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What parents say - and what kids hear

Published on: April 01, 2010

What parents say and what kids hearThere were more than a few verbal misfires that happened as I was raising my two children.

I don’t recall them all, but I’m sure I told my kids it was cold when they said they were hot; that their class was exciting when they claimed they were bored; that their clothes were cool when they clearly thought otherwise.

How many times did I repeat that oh-so-common refrain “There’s nothing to be afraid of” when my kids were frightened — of a noise, a storm or the bogeyman?

Adele Faber, who cowrote How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, says this kind of interaction can “literally drive children crazy.”

That’s because when we tell our kids what they should or shouldn’t feel, we’re denying their feelings. If they say they’re hot, then they’re hot; if they’re scared, they’re scared. And that dress? Maybe my daughter’s taste just didn’t jell with my own.

“When we tell our kids they don’t feel what they feel, we’re telling them that they can’t believe in themselves,” says Faber. It’s crucial that kids grow up learning to trust their own feelings and instincts, she says.

“They are always under pressure. And one day they are going to hear, ‘What’s the difference? Have a few beers — everyone is doing it,’” she says. “To have that small voice inside that tells them to trust themselves and their own instincts and emotions is so important.”

What other botched communiqués do I count in my repertoire? Not long ago, I exclaimed to my (grownup!) daughter, “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s go shoe shopping!” I thought I was being cool and hip and helpful. This was her interpretation: “Wow. Mom really hates my shoes. She’s wondering how I could have left the house wearing anything this hideous.”

Faber would no doubt call my comment a futile (and failed) attempt at being subtle — and a close relative to another revered classic, “Are you wearing that?”

“What the child is hearing is ‘You think I’m ugly. Something’s really wrong with what I’m wearing,’” says Faber.

Communicate with empathy
Most parents think they’re well meaning and in touch when talking to their children. The kids? They often feel they’re being criticized and judged. Sometimes they misread a parent’s point altogether. “The kids need to hear that they are being understood,” says Carla Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist who practices on Mercer Island. “Empathy is key.”

How can you incorporate empathy into your conversations? Mirror your child’s feelings, as this parent does in Cohen’s example:

Child: “My friends wouldn’t let me sit with them at lunch today.”

Parent: “Are there other kids you can sit with?”

Child: “No. I want to sit with them.”

Parent: “I know that’s hard. It feels like they are leaving you out.”

This parent is validating her child’s feelings, says Cohen. “If the parent listens and shows empathy without saying, ‘You should do this or that,’ the child will feel heard. And that’s a first step.”

Our tone and attitude also make a difference, says Faber. “If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative,” she writes in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. “It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to a child’s heart.”

‘Accentuate the positive!’
“When things are continually heard as criticism, there will be negative buildup in communication,” says Bellevue psychologist Renee Hartman, Ph.D. “We want to build up more positives with our kids, so when we do offer some criticism, we have a relationship that can withstand that.”

We can “accentuate the positive” by being in tune, in touch and in sync with our children, she says. “If we’re connected to our kids, we won’t be saying, ‘Are you really going out in that?’ And maybe they wouldn’t be going out in that if they knew this might violate the relationship.”

Hartman calls this connection “attunement” and describes it like this: “It means knowing your child and knowing your child knows that you know him.”

When we’re attuned to our kids, they grow up trusting themselves and others, she says. “They develop this kind of self-nurturing piece. So if they do get into a difficult relationship, they can withstand it.”

Other ways to highlight the positives? Avoid the negatives. “When we get upset, we’re likely to say things that will be misunderstood,” says Hartman. “That’s when we use those ‘nevers’ and ‘evers,’ such as ‘Don’t you ever …’ and ‘I’ll never let you do that again!’ This can really frighten kids, especially younger ones.”

Kids encode these remarks into their memories, she says. “It can come across as ‘You’re not good enough, and you won’t be.’ We’re coming at them with volume and anger, and they learn, don’t make mom angry.” While this might, at first glance, look like a plus, it isn’t, Hartman says. “What if that gets embedded into their mental map and becomes, don’t make anyone angry, keep the peace?”

Think — then speak
Often, parents feel their role as mom or dad gives them unlimited verbal license. Many parents say, “I’m your parent, so I can say what I think; no one else will tell you the truth.” But these words often confuse children, says Cohen. “The message seems more about ‘I’m entitled’ rather than ‘I care about your feelings and am sensitive to how my words will make you feel.’”

Know your child and your child’s temperament, she says. “Some parents may be overly concerned about not hurting their child, and others aren’t concerned enough about how their words are being received.”

Before speaking, Cohen advises, be mindful of what’s going on within yourself and consider the way your kids will react to your words. “If you didn’t say it with empathy, apologize and try it again later.”

Linda Morgan is the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Emotional, Social, and Academic Potential.

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