This is the second half of my over-enthusiastic reply to my dear friend.
Being able to express your feelings to your children is super hard when you’re a parent.
We need to be able to be angry, but we don’t want our anger to hurt our children.
We need to be able to be sad, but we don’t want to make our children afraid.
But being open with them about how you’re feeling is important – we just need to learn to be calm about it. For example, saying “I feel really angry when I find out that you’re lying to me,” instead of screaming “How dare you lie to me!!” Or saying, “I feel sad when you hurt your sister like that,” instead of “Stop being mean to your sister!” Make it about observations, not judgments.
I’m not suggesting we learn to be devoid of emotion; on the contrary. I’m naturally loud – and I raise my voice when I get upset or excited, making me louder still. My son has been around my loud mouth his entire life, and he knows that Loud Mom is Emotional Excited Mom, but he’s not afraid. He doesn’t cower. Sometimes he’ll tell me, “You’re being extra-loud,” and I’ll make the effort to quieten a bit. I’m also very emotional and sensitive. I’ve wept in front of him, I’ve flipped out in front of him, and he’s okay. But I am saying that it’s important, when we’re communicating with our kids about their behaviors, to be clear and calm as often as possible.
Children shut down super-fast when they feel defensive; they’re not well-equipped enough to deal with blame, so they just stop listening and stop thinking. We need to find ways around their defensive triggers to avoid losing our ability to communicate with them. Making our feelings clearly about us helps avoid making our kids defensive. We’re not blaming when we say “I feel sad when you cheat at this game” – we’re talking about ourselves. Again, observations instead of judgments – that, they can hear.
Sometimes with kids (and hopefully not with adults), hitting, biting, or other kinds of physical harm are involved. If that happens, a little yelling goes a long way. A loud, sharp command like “Stop right now!” is a very effective way to put an immediate halt to physical violence. (People, especially children, respond startlingly well to loud, sharp commands.) Then, after a time-out break to let everyone cool down (and for any damage control), you can go back to talking about feelings.
When physical harm does happen, it’s even more important to avoid defensiveness because communication is more vital. We need to get our point across clearly and quickly. Rephrasing “Don’t ever bite!” to “It really, really hurts me when you bite,” helps focus on why biting (or hitting, etc) is unwanted. Children need to understand why their actions are undesirable or they’re more likely to repeat them.
Asking questions is very effective, too. It makes a kid pause and think about what they’ve done – and the why behind it. Like, “How do you think your sister feels when she finds her book in your room instead of where she left it?” or “How do you think your little brother feels when he’s left out?” Or even, “How do you think I felt when you bit my arm?” Avoid yes or no questions, because then you’re likely to get an unhelpful yes or no answer.
Again, keep your focus on the feelings of the injured child (or adult) instead of blaming – but do call attention to the undesirable behavior. A kid’s gotta know what actions are unwanted and which actions are okay.
Also, reinforcing good behavior is far more effective than punishing unwanted behavior. So, add a little praise to the equation – especially with kids (but adults respond well to this, too). “I felt sad and angry when you lied to me, but I felt happy when you promised to be honest from now on. Thank you.”
And always, always, always focus on behavior, actions, and emotions. Never tell a child that she herself is bad. Rephrase “you make me so angry” to “I feel angry when you act this way.” Replace all instances of “you make me…” with “I feel… when…” Children are smooshy and impressionable. If they hear “you’re bad” or “you make me angry”, they’re likely to take it in and make it part of their self-concepts, and nothing good comes of that.
Communicating with children is trickier than communicating with adults. Adults usually know what they want; kids often don’t. Adults usually know how they’re feeling; kids are still learning how to know that. Adults tend to understand, at least to some extent, our motives behind our actions; kids often have no idea. But being able to clearly communicate our feelings and desires with our children will improve the lives of all involved.
It’s well worth the effort.