My wife, two teen daughters and I used to enjoy watching What Not to Wear together several years ago. The show would document the transformation of an unfashionable person who agreed to let two style experts reinvent his or her wardrobe.
On my less successful parenting days, I remember thinking a show called What Not to Say (To Your Kids) might have similar appeal. Turns out, a new book covers some of this ground in helpful ways.
What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, begins by acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic radically increased the amount of time parents and children spend together. More face-to-face conversations are usually good, but not if parents speak with their children in unhealthy ways.
The authors declare healthy parent-child communication is built upon a strong connection established via “individual time [together], proximity, shared interests, and family rituals.” For parents, there is no short cut. “We all have to do the slow, intentional, and transformative work required for connection” if we want our children to feel loved unconditionally, they write.
Empathy essential to parent-child communication
The authors recommend a four-step process for parents to respond with empathy to a child in distress. Significantly, the first two do not involve saying a word. Start by staying calm while thinking of your kids’ strong emotions as a great opportunity to connect. Second, try to “understand and accept rather than judge; be curious rather than accusatory” as you listen.
After these silent steps, “reflect and validate” your child’s feelings. This should be followed by exploring the issue through follow-up questions. The authors explain that “language that communicates careful listening when kids have strong emotions is similar to paraphrasing — but in a way that signals we are trying to understand children’s feelings.” A helpful acronym from psychologist Eran Magen is WIG (“What I Got”). Examples of WIG scripts include: “What I got from what you said …” and “Let me see if I’m understanding …”
Validating language is similar. However, it must add the message that you see why your child feels like way and that feeling is normal. Examples of validation include phrases like “that must have been hard for you” and “I’d be scared, too.” After children feel heard and accepted, they are much more likely to engage in problem-solving collaboratively with a parent or, ideally, by themselves.
Don’t follow validation with a lack of trust
Parents often falter, however, at this moment of problem-solving. How? By rushing in with criticism, nagging or “I told you so”! But those scripts are “what not to say.”
Instead, the authors recommend acting as a trusting, “non-anxious presence” or “consultant” who says as little as possible, giving the child space to brainstorm. They acknowledge this requires restraint. “It makes you feel better to engage, solve the problem, reassure, or somehow make the child feel better,” they write. But “zipping your lip is a way of signaling it’s not your life — it’s theirs.”
Granted, parents can always collaborate with a child on problem-solving, but advice should be suggested, not forced. As Stixrud and Johnson explain, “The long-term impacts of parental overcontrol for kids include anxiety, perceived incompetence, a heightened belief that the world is a frightening place, and an inability to withstand stress. So parents: while it’s not easy to sit on your hands, do it anyway. One parent, who was trying to be less controlling of her teenaged children, said that her daughter told her, ‘I love you, Mom, and I can see that this is hard for you. I’m going to give you permission to trust me.’”
Ah, trust. Yes, a lack of trust in the child (and a fear for his or her future) is often at the root of a parent’s unhealthy scripts. But Stixrud and Johnson have a suggestion.
“Take the generous position that even though your child is in distress, this distress represents their best effort right now — and that’s okay,” they write. “Every misstep doesn’t have to be a teaching moment.” Consider that when a baby is in distress, we investigate the causes without criticism, judgment or nagging. Why don’t we do the same for older children?
So the next time your child is in distress, think about listening more and saying less. As the authors note, “words matter … but words are not everything. Warmth, connection, and affection still remain the best gestures to offer your child, and they require no words at all.” That kind of parenting will never go out of fashion.