You’ve all heard this phrase, “Use your words,” and most likely you’ve said it to your children. But I’m going to show you a specific technique that really teaches children what words to use and how. The goal is to teach them to problem solve on their own and help them express their feelings. As I’ve said before, words are very powerful and this simple tool can help diffuse many emotional situations and solve problems so easily – you’ll be amazed! The foundation for the technique is that people, including children, want to be listened to and validated, more than they want the thing they are fighting for.
So, it works like this. Say one child has a toy truck and another comes over and tries to take it. The first child cries or fusses and the second does also. I walk over and say, “Use your words.” Now if that’s all I say, the child doesn’t know what words to use or how to navigate this situation. They may learn over time or get a little better at it as they get older, but what I have found is so effective is to teach the child the exact words to use. Like this:
“Use your words, Tommy. Say, ‘Can I have that truck?’” Hopefully Tommy says this phrase. If he refuses or is too young to really say it, then I turn to Sally and say, “Tommy says, can I have that truck?’”
I look at Sally for a response. She might say, “Sure” and give it to Tommy. Often this happens because, as I said, the words diffuse the emotions. But just as often Sally looks upset, thinking you’re going to make her give the truck to Tommy and she doesn’t want to. So I say to Sally, “You don’t have to say yes. You could say, ‘I’ll give it to you in 5 minutes’ or ‘I’m playing with it now’.” Sometimes I might ask her straight out, “Do you want to give the truck to Tommy?” and if she shakes her head no then I give her some suggestions of what to say.
Or Sally might flat out say ‘no’ and then I turn to Tommy and give him some suggested phrases. “Tommy, you could say, ‘Can I have it in five minutes?’ or ‘How long do you want to play with it?’”
The “How long do you want to play with it” is a useful phrase because it gives the child a sense of power – she gets to choose. Most often she will choose a reasonable amount of time (3 or 5 minutes).
If Sally is really not wanting to give up the toy, I would say to Sally, “Tell Tommy, ‘I just got this truck and want to play with it for a while.’” You teach them to say whatever fits the circumstances. Maybe, “I brought this toy from home because it is my favorite, and I want to play with it.” Or “I want this spot on the couch because I like being next to mom.” Or “I don’t want you to borrow my clothes because sometimes you don’t return them.” You have to teach them EXACTLY what to say to solve the problem.
The point is not to get them to share or be nice or do any specific behavior. It’s mostly to use specific words to solve the problem. The problem can be solved by keeping the toy! Using words in this way helps everyone in the situation feel good about the solution, whatever it is. As soon as a child is old enough to take away another child’s toy (or care if her toy is taken) this technique can work. She may not be able to say it, but you can model it and she can start to understand the meaning. You tell her what to say, and then say it for her, if needed.
When kids are older and get in more heated arguments we do the same thing but even more involved and more words. First I ask each child to tell their side of the story, without being interrupted by the other child, and then I start to mediate. I say, “Tell Shelly, say ‘I don’t want you to play with me and my friends because I just want some time with them to myself.’” I make her repeat those words, even though I just said them standing right there. If she doesn’t want to say it or feels silly, I remind her that she needs to practice these words so that she can do it on her own next time. She says the sentence, and then I coach the sister on what to say in response. After a while they know what to say or how to express themselves and don’t need as much coaching.
Sometimes they get sick of the whole process and don’t want to participate, so I remind them, “The more words you use the more likely you are to get what you want.” I really believe this is a life-lesson truth. Whatever situation you are in if you can ask for what you want, express yourself clearly, stay unemotional and use your words, you will get what you want.
I use this same technique when my kids are asking me for something. The more words they use describing why they need it and what it’s for, the more likely I am to get it for them. Sometimes they are too frustrated with me to go to the effort of explaining all that, and in that case, they don’t get the thing they want. I don’t just say, “Use your words!” but I teach them just what to say. For example, “If you wanted to stay longer you can ask me, you could say, ‘Mom, I’m having a lot of fun playing with my friend. Is there any way I could stay a little longer?’” You can have them repeat that back, if the moment is right, but even if they don’t they start to learn the words/phrases. There are hundreds of different applications of this, and the more you take advantage of a problem situation and teach them the words – the exact words – in this way, the more words they will know to form their requests and solve their problems using words instead of whining/hitting/etc.
One of our family mottos is “ask for what you want.” My kids know that means use your words, and use lots of them. As you know, it’s more natural for children to say, “I need more milk” than to ask, “Can I have more milk?”. Whenever this comes up I say, “That’s a statement.” I explain (in a nice way) that they are stating what they need, not asking me to do something. Again, I give them suggestions of words and phrases they can use. “If you would like more milk you could say, ‘Will you get me some milk?’ or ‘Can I have more milk?’ Adding a ‘please’ on there helps too!”
Mostly I wait to get them the thing until they have asked, but if the moment is tense and it will become a control battle, I won’t make them. I do try giving them an option, “You can either say ‘please’ or ‘will you’. You don’t have to say both.” You probably know that kids like options, it gives them power, and it’s an effective tool for eliciting cooperation. So, they have that option and usually they will comply with one or the other.
I’ve been through this scenario many times with my kids, as you can imagine, so by now I just need to say, “That’s a statement,” and they know to re-phrase!
This mediation and teaching process can take some time, but it’s worth the effort because it teaches your child how to express himself, helps him feel validated and listened to, and solves the problem peacefully rather than contentiously. If you leave these arguments up to the children they will escalate and you will get mad and send them all away and no one will be happy. Using this technique greatly reduces the contention in the home and the need for “discipline” or punishing. It also teaches the children to ask for what they want in a calm and specific way, which will be a great asset to them in life.