I first read How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk a few years ago to help me parent my first child when I needed some gentle tools. I found it really useful and helpful in my goal to parent my child gently. When my second child came along I meant to reread it, but of course life became even busier and I felt I didn’t really need to……until recently.
The last few months have been tough in our house, and you would not think my aim was to be a gentle parent. There were fights with our 6 year old DS, lots of upset and lots of shouting. He has turned from a happy go lucky child to one that gets easily upset, frustrated, angry - he wants everything his way and is very negative. As this seemed to happen out of the blue I was absolutely clueless as to how to deal with it. I was also a bit worried for a while, as it was such a huge change in character for him. In hindsight, this had been going on a lot longer than the last few months, but it had happened gradually and escalated over time so that his behaviour and mine were clashing almost constantly and everything was becoming a battle.
Thankfully in one of the Facebook parenting groups* I am on, a Mum shared a link to a really helpful website that lists characteristics of different age groups. When I checked the characteristics of a 6 year old I was reassured that his behaviour was actually pretty normal for his age.
That still left the issue, however, of how to actually respond to his behaviour in a gentler way than how we were currently reacting to it. I had found 'How to Talk...' really helpful with my DD so thought I would give it a try again. I had completely forgotten most of the content and so began re-reading it again.
Chapter 1 focuses on helping children to deal with their feelings. As the author’s note, parents don’t always accept our children’s feelings. When I began to note my own behaviour over a few days, I could see that I was indeed denying how my DS was feeling a huge amount of the time and this often led to him getting even more frustrated and angry.
The book gives a few pointers as to what to do if your child is having strong emotions (see below). Both myself and my OH have been implementing these tips as much as we can and I have to say I am so happy with how well they are working.
The first time I tried them he had been playing with his Granny in Monkey Maze (an indoor play area in Cork). When I came to pick him up he was trying to get a particular toy out of one of the machines there. You put money in and are guaranteed to get something. Everything he specifically wanted, however, was really hard to get and he accidentally managed to get a toy he didn't want and became really, really upset. Previously I would have dismissed his feelings by telling him that he did get a toy - and how lovely the toy he got was, or trying to explain to him that he had no hope of getting the toy he wanted. Or getting annoyed that he had been showered with treats that afternoon and now he was getting upset (after all we have done for him the voice in my head would continue). But this time I remembered the tips above.
I got down onto my knees so I was eye level with him and listened to him tell me how upset he was and held him as he cried. I then fed back to him that it seemed like he was very upset that he hadn’t managed to get the toy he wanted. He told me again how he really wanted the particular toy and got a bit more upset. I then tried to give him his wishes in fantasy and told him how cool it would be if the staff would let us borrow the machine and bring it home for the evening to give us more time with it, which would let us get the toy he wanted. Or if he could control the machine with his mind to let the lever come down exactly where he needed it to. I brought him over to the machine to see if we would be able to lift it (in case we could bring it home) and he thought this was hilarious. He then started fantasising about how he could get the toy out. After a really short time with this type of dialog he was in much better form and laughing away with me. I couldn’t believe how well it worked.
I have used these tools now regularly over the last few weeks and found them so beneficial. Our house has become a lot more peaceful as a result. I do find it hard to remember to use the techniques sometimes. Old habits die hard. Last week, for example, when he was telling me about a class he goes to and why he didn’t like it on this night, I completely forgot and denied his feelings (I started panicking that he would not want to go back again and we had paid for the term). He stormed off, slamming the door (seriously it's like living with a teenager at times), and became really upset. I am after all only human and this is still a work in practise. It also does depend on how distracted or frazzled I am, but when I remember it is so much easier and he comes out of the upset a lot quicker than if I deny the feelings. Often denying leads to a huge escalation in the mood and leaves all of us in the house unhappy for the evening or afternoon afterwards. So there is a huge incentive to remember and follow the steps above. In the case above, I calmed down (rather than get cross that he had slammed the door - as I would usually have done), went and found him and then did the steps, and again it worked really well. He was able to tell me why he didn't like the class that week, I listened and we ended it with a hug.
I do find that I sometimes struggle to put words onto the feelings - it's not something that comes naturally to me. But I am hoping as I use the techniques more regularly that this will become easier. There are lots of examples in the book as well as exercises you can do to help you get more experience in what to say which I have found very helpful. The chapter also addresses common questions or concerns parents may have such as - if I accept my child's feelings will it make me a permissive parent?
I hope this is something that you might find useful when dealing with your children when they are upset, angry, or in any way emotional. Feel free to download the picture above to your phone or print it off and stick it somewhere you will see it to remind you to try it out yourself. Let me know if you use it and how your family finds it. I am really glad I remembered to dig out this book as our house is no longer feeling like a war zone - and I am still only on Chapter 1! If the rest of the book is as helpful I will share those tips with you as well.
* The Facebook Group above (Gentle Discipline Ireland) is a closed group and vets members carefully. If you would like to join you can send a request and they will be in touch before adding you to the group. It is a great resource if you are hoping to parent gently.