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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