Book Report: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen… And Listen So Kids Will Talk

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How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a book about tools to communicate and resolve issues with one’s children.

I find this interesting about every parenting book I read, but there’s always some tips that apply to pretty much anyone, not just children. I’ll call those out as I go.

The book goes through a variety of tips, many of them revolving around a child misbehaving or having a conflict. The authors give specific techniques that tackle conflicts from a variety of angles, including how to diffuse strong emotions, nurturing independent conflict resolution, and slowly changing chronic negative behavior.

I’ll focus on a few that stood out for me.

Naming Feelings

Studies have shown that children are able to cope better with their emotions if they have a way to describe it. By being specific with the names and describing them (“It sounds like you’re frustrated”), a parent can apply a dampener and expand their child’s vocabulary at the same time.

Give the Child Time to Vent and Brainstorm

One of the major themes in the book is nurturing independence: giving control of a situation to one’s children, and also the opportunity to come up with their own solution, builds conflict resolution skills that do not require direct intervention from the parent.

As a parent, I find this one a little difficult to uphold. There is an innate desire to be there for your children, and it is hard to toe the line between negligence and helicopter parenting. I often find myself wanting to do something for them, for example linking trains together when they’re struggling, or immediately jumping into a conflict.

Nevertheless, the authors advise giving the child some time to think about their own solution before giving them yours. For example, if a child asks the parent about whether they should go to their best friends sleepover, even if they don’t like the other kids, give the child some time to consider why it might be important to go, and see if they make a reasonable decision by themselves. If they come to a decision that you disagree with, that’s the time to start involving your own opinion.

The goal is to raise a child that can make these decisions on their own. By having them work it out with the parent observing rather than dictating, The child can build their own problem solving skills in a safe environment. This is preferable over the child having to scramble to grow these skills the first day their on their own.

Works for Adults?

As an analytical person, I often forget that when someone wants to talk, it’s often to vent about their own emotions, rather than necessarily brainstorming a solution.

In a conversation around a distressing situation, giving the other person time to fully vent about what happened, and letting them brainstorm out loud their own solutions, could be be a better option than giving your own opinion. It could also help nurture independence, if this is a professional manager / individual contributor relationship.

Have Children Draw Their Feelings

When a child has extreme emotions, it’s difficult to move from that point to discussing the situation and emotion more reasonably. The authors offer drawing emotions as a solution. Basically giving a pencil and paper to a child and asking them to draw their feelings. Keep having the child draw their feelings until they get into a better mood.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try this myself (mine is too young to give those type of instructions to), but I’m taking note on anything that can help with dealing with strong emotions.

Describe and Reinforce Positive Behaviors

Oftentimes, our off-handed comments can reinforce behaviors that we want to eliminate. Calling a child a trouble-maker, rowdy, or air-headed makes the child feel like those are the terms that describe them, further acting in that fashion.

The authors suggest refraining from using those types of words, and instead highlighting when the child shows positive attributes.

For example, for a child who seems normally forgetful, calling out a situation where they remembered and being very descriptive is helpful.

“Yes, you remembered to do your homework and bring it to the teacher. You are very responsible!”

This can help counter the pigeon-holing that adults typically do. It’s also good to consider that this type of phrasing can counteract other adults: sometimes it is not parents that use these phrases, but teachers and other family members.

Pigeon-holing descriptions can also come from off-handed comments to other parents. Children who overhear these statements can be affected as well.

Works for Adults?

As adults, we often get typecast into specific roles, and words that describe those attributes might pigeonhole us just much as it does for children.

If you’d like someone to change, I think calling out when that person exhibits those changes, and thoroughly describing it, is a great way to reinforce positive behavior.

Offer Choices

A common frustration comes from children not listening to their parents, especially in a time-sensitive situation.. Maybe a child does not want to stop what they are already doing, or they refuse to negotiate on a friend coming over.

When it’s impossible to make both sides happy, the authors recommend offering alternatives and letting the child choose one. In additiona to clarifying the original choice is out of the question, sometimes that little bit of control can help your child be more cooperative.

The example in the book is a friend of a child who refused to get out of a tree house to get picked up. In this situation, the mother offered the friend two choices: he could go down slowly as a sloth, or go down quickly like a monkey.

Effectively eliminating the original choice of staying in the tree, the options offered also catered to the friend’s natural desire to want to play. A simple “come down” did not suffice, but these options led the friend to jump down like a monkey, accomplish the desired goal.

Works For Adults?

I think the desire for control continues throughout our whole lives. Maybe when dealing with a difficult situation in a leadership position, the right solution might be offering control in an area where one can negotiate. It also helps others feel more invested.

Using “When They’re Ready”

Further on the theme of empowering children and reducing typecasting, the authors do not recommend describing what are likely temporary behaviors as personality traits. For example, giving an out on a child who refuses to say hi by saying they are “just shy” can result in the child internalizing that trait. Instead, using temporary phrases like “When they’re ready” can help the child understand that this isn’t a defining characteristic.

Summary

I think this book is a great introduction to multiple techniques on communicating well with children. Everyone has times when they find conflict resolution with their child is difficult, and having the right tools that not only resolve the conflict, but also nurture the child, is great.

I’m looking forward to trying these and maybe I’ll come back with some more thoughts.

Book Report: The Whole Brain Child

The Whole Brain Child discusses strategies to teach children how to deal with difficult situations in an empathetic and rational way.

Despite the focus on teaching children, the book included a lot of great insights for adults as well. In general, it is a great guidebook on how to deal with emotional situations, and how to ensure that the approach is one that accounts for the impact on others and their well-being.

The general structure is emphasizing a few key strategies when encountering an emotional and upset child. Here is my interpretation of the general ideas:

Introspect when Encountering Conflict

The book posits that we have two different “brains” that work in tandem when encountering a difficult situation: the “lizard brain” which reacts with strong emotional responses, and the “upstairs brain” which can approach the situation rationally.

Along the theme of educating children on how to cope in situations of conflict, the book explains that, to best help someone understand the situation, it is first better to empathize with how the chid is feeling. Once the lizard brain is no longer in control, deconstruct the situation rationally. This quiets the immediate reaction of the lizard brain, and enables a discussion when your child is using their upstairs brain.

As an example: if your child is throwing a tantrum because they are not getting the ice cream they wanted, it is first best to acknowledge the feelings of the child first (“you seem angry”), then rationally explain that eating too much ice cream is not a good choice.

This lessons works great for children, but I see it as a great lesson for conflicts with adults: if you want to reach an agreement with someone and you have a strong emotional reaction, first acknowledge the emotions, then reconcile on a logical level.

Physical Activities to Clear Your Mind

The book references a study that explains that physical activities can help calm emotional reactions, and bring someone into the state to discuss the situation rationally. Thus, a good tool may be to help pace the room, or do some jumping jacks, before diving into the conflict itself.

Talking Through the Situation Repeatedly

When one encounters a traumatising situation, and one that is difficult to understand (like a loved one being taken away by an ambulance, or a car accident), an insecurity can linger: one may become more upset when a loved one leaves for work.

The insecurity stems from a lack of understanding, and the reassurance that, despite how traumatising the situation was, everyone still turned out ok. Talking it through multiple times, ensuring that the child has a good understand of what actually occurred during the scary part of the experience, and a reminder that the child is still ok at the end, will reduce that insecurity.

Thinking About the Larger Picture

When a conflict occurs, one can get invested and extremely emotional. This can occur with even small conflicts that have a minimal impact on our day to day lives, such as an argument at work. In those situations, the lizard brain takes over, and one does not weigh the argument appropriately. One often becomes invested and very upset if the outcome does not go their way (e.g. a minor technical disagreement at work).

In a situation like this, taking a step back, and considering the larger impact works well. Will this choice cause me to lose my job? Will it cause my company to lose a significant amount of cash? Will I be the one responsible if things go wrong? If the answer to the above is no, then it is a sign that it may not be worth the investment, or at least being emotional about it.

I find myself in this situation often: I am opinionated about many aspects of my job, and the company I work for. It is valuable to have a logical argument for what you are advocating, and to spend time on that. However, it does not mean that, if the outcome is to move forward with a different approach, I should be upset for hours or days afterward. The impact this decision will have on the part of life I care about is minimal. Keeping perspective on what is important helps focus me on the discussions I should be having, and spending more time on those.

Use Introspection to Understand Emotions

A major theme of the book is examing the situation in a rational light, allowing some time to consider whether the response is appropriate. Being able to explain why you feel a specific way is powerful: you can better understand why you react this way, and modify your behavior if it is appropriate.

Explaining How Others are Feeling

Children often act without regard to how others feel, such as grabbing a toy from another’s hand, or erasing another’s work. When a child does so, it is often without malice, but rather the lack of understanding of how it feels to have that done to you.

By explaining how one feels in that situation, the child learns how to empathize. Getting the child into the habit of considering other’s feeling before taking an action helps reduce interpersonal conflicts, and can often avoid them. Deliberately educating on why one should feel empathy on a situation when the opportunity arises ensures the lesson is learned, and allows the child to achieve competency in a valuable skill early.

Final Thoughts

For me, “The Whole Brain Child” did a great job of putting more abstract ideas in my head in writing. I use many of the techniques outlined in the book when encountering conflict, but I had never put deep consideration into why those techniques worked. I have also never thought deeply about how to share these skills.

The book does a great job at all of the above: it provides a step by step guide for moving from an emotional state of mind to a logical one, adding understanding of the situation to analyze what could be improved, and explains how to further build an empathic foundation in children.

Definitely recommmend a read.