Sometimes as parents, we can become frustrated in a parenting moment, and unwittingly and unknowingly be reckless with our language towards our children. As a child therapist in Washington DC, I find that this happens most with parents when they don’t know what to do to manage a certain behavior or are stressed themselves personally. I work with parents on making a key shift in their thinking and their parenting, which is to separate the choice from the child. Here are three simple tips we can use to start this process.
- Use the word “choice.”
This might sound simple and redundant, yet let’s see how it shifts your mindset and better directs your positive parenting intentions. When going through your day-to-day interactions with your children such as at bedtime, try talking about the choice that your child has to quickly put on their pajamas on so that there’s time for a story. If your child is putting more energy into protesting, comment on the choice they are making which will naturally reduce or eliminate the time for a story: “It seems like you’re making the choice to take your time in putting your pajamas on. We might not have time for a story unless you choose to put your pajamas on quickly.” Natural consequences become more apparent and can divert escalation. Outside of tough moments, try highlighting that your child has made a choice to put their left shoe on first and then their right. In a child’s world, noticing these nuances can help them feel mastery over tasks and they will begin to realize that they can make a choice and don’t need to succumb to impulses. Neither do you.
- Identify the choice your child has made instead of labeling your child as the outcome or the problem.
It’s far too easy to characterize your child, or anyone for that matter, as the outcome of their decision. You’re irresponsible. You’re disrespectful. Sound familiar? We can assume that the action is the target, not the person. Basic grammar dictates that the person is the target. Over time, if we aren’t careful with our words, our children can easily begin to internalize those negative characteristics, and and begin believing and acting out those negative beliefs about themselves. I am not saying to ignore the action. I am suggesting that your child is not irresponsible but rather they made an irresponsible choice. He or she is not disrespectful but rather made a disrespectful choice. Communicating this helps a child reflect on their actions rather than feeling judged or becoming defensive.
- Identify your child’s worth and positive characteristics while being curious about his/her choices.
In the heat of the moment, quelling frustration and anger can be tough. Amanda Good shared some great tips here (https://thesibleygroupdc.com/approaching-anger/) to address the inevitable emotion of anger. As a parent however, frustration can easily be online too often. While you’re separating the choice from the child, try taking a stance of curiosity as you approach them. Be mindful, and actively try to position your face so that you look curious rather than frustrated. Here’s how–1) Tilt your head a bit to one side and ask a question; 2) Use statements that start with “I wonder;” 3) Highlight the positive characteristics that you know your child possesses; 4) Then follow up with a question that contradicts those characteristics.
For example, try saying, “I know how much you love painting and you’re so creative. I love seeing all of the art that you make. I wonder why you chose to tear up your painting.” Or another example could be that you have multiple children and more often than not, playtime ends up in tears because one hit the other. Resist yelling and correcting, and try saying, “I know how much you love your sister. You both have so much fun when we bake together, play at the water park and you both do such a great job picking out a story for bedtime together. I wonder what happened that you chose to hit instead of using your words.”
By refocusing your attention on the choices your child or children make, you can learn to let them lead. It’s a nice window of opportunity to actively model how to express feelings and manage tough emotions. You also can begin to guide them to answers rather than giving them answers. These steps allow you the opportunity to problem-solve, brainstorm and teach your child to engage in the process of making decisions with confidence. Over time, their choices teach them to approach challenges with greater confidence and competence rather than avoid uncomfortable situations.