What are the Words to Say to My Child?

Posted: August 6, 2020

From a child's understanding of the Coronavirus to his or her adoption story, you may just not know what to say.  Here are 10 tips on finding just the right words.  

1.  Take your child's perspective.  If you were 3 or 5 or 11, what would your understanding be about the topic at hand?  Is it brand new to the child?  Go slowly, even with teens.  

2.  Use language that fits the child's emotional age.  Some 12-year-olds are 27 emotionally and some are 6. 

3.  Start with simple words and let the child elaborate.  "Did you know that other kids also have dyslexia/divorced parents/grief from being adopted?"  Pause.

4.  Eliminate judgment from the words you use.  "You know how you always react negatively to us asking you to do things around the house?"  That's a judgment statement, and you've lost the child's attention, as she is on the defensive now.  Instead say, "Can we spend a moment on the topic of us nagging you about housework?"  Take ownership for the "nagging" problem and let that lead you to the child's suggestions of how he or she could avoid nagging by contributing. 

5.  Ask questions instead of offering your wisdom, and then pause.  If the child is quiet, that's good.  He or she is considering new information.  You're creating safety with your patience.  

6.  If the child has no answer, and you have something to offer, do it gently, "Is it OK if I share an idea I had?"  If it's a "no," accept it and go back to it later.  Say, "Let me know if you'd like to talk about this next Wednesday.  I'll remind you," and if it's still a "no", accept that. When the time is right, the child will bring it up.

7.   Avoid asking if your child has any questions (around death, sex, the non-custodial parent, the pandemic, school starting remotely and decisions being made around it.) 

8.  Instead say, "I was just thinking about (how school will look in the fall/your visit to the doctor last week/how you don't feel like eating lately/how hard it is to go back and forth between households, etc.)"  Again, simply state what's happening and leave the judgment out.  Pause longer than you usually do, to let the child think and respond. 

9.   Listen reflectively. "You would rather not have to think about the start of the school year until 2 days in advance."  No judgment, just complete acceptance.  "You're saying it's much harder for you to go back to dad's lately."  The hearing and seeing is magical in helping the feelings come out directly instead of indirectly with anger, aggression, bad language and destruction of property.  

10.  When talking to kids, remember that a "sit-down" feels a bit threatening.  Talking while walking, playing a game or driving along works much better.  With kids who have phones, texting is wonderful, as it feels friendly.  

Most behavior issues come from a child feeling disconnected from a parent, and the brain interpreting that as a threat.  To calm the brain, listen, inquire, and be curious, so the child feels safe to talk.  Watch the need for challenging behavior dissipate.  

If you'd like help with wording important conversations with your child, customized to your family's needs, click here for info on parent coaching. 

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter