I’ll be nice to C when he wants to be alone,” she decided.

Wow. When I left her room, she didn’t pop out of her bed several more times as usual. She settled in and went to sleep — seemingly lighter for having gotten that off her chest.

This story originally published on Zero to Five.

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