So, not a new topic here, but one that keeps coming up: When you are having a discussion with your kids, do you find yourself talking WITH them or AT them?
I recently asked someone to give me a play-by-play of a recent discussion he had had with his child, and it went something like this (as always, the facts have been significantly changed in order to protect the innocent):
Dad: Come down here, I need to talk to you.
Dad: No, really, get down here.
Child: Oh, fine!
Dad: You need to let us know if you’re not going to be coming straight home after school.
Dad: What did you say!?! Look! You need to listen to me when I’m telling you something! Don’t just think you can live in my house, eat my food, and disrespect your mother and I…..(goes on to talk for the next three or four minutes).
So, what do you think? Does this sound familiar?
A hint that the kid in the above example has already ‘checked out’ of the conversation and that he/she knows what is coming next (i.e. the dad’s rant) is the mumbling. This has clearly happened before–probably repeatedly–for the kid to react this way.
As parents we really need to recognize these hints and not steamroll right past them because of our burning anger or other strong emotions. Instead, we need to use these momentary observations to help us change our tactics and to change the course of our conversations with our kids as they are happening.
We, the parents, are the ones who can make it right and help make it end well; we are the leaders, not them.
We are the ones who need to learn to handle ourselves the right way and to guide things towards a healthy resolution or compromise. They don’t know how yet, and we must teach them by showing them. By doing so we also model good communication and conflict resolution skills for them.
In the above example, the dad might have used the observation of the ‘mumble’ to realize that the kid was about to check out of the conversation, and he could have used that knowledge to pull the kid back in:
Dad: What did you say?
Dad: No, really. Look, dad loves you okay? And I want to hear what you are saying.
Child: Why? You never listen anyway?!
Okay, NOW we’ve got something good going on here, with an open door for a better beginning and ending to the conversation, since dad can now say something conciliatory like, “Okay, you’re right. So, now I am listening.”
Unfortunately, when I’m teaching parents how to do this, they often want to get defensive with their kid around every turn, so that even if they’ve gotten this far, instead of saying, “Okay, you’re right. So now I am listening”, they’ll want to say something defensive like, “Well, if you’d listen to me, I’d listen to you too.”
We really have to be careful about turning the tables on our kids like this, because as the tables turn, so do our roles: we become the child who is angry at not being listened to, which leaves the ACTUAL child no room to be the clueless and skill-less child themselves. Now it’s the blind leading the blind, so to speak.
And we actually wonder why they are so angry and disrespectful? How can they respect us as their leaders, teachers, and parents, if we don’t display our unique ‘adult-ness’ to them–something different from and more mature than their ‘child-ness’? Why would they want to listen to us and learn from our example if we don’t give them an example that is different from what THEY do?
Be the bigger person with your kids, because you ARE the bigger person.
Some years ago I invented the term Emotional Credibility, by which I mean two things combined: Trust plus Likeability.
How can our children trust us with what they are going to say if they already know that we’ll become defensive with them? And if they can’t trust us to listen to them and ask them about their feelings–to draw them INTO the conversation rather than shutting them out–then why would they like us or want to be around us?
In fact, speaking about inventions, I also came up with L-V-A-C: Listen-Validate-Ask-Comment as a way for us to remind ourselves that we first need to listen and validate them, then ask them some open-ended questions to draw them out further. Our often brilliant comments can come last, thank you.
Try it. It really works.
And it will help you build back your Emotional Credibility with them which will help heal the relationship and put you back in your professional role as Parent.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand a Few Things First)