“You don’t understand!” “You never let me…” “It’s not fair!” “I hate you!”… These and other hurtful words are often heard by parents from angry, upset children, resulting in retaliation, shouting and angry escalation in both adults and children.
Help is at hand for weary, stressed-out parents! Here are some simple, practical ways to talk and listen to your kids and enjoy a more pleasant, calm family environment.
Dealing with feelings and emotions
When children lash out verbally or physically, there’s usually a reason behind the behaviour. Many children, especially young children and teenagers, have difficulty dealing with their emotions. They can feel frustrated and end up ‘losing control’ as a result of overwhelming emotions or the sense that they’re not being fully listened to.
As parents, we’re often given ways to manage children’s behaviours e.g. time-out, consequences, punishment or withdrawal of privileges. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, many parents find these often lead to a negative spiral of undesirable behaviours, with anger, blame and resentment on both sides.
It’s important to deal with children’s feelings first before jumping in to ‘fix or sort things out’, allowing an emotionally-charged situation to ‘cool down’, then talk through desired or appropriate behaviour techniques. When children feel they’re acknowledged, listened to, and loved unconditionally they generally behave better.
Start by sitting down and fully listening to them. Try not to interrupt or offer advice, suggestions or solutions. Acknowledge what they’re saying and that you’re actively listening with one-word sounds e.g. “I see.”, “Mmm.”, “Ah ha.” Let them get everything off their chest first, then together look for positive outcomes or better ways for ‘next time’.
If they’re too wound up, frustrated or angry to physically sit down and talk, depersonalise the situation and acknowledge their feelings by putting a name to what they’re feeling. For example, instead of saying “Don’t speak to me like that!” try saying “I see you’re feeling angry/hurt/upset. Do you want to talk about it, do you need some space, or would a cuddle help?” This gives children choice and a sense of control when they’re often feeling very much out of control and looking to us for guidance, support and reassurance.
It’s also important to deal with our feelings and emotions, too. Try not to respond to undesirable behaviours with anger, passive-aggressive behaviours e.g. threats, blame, criticism or revenge. These will only inflame the situation and can result in long-term repercussions due to things said or done in the heat of the moment. If necessary, take time-out yourself until you’re calm, ready to listen and talk rationally.
Effective problem solving
For some children, especially younger kids, try distracting them or change the subject by saying “I wish I could eat lollies every day/go to bed late/do whatever I wanted to… let’s draw a picture/write down a ‘wish list’ of all the things we’d like to do in our ‘ideal world’.” You could even use these ideas to look for a solution or compromise.
For adolescents, try to involve them in problem-solving and finding a solution acceptable to both parties, once emotions have settled down.
One of the best ways to deal with undesirable behaviour is to keep ownership of the problem or situation with the child (age-appropriate). Explain the desired behaviour then ask what can they do to make amends/solve the problem/clean up. Ask open questions to explore options and possibilities.
By listening fully, speaking nicely and staying calm, we’re role-modelling desirable behaviours for our children for effective problem solving, conflict resolution, providing essential life skills for adulthood and an enjoyable family environment.