Talking to kids can come so easily. They have thoughts about everything and stories for miles. They see the world in a completely different light, and could ask enough questions to fill an afternoon. I, for example, could ask my second oldest son to tell me what he thinks about Star Wars, and I’ll have to schedule out the next four days to listen to his stories, conjectures, questions, analyses, and highlights. My contribution will be simply to say, “Yes!”, “Wow!”, and “I hadn’t thought of that.”
But sometimes finding the right words for talking to kids can be really, really challenging. When choosing how to respond to the marker on the wall, or the seemingly unending why-can’t-I battle, or in simply keeping healthy communication open with kids who don’t want to talk, the words don’t seem to come so easily. In challenging situations, our frustration and/or overwhelm seems to bubble over, clouding any cohesive sentence structure we might have put together. The pressure is on, we need to “use our words”, but all we can muster is a primitive non-verbal utterance resembling something like a cross between a growl and a guttural sigh.
I find that in these really challenging moments, it helps for parents to have a few familiar and effective phrases in our back pocket. Words that have already been carefully selected before we lost our minds.
Here are some of my favorites:
1.”At the same time…”
As I wrote about in more depth here, using the word “but” can complicate already tense conversations. Often seen as negating whatever came before, it can create confusion and hurt feelings. The phrase, “I love you, but…” or “I’m sorry, but…” comes off as “I love you, but not enough,” or “I’m sorry, but not really.”
Instead, use the phrase, “at the same time”. This phrase validates both what comes before and after as coexisting.
“I love you. At the same time, I can’t let you hurt other people.”
“I’m sorry you’re upset. At the same time, running away isn’t safe.”
2. “I need you to…/You need to…”
One of the biggest invitations for power struggles comes when we make our requests sound optional. We say things like, “Are you ready for lunch?” or “How about we get you dressed?” or “Do you want to pick up your toys?” Those phrases are great IF we actually mean to give our child those choices. When we don’t, we need to be more clear. “You need to come to lunch, please.” “I need you to get dressed, please.” “You need to pick up your toys, please.”
3. “I see….”
“I see two children who both want the same toy….” “I see you look very upset…” Stating your observations as you come upon a problem helps to prevent you from placing blame or making assumptions. And that keeps everyone more open to problem-solving because you’re starting from a place of trying to understand, rather than trying to place blame. Simply start by describing what you see in a completely nonjudgmental way. Then invite the children to help you fill in the rest.
4. “Tell me about…”
Similar to #3, the key to this phrase is not assuming. Whether you’re trying to understand what’s going on in a tiff between friends or curious about the work going on in a painting or block structure, it’s better to ask for the child’s input rather than jump to assumptions. “Tell me about your picture…” works better than “What a lovely bear!” (Especially when the bear was actually a dog.) “Tell me about what happened…” works better than jumping right in with, “I can’t believe you hit her!” (Especially when the hitting was preceded by 2 hours of taunting.)
5. “I love to watch you…”
This is a great phrase to keep at the ready for every day, proactive relationship building. (Which always pays off when times get tough.) It’s a phrase I learned from my friend, Rachel Macy Stafford, here, and have used it countless times since. Simply letting a child know that you are watching them and enjoying them can go a long way in building their positive self-perception. Sometimes the best thing we can do to motivate good behavior and build good relationships is simply to notice the wonderful good that already exists. “I love watching you play with your brothers.” “I love listening to you play the piano.” “I love to watch you build with your legos.” It’s a simple phrase that lets a child know we notice them, while at the same time reminding us to slow down enough to be noticers.
6. “What do you think you could do….”
As experienced problem-solvers ourselves, it can be tempting to swoop right in and fix every problem. But it’s important that we give kids ownership of and practice with the problem-solving process.
(Read more about teaching the problem-solving process here. )
“What do you think you could do to help your sister feel better?” “What do you think you could do to make things right with your friend?” “What do you think you could do to make sure everyone gets a turn?” “What do you think you could do to take care of this spill?”
Notice that children are not only invited to come up with a proposed solution, but to own it. “What do YOU think YOU could do…”
7. “How can I help…”
Similarly, there are times when a child clearly needs our help, but we want to be sure we help, not rescue. We want to offer our abilities without taking away their responsibilities. “How can I help you with this broken glass?” “How can I help you clean your room?” “How can I help you understand your homework?”
8. “What I know is…”
There are times when our kids tell us things we KNOW are not true. But when we jump to, “That’s a lie!”, they typically shut down or become defensive.
Whether it’s lying, magical thinking, or a complete misunderstanding, we can avoid an argument or an overreaction by calmly starting with what we know. “What I know is that there were four cookies on the plate when I left.” “What I know is that toys can’t move by themselves.” “What I know is that Jesse’s mom wasn’t home today.”
9. “Help me understand…”
Similarly, inviting a child to help you understand, is less accusatory than “explain yourself”. It communicates that you don’t understand, but you WANT to. “Help me understand how this got here.” “Help me understand what happened.”
10. “I’m sorry…”
Kids aren’t always the ones making the mistakes in these difficult situations. Sometimes our imperfections are the best starting point for important learning opportunities. (This is something I discussed with Shawn Fink in the Abundant Mama Podcast here.) When we apologize for our shortcomings, we model how to make appropriate apologies, but also teach our children that we all make mistakes. When they see us acknowledge and apologize, they learn that they can do the same. Additionally, when we repair our relationships, we make them stronger.
(Read more about The Myth of Perfect Parenting.)
11. “Thank you…”
Along with all the hard situations, we have to acknowledge the great ones. (Or even a great sliver of a really hard day.) Just like we want to know our hard work is appreciated every day, our children want to know that their effort is noticed as well. “Thank you for packing your lunch this morning.” “Thank you for being such a respectful listener.” “Thank you for helping your sister.” Even, “Thank you for doing your jobs. I know you wanted to do other things first. (Unspoken: Because you threw a big fit beforehand.) I really appreciate you doing it even though it was hard.”
12. ” I love you…”
With all the words we search for, these three should come easily and frequently. With our words and with our actions, our kids should know that through thick and thin, we ALWAYS love them. In all that I’ve read and studied about child development, I find that I come back again and again to two truths.
1. All learning and development happen in the context of human relationships.
2. Healthy human relationships – particularly in families – are built on unconditional love.
Before, during, and after our most challenging situations with our kids, we should convey to them that they are always safe and loved, no matter what.
Love can compensate for all kinds of parenting mistakes. Even when we can’t find the right words, or when those words just don’t come out like they should. When they come from a place of love, and when that love is consistently made clear, we eventually find our way back together.
What are the powerful parenting phrases you keep at the ready for your most challenging situations?