Stay Close to Your Children

You can work all day long at being “consistent” in your discipline and following through on consequences, but if you don’t have a bond with your child, you will not be effective. The stronger your relationship the more effective your other parenting efforts will be.  This relationship takes work and effort, but will be so worth it.  You’re going to have to be around and deal with this child anyway!  You might as well make it as enjoyable a relationship as you can.

The best way to work on your relationship with your child is to spend quality time with him.  I recommend shooting for 10-15 minutes of one-on-one time each day.  During this time there are no expectations and no disciplining, just hanging out.  There are also no checking the phone or working on the computer.  Put your phone on airplane mode if you must, but take a break from it and give your child your undivided attention!  You could play Barbies or trucks, memory match games or just sing and talk together.  It’s just a time to “be”.  It’s really a relief and can become quite an enjoyable time to just hang out with your child.  So much of parenting interactions are centered on telling the child what’s right and what’s wrong.  It can get exhausting for both of you.  This is a nice break from that.  I’m not saying it’s easy to do – it can be hard to put aside other things that need to get done and just hang out.  It helps if you make it a habit or connect it to something else that happens daily.  For example, as soon as you put the baby down for afternoon nap you spend 10 minutes with the 3-year-old before doing anything else.

I try to revamp my schedule and find a reliable time to do this with each changing phase of life – when the kids go back to school, in summer, after a baby is born, etc.  Last year I made a goal at the beginning of summer to spend a certain amount of time with my kids each day, because I knew that if I didn’t really focus on that I would just do my computer work and errands all day and never stop to be with them (other than taking them places, which is not the same).  I told myself, this is my job – a stay-at-home mom – so make time to actually spend time with the kids!

If you feel like your child is having a particularly hard time, misbehaving more than usual or regressing, it’s a good idea to focus even more one-on-one time with him.  He needs that extra attention and love, and a dedicated time with you when he is not getting in trouble. This can be a key part of the solution to improving his behavior.

Another important part of staying close to your child is listening to him.  Listening is the kindest thing we can do, for anyone.  It is putting aside our thoughts and needs and words to give our undivided attention to someone else.  It is a great act of love.  And the child will feel loved the more we listen to him.  He will feel like he matters to you and is important to you.

Beyond showing your child you care and that he is important, listening can have a very healing effect on him.  Problems can seem less overwhelming if someone has listened to them and validated the feelings.  Everyone wants to be heard and validated.  It is essential to being human.  If you don’t allow your child to speak or express his feelings, those feelings will be pushed down and will fester and grow into bitterness.  When your child is upset, even if you feel like there’s nothing to be upset about, listen to him and help him express himself.  It will calm him down and help him figure out the solution on his own.

This all sounds great until you actually hear what your child has to say!  It’s often not that interesting, and likely not even that coherent!  It takes a lot of patience to listen to a child.  But, as often as you can (there are some situations where it’s not possible), try to really listen to what he has to tell you.  Act interested as he tells you all the details about the last Disney show he watched or how his Pokemons are fighting.  Listen and answer respectfully when he asks for something, and listen when he wants to tell you something you already know.  Many parents will cut off their child and finish the sentence or idea for them.  I feel like this shows disrespect, a sense of “I already know everything you know”.  Your child might be telling you a joke or story you know the ending to, still listen and let him finish and be proud of telling the whole thing.  Don’t contradict him off-hand.  If he says, “My teacher doesn’t like me,” don’t say, “That’s not true.”  This statement shuts down the conversation.  Instead say, “Why do you think that?”  This prompts the child to tell you more.

As often as you can, listen more than you talk.  Don’t lecture and go on and on about things.  Listen to their side of the story.  Another exasperating but crucial example of this is when the children are arguing with each other or have a disagreement.  In Use Your Words I talk more about how to handle these conflicts, but it’s important to listen to both sides of the story, in-depth, before helping them solve the problem.  People really feel empowered when they get to say their piece.

While you’re listening, empathize with them, also.  Use phrases like, “That must be hard” and “I can see why you’re upset” to let them know you understand the importance of what they are saying.  You don’t have to go on and on with your empathy, just some quick phrases to let them know you’re listening and you’re on their side.  Sometimes you can help them move on with a “Things will be better tomorrow” or “I’m sure you’ll remember next time.”

Don’t use “I told you so” phrases.  Let the consequences teach the lesson and you empathize with the sadness/disappointment.  This can be so hard because you want to point out that you knew the right way from the beginning, and maybe she should listen to you next time!  But I promise this truth will be communicated more clearly and forcefully if you DON’T say it, just let it sink in on its own.

Listen when they want to talk.  This gets to be more important the older they get.  Little kids want to talk all day long; they don’t need prompting.  But the older kids get the less they talk (which is good and appropriate), and when they become teens it’s even harder to get them to talk.  You have to be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.  This is usually at 10:30 at night when you’re about to go to bed!  But if you want to be close to your child, you have to put aside your needs and listen to them.  If you know something is going on and they don’t want to talk, say, “I’d love to hear about … when you’re ready to talk.”  If you’ve established a habit of listening to your child, from the time she was little and didn’t say very interesting things, you will have a close relationship and your teen will open up to you from time to time.

In general, take every opportunity you can to have frequent positive interactions with your children.  Smile a lot; laugh often; make chores and other household duties fun and enjoyable; touch and hug and talk a lot!  Overall, kids need more time and attention than most people think.  When you give it to them, and parent in a way that you can stay emotionally close to your child, you will be greatly rewarded – with positive, loving feelings toward your child and with good behavior from your child!

Stop and Redirect

When there is inappropriate behavior that cannot be ignored you’ll need to stop and redirect.  This post will explain how to do that.

Many of these posts contain overlapping principles, and this one especially can’t stand on its own.  It’s important to also read Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child (Parts I, II, and III), and Positive Reinforcement.

As you probably can tell, I’m a much bigger fan of proactive parenting than reactive.  I’d much rather think of misbehavior as an opportunity to teach good behavior.  As in, “Obviously he hasn’t learned how to do all his chores by himself, so what am I going to do to teach him?”  (Keep in mind it can take many repetitions to teach him.) Also misbehavior reminds me to express my expectations: “I expect you to pick up your toys when you’re done playing”; “I expect you to talk nicely to your family”; “I expect you to listen when I talk”; etc.  This concept is explained more in depth in Explain Expectations.

I use punishments or rewards sparingly because they are external motivators, and kids need to create and build internal motivation to be well-behaved over the long-term.  So when I say stop and redirect inappropriate behaviors that cannot be ignored, it’s not a euphemism for punishment or “consequences” (although that is a last resort).  It’s simply some strategies for how to respond when your positive reinforcement hasn’t kicked in and you need to address some misbehavior right then.

There are a few layers to this response.  First is just a simple reprimand, asking the child to stop the behavior.  Sometimes this does the trick.  Next would be trying to redirect the child. And lastly, you would need to administer some consequences.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

*First – Reprimand.  As you know, I’m a big believer in choosing the correct words and believe there’s a “better way to say it.”  So I have quite a bit to say about the reprimand – what to say and what not to say, and how to say it.

Just as in “How to give instructions“, it’s important to go over to where the child is, look her in the eye for 2-3 seconds, and calmly say something simple and to the point.  Try to include what TO DO also (explain the behavior you do want).  “We do not jump on the couch.  Your feet need to stay on the floor.”

Be direct, unemotional, and precise.  Don’t talk too much. Save words for the happy times.  This can be really hard!  But again, make it a game with yourself, tell yourself it’s good to learn new things/try hard things, and you are up to the challenge!  It’s important to get your message across using only a few words, with as little time spent as it is possible. Don’t lecture or try to drive home the point. The more words you use the more you dilute your meaning, and the less effective you become.  Again, you might want to write out some sentences for potential misbehavior situations and practice them.

Don’t keep reminding, saying it over and over. This just gives the child the message that you don’t think they hear you or remember.  Say it once (or twice) and expect them to remember and they will live up to that expectation.

Don’t ask a lot of questions about inappropriate behavior: “Why did you do that?” Sometimes you do want to know what the situation was or what might have prompted the action.  It’s okay to talk about it a little, asking, “What was happening here?” or “What happened right before you threw the toy?”  You’re trying to elicit information in a non-judgmental, compassionate, listening way.  And the point is to LISTEN more than talk.  However, if you’re not in an emotional state to do this, just skip that whole part of the conversation!

Give her the benefit of the doubt: “That’s not like you.” And when she balks at some instruction or reprimand, you can say something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset.  Something surely must have gone wrong, otherwise you would not have behaved in this way. You’ll feel better in a moment.” Or, “You’ll be happier and feel a lot better after you’ve calmed down.  Things happen that can really upset us.  I know the feeling.  Let’s talk about it in 10-15 minutes.”

All these sentences and many more can be found here.  Print them out – practice them!  You’ll feel dumb at first, but soon this style of speaking becomes second nature to you, and will improve your interactions with your child and your child’s behavior.

Side Note: If your child’s behavior is disruptive to someone else (guests are over, you’re out in public, he’s thrashing around and hurting you or a sibling), you’re not going to continue this “talking” phase for long.  Just like many things in parenting, the spoken reprimand is the ideal, the first step in attempting to change his behavior, but many times it takes more than that.  Many difficult behavior situations don’t have one “right” way to deal with them.   The goal is just to get through that situation without getting overly angry and saying or doing something you’ll regret.  Stay calm and deal with it through talking, or when necessary, removing the child from the situation.  Don’t worry too much about the particulars of how to handle this extreme situation.  If, for the most part, you are following all the other principles I’ve outlined (in this and other posts), you’ll have an overall parenting vision or plan and a framework of skills to fall back on.

*Then – Redirect. If the spoken reprimand is not working and the misbehavior continues, your next step is trying to redirect the child.  The point of this is to redirect the child’s attention to something positive, either something different to do or something else to think about.  Then, hopefully, she will forget about the problem at hand, and stop the problem behavior.  “Let’s play with this toy instead.”  “Did you know that daddy will be home soon?”  “Have you tried the purple crayon?  That’s mommy’s favorite color.”  “After dinner let’s play a game together.”

You don’t have to worry about “teaching the lesson” or letting the child know that the behavior was wrong.  If you’ve said a sentence or two about what not to do and what to do (“When you take her crayon she feels sad.  Let’s just color with these crayons.”), that’s one step to teaching the correct behavior.  The other step comes later, when you catch her doing the correct behavior and comment on it.  You don’t have to make the child perform the correct behavior right then, like share the toy or say “I’m sorry.”  That just puts you in a power struggle, and you have a good chance of losing!

Redirecting a child is a skill that can be difficult to master, but brings so much satisfaction when you find just the thing that gets the child’s attention and helps them forget the problem/misbehavior.  Experiment with different distractions and be creative!  Point to a bird out the window and start talking about where the bird is going and how they make their nest and how they teach their babies to fly.  Or talk about a time when your brother hurt you and how you felt and what you said to your mom and what she said in response, etc.   It takes a lot of emotional energy on your part, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it’s worth the effort and it can be fun!

*As a last resort – Administer consequences. Most misbehaviors can be addressed using the above two strategies. You want to administer consequences sparingly because the more often you give consequences, the less powerful they become. If you are always saying, “No computer time for you today!” it will lose its force.  I recommend the book Love and Logic for a more in-depth look at these principles.  They coined the terms “natural and logical consequences”.  Natural consequences are those you don’t have to say much about, i.e. if they don’t take their coat, they are cold – and you let the cold teach the lesson, instead of you telling the child what a mistake it was to not bring a coat.  Logical consequences are the ones that you think up to fit the misbehavior.  Your consequences must fit the misbehavior and be immediate. One example is taking away a toy that was used to hurt someone else.  Or removing the child from the table at snack time if she was making a mess with her food (and, obviously, you’ve tried the reprimand and the redirect FIRST).  It is ineffective to say, “No TV when we get home!”  That is taking away a privilege (watching TV), but doesn’t really have anything to do with the current misbehavior AND is so far away in the child’s time reference that it will not change his behavior next time.  (Plus, there’s a great temptation to go back on your word and let the child watch TV anyway because you realize you’re only punishing yourself!).

When you need to administer consequences be kind and calm.  You can empathize with them, “I know it’s hard when you can’t play with that toy you want.  I know you will remember next time to use it appropriately.”  You don’t have to be angry at them.  If you are, that focuses the child’s attention on you and how mean you are, rather than her own behavior getting her into this situation.  Administer consequences with compassionate sadness.  Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re okay.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part III

Click here to see the Introductory Post (Part I) or Part II.  This is a continuation of those ideas.

*Mean what you say.  Children figure out very quickly that you don’t really mean “we’re leaving” when you say that.  Or that “time for bed” means they can dawdle for another 10-30 minutes.  If you are not seriously ready to enforce those things, don’t say them!  This is such a hard concept for parents because it’s so tempting to say it when you’re kinda, sorta thinking about doing that.  You’re announcing your future intentions, but it really communicates the wrong thing.  If you must say anything, call out, “I’m starting to think about leaving (or bedtime) and will be serious about it in 5-30 minutes!”  I’m not seriously suggesting you do this, but making the point that you should speak accurately.  If you overuse or misuse the “time to go” phrase, it loses its meaning to the child.  Just don’t say it until you are ready to focus on the child and use all your attention to get him to comply (to leave or go to bed, etc.).

*Use “You worked hard on that” statements instead of “That’s so good” or “You’re so smart/talented”. Emphasize the process rather than the product.  This idea is from a wonderful book called Nurture Shock.  It explains that emphasizing the effort helps children feel they are in control of their success.  Emphasizing natural intelligence or talent takes it out of the child’s control, and decreases their abilities to respond in the face of failure. Those who think that innate intelligence is the key to their success begin to discount the importance of effort, as in, ‘I’m smart so I don’t need to work hard’, or even worse, ‘if I work hard it shows I’m not naturally smart’.  Children need to be taught that the brain is like a muscle: giving it a harder workout makes you smarter.  This may sound like a small and inconsequential difference, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in the power of words and the messages they give.  I think if you get in the habit of saying these more productive phrases, your child will be better off.

When she is doing artwork say, “Tell me about your picture” rather than, “That looks nice” or “You’re a good artist.”  It opens up conversation and encourages her creativity, rather than giving a quick, meaningless compliment.  Also, it’s better to say, “Looks like you’re having fun!” rather than “You’re good at that.”  Point out that hard work can be fun.

*Be specific in your praise.  This principle is a natural extension of the previous point.  If you always give trite, general compliments they are not very meaningful and don’t necessarily reinforce the behavior you want.  It’s better to be as specific as you can about what the child did that you approve of (“I liked how you colored on the paper.” “You’re sharing your toys with your sister so nicely.”) It takes effort at first to examine the situation and identify exactly what behavior you want to praise, but soon you will get in the habit of being more specific and it will come easily and have great rewards.  You can also praise in the “running commentary” fashion.  As they are trying to get dressed to go out and play in the snow, “You are working hard to get those snow pants on.  The zipper is tricky sometimes but you kept working at it.  You are learning to be independent.  It’s fun to be able to get your whole snow outfit on by yourself!” etc.

You don’t want to discourage a child who is trying out something new, but sometimes you want to teach the correct way.  You can praise and then offer to teach, but try it this way: If your child has made her bed [badly], say, “I see that you are learning to make the bed just like Mommy! Would you like me to show you how I get the wrinkles out?” or “I appreciate that you are learning to wipe off the counters, do you want me to show you how I get it sparkly?”  Notice you don’t say, ‘do you want me to show you how to get the wrinkles out’, which implies her efforts weren’t enough.  Instead this is just an idea to offer them (to learn how to get the wrinkles out).  She very well may say, “No, I like it this way.”

You can also use self referenced comments about positive behavior.  “I feel so happy when my room is clean!”  “I worked hard on that project and now I feel proud that is it completed.” etc.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part II

Click here to see the introductory post.  This is a continuation of those ideas.

*Lower your voice.  This goes along with always speaking kindly.  There’s no need to raise your voice, and when you do the child tunes out.  It is possible to administer consequences while speaking calmly!  You can have a stern or serious look and it’s not “kind” as in giving in to any complaints or demands from them.  It’s just “kind” as in not yelling and speaking respectfully, not resorting to “Why can’t you be a good boy?” or “You’re always doing this!”  Don’t belittle him or give a huge exasperated sigh.   YOU have to model using your words even when you’re angry, and it’s super hard!  I am not telling you to do this like it’s so easy or I was perfect at it.  It’s something we strive for.  It’s the ideal.

See Practice Patience for tips on how to calm yourself down.  When you reprimand, use short sentences, and include what to do as well as what not to do.    Some examples: “I did not like the way you were talking to your sister.  Please speak kindly to her.”  “We do not draw on the wall in our house. We draw on paper.” “You need to listen when I am talking to you.”

*Don’t ask “Why did you do that?” The child doesn’t know why and if he did he can’t express it.  Don’t go on about how he always does this; haven’t you learned? This is the 4th time I’ve told you; you should know better; etc.

*When appropriate, ask the child instead of tell them – let her tell you. Help her understand what the natural consequences of behaviors are. For example, don’t say, “Your bike will get stolen if you leave it out,” because she thinks, ‘No, it won’t’, and then she is bugged at you and not thinking or learning anything. Instead, ask her, “What do you think could happen to your bike if you leave it out?”  Say only a few words and ask questions that put her in the role of problem solver, with you.

*How to give instructions

-Be close to your child. Go to where she is and get on HER level – this is another key parenting principle that parents underestimate the importance of.

-Look her in the eye, not like an intense, hypnotic stare – just regular eye contact.  This requires being close and gets her attention.

-Speak in a way she can understand.  You don’t have to explain the whole situation, just find some simple reason why she shouldn’t do that thing.  “You need to go to bed because it’s bedtime.”  “You need to clean your room because it’s important in our family to take care of our things.”  Or give a creative reason: “We can’t play with this dolly anymore because she needs to go to sleep now.”

-MOST IMPORTANTLY, stay close to see if the instruction is completed.  The older the child is the more you can expect he will follow instructions without you right there, but we’re talking 8 years old!  Until then, if you’ve given an instruction and expect some behavior you better be pretty close by to see if it’s really done.  Parents who walk away after giving the instruction lose their child’s attention.  The child figures they didn’t really mean it, and often the parents don’t notice that the instruction wasn’t followed until quite a few minutes later.  This is an astronomical waste of time!  Then the parent says, “John, why didn’t you do _________?”

Children are natural dawdlers (I’m sure you’ve noticed 🙂 ).  You must be close by to keep them on task.  I’m not saying be right next to them at every second; I’m saying be aware of what they are doing; help them stay on task; also – this is key – commenting positively when they do stay on task!  Staying close and following through take extra time, but the investment in time will pay off in the end – your child will be more compliant and obedient and take your words more seriously.  I see this so often with ineffective parents: they call out instructions in a distracted way (“Go clean your room!”), usually multiple times, and then 5 minutes later say with exasperation, “I’ve told you this five times!”  It’s so tempting to think your children are more independent than they really are, that they will manage this task without your supervision.  Sometimes they do – and then they lull us into thinking they can do that every time.  But for the most part, you’ve got to be there, observing the behavior and making sure the thing gets done.

*Have her say, “Okay mommy.” When you give instructions have her reply, “Okay mommy” so you know she understands and also to boost compliance.  Having this confirmation that your message was received requires that you are close by, giving full attention to the task at hand, and that she is listening and processing the instructions.  When you’re giving instructions or explaining expectations this is an especially helpful phrase.  I purposely left out the comma because I used this phrase so much I ended up saying it without the usual pause implied by a comma!  I’ve mentioned this before (and say it again in Use Your Words) but words can have a very powerful effect.  If you can teach her to say ‘Okay mommy’ there is a much higher chance that she will actually do the thing she agreed to.  She verbally agreed to do it, so she feels more compelled!  It’s like magic.

If a child responds to instruction with a no or a complaint or a fit, I walk over to her, look her in the eye, and calmly say, “When I tell you to do something, I want you to say, ‘Okay mommy’.  Do you understand? Let’s practice.  Jane, please pick up your toys.”  Then hopefully she says ‘Okay mommy.’

As I explained in Explain Expectations I don’t expect perfect compliance with this ‘Okay mommy’ response every time, but I teach it every time.  This is not a set up for a control battle!  I try to get her to do it.  Sometimes it’s not worth the fight to enforce it.  Also, if I’m trying to get Jane to clean up her toys there are many other tricks and tools I use than just repeatedly saying “pick up your toys”!  See future posts for some ideas on this.

Continue reading on Part III.

Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part I

This is such an important topic, and there is so much to say about it, that I’ve divided it into three parts.  Click here to see Part II and Part III.

Also, for a list of parenting sentences that you can refer to and practice, click “There’s a Better Way to Say It!”

Positive speaking is the second most important parenting principle, after Explain Expectations.  I really believe it is the key to effective parenting.  There are so many powerful effects our words and tones can have on children, for good or for bad.  This principle really began to take form in my mind when I moved to a new area and met a wonderful woman who had seven children, all quite young.  She was a positive person by nature, always smiling and reaching out to be friendly to others.  I felt like she was a really impressive mother (with impressive children!) and decided to observe her more closely.  The most striking thing was how positive and kind she was to her children.  No matter what she was telling them (to not interrupt her, to go do something, to not do something) it was always in a calm and kind manner.  This is not to be confused with being passive or a push over.  She was calm and kind BUT ALSO firm and following through with her instructions.  This was the epiphany to me – you don’t have to be mean to discipline!  Isn’t that a revelation?!  In my mind you had to act and look mean to get your point across, to let them know that this was really “not okay!”  But no, it turns out a soft answer turneth away wrath (and produceth better behavior, too!!)

If you watch parents, they are often unkind or curt with their children.  They treat them like second class citizens, sometimes in subtle ways.  Children need lots of attention, and they are not just being annoying when they try to get attention.  It sounds trite, but treat your children like you would treat a friend.  (I know, I know, friends don’t pull on your pants and say, “Mo-om!” over and over, but that’s why they say parenting is hard!).  You have to take the time and effort to speak to your children kindly, and explain things to them, and teach them appropriate behavior, and a thousand other things that take time, but the investment will be SOO worth it.  It really will pay off in a better relationship and in better behavior from them.  You will feel more positive about your parenting efforts and about your child.  It’s worth the time and effort!

Speaking kindly is especially hard to do when you are angry or irritated.  See Parenting without Irritation and Practice Patience for more advice on that.

Here are a few ideas related to this principle, the list of ideas is continued in Parts II and III.

*Don’t lecture.  When you need to redirect your child, be brief and unemotional, try to use 6 words or less for the most part.  Save all your words for focusing on the good behavior!  (See Positive Reinforcement).  Some parents like to talk and are naturally longer winded.  I am not one of those; I am not much of a talker anyway, so I don’t fall victim to the temptation to lecture.  I’d much rather listen by nature, which served me as a benefit in parenting.  If this is not your strong point, you’re going to have to work on this.  There is a lot of listening in parenting!  If you want to talk, make it about future expectations (in a kind way, not a “here’s what you’re doing wrong” way. See Explain Expectations).  When you are reprimanding or disciplining, that is not the time for a lot of words.  That is not a teachable moment – children are turned off and not paying attention.  Going on and on about something just makes them irritated at you and doesn’t inspire them to do the right thing next time.

*Validate their feelings.   News flash: children are people.  People like to be validated.  Don’t you feel better when someone says, “That must be hard” rather than, “Just get over it!”  We can always be on our children’s side, even when they misbehave.  We can always empathize with them and validate them, even while following through on the consequence we established.  Say Jane was hitting her brother with a hard plastic toy.  You’ve asked her not to 2-3 times (coming close to her, looking her in the eye, explaining why she can’t), so now you’ve put the toy up high and she is crying.   You can say, “I know it’s hard to not play with that toy right now.  You’ll get to play with it later.  How about this one for now?”  instead of, “Well, it’s your own fault, if you could ever learn to not hit your brother with that toy then you would be able to play with it!” Your role is not to dig in the shame and guilt, but to unemotionally administer the consequence and empathize with her distraught.

This may sound very foreign to some of you, to be empathetic when they are upset about consequences of their own misbehavior, and it takes some practice to get right.  Sometimes the validation can come off as sarcastic, like, “Oh, so sad you can’t play with that toy, why do you think that is?”  You have to be coming from a kind place to pull it off, and it takes practice to get to that place!

Another example is when your spouse has reprimanded or administered consequences to your child.  You can go to the child and empathize, while still being firm in agreeing with what your spouse did.  After asking what’s wrong, your crying child tells you how daddy took away the toy and put it up high.  You could say, “It sounds like you’re very sad about that.  I’m sorry that happened.”  Saying ‘I’m sorry that happened’ is not the same as saying ‘daddy shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘you weren’t doing anything wrong’.  It’s just validating their feelings.  The child is sad about something, and I am empathizing with the sadness; I care about her and her feelings.   Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re ok.

There’s a lot written and said about the importance of validating feelings in marital relationships, and the same principles apply in parenting.  Children want to be heard; they don’t necessarily want you to fix the problem right away or tell them what to do about it.  They just want you to listen to them.  Sometimes they will tell you they want you to do something about it, but sometimes they will just finish telling the sad or hard story and then be done.  Sometimes they take a long time to get the story out or the story is really boring!  But you listen anyway, and validate the feeling at the end.  “Sounds like you had a rough day.”  “You’re feeling very angry right now.”  “You must be tired after doing all of that!.”

One funny and cute idea I read somewhere about listening to and validating children was to say, “I’m going to write that down!”  If the child is angry about something she doesn’t like or want, the mom says, “Ok, I’m going to write that down.”  Even though the mom doesn’t intend to do anything with the idea or the paper it’s written on, the child feels thoroughly listened to because her opinion will be written down!

For more ideas, see Part II and Part III