“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
Communication is the keystone to relationships. Communication is how we share and express ourselves to others. It is how we get what we need and convey how we uniquely see the world around us. Communication can be verbal and non-verbal. How we communicate is unconscious. Whether in work, play or family, communication isn’t something we normally think about day to day. In that regard, it is simple.
But in reality, good communication isn’t always simple. The reason is because our emotions, past experiences, knowledge, development and environment all affect communication. And when it comes to parenting, learning and refining the ins and outs of communication basics is a parenting pearl worth diving for!
One of the most challenging parts of communication is not the talking part, or knowing what to say; it is the listening part. Good listening entails taking in the verbal and non-verbal cues that a child is giving you. Learning to listen and understand what children are saying and needing isn’t always easy, even for parents.
Great examples of this phenomenon come up weekly in my work with parents and children. Recently a mother of two asked me what to do with her 4 yr old daughter who gets discouraged and frustrated easily (like when she can’t do a maneuver on the jungle gym) and has such “big feelings” that the girl just “loses it.” During the outbursts, the mother explains to her daughter how things take practice, or to just keep trying and be patient. After all, she is a caring and supportive parent who would like her daughter to be resilient and not get frustrated so easily. But instead, no matter how true and accurate her rationale and responses are, this commentary and reassurance doesn’t help her daughter calm down at all.
This mother also told me that this behavior doesn’t happen around other people or with her pre-schoolteachers. This girl is bright and socially and emotionally well adjusted. This 4 year old, however, seems to “save” this behavior for her mom, as children often do.
What’s really going on?
As children grow and develop so does their brain. Cognitive and emotional changes in the brain in childhood are dynamic and not always as easy for parents to see and comprehend, like seeing a child’s height accelerate or watching a child learn to ride a bike. The emotional changes are subtler.
Four year olds are creative and still fanciful but also like realistic games and rules. They are interested and curious and their play is vigorous and purposeful. Emotionally, they have many new feelings and they are learning about empathy and friendship. Their expanding world and interests challenge them on many fronts. They work hard at maintaining their new independence and problem solving abilities. Yet at the end of the day, they need their mommies and daddies. They need to melt down, tantrum and crumble into the open arms of someone who just understands them and accepts them (and sometimes it isn’t just at the end of the day!) The function of big emotional flare-ups is that they let off steam and fulfill an expressive need.
So when I suggest to a parent that when their preschooler or elementary age child “loses it,” they should just sit with their child and reflect their feelings, they are often surprised by the simplicity of the solution. This is challenging for parents because to see one’s child so upset and out of sorts strikes an internal cord that makes parents want to fix the situation with verbal band-aids. Instead, parents should use reflective communication to help their children. Reflective communication is restating someone’s experience, feelings and point of view, without judgment or opinion. For example, this particular mother could say something like “You are trying so, so hard to climb that jungle gym, its just not working for you. That’s really frustrating isn’t it?”
Why Reflecting Works
Parents (and caregivers) should understand that when children have big emotional outbursts, it doesn’t help to hear someone say, “Calm down.” That negates the child’s feeling(s) and can feel disrespectful. In addition, it can have an adverse reaction and cause a child to get more worked up. During an emotional outburst, which is a right brain activity, kids (and adults for that matter) don’t appreciate and integrate logical (left brain) explanations. Instead, to have one’s emotions mirrored or reflected is calming and reassuring. The child then learns that they don’t need to have such big emotional eruptions or responses because they know they will be heard.
When reflecting and understanding, parents and caregivers become role models for healthy communication. And that will help their children find resilience and patience intrinsically. When parents and caregivers demonstrate “active listening” they are modeling appropriate behavior for their child. This aids trust and will hopefully set a precedent that mom/dad are always there to listen. Children like to problem solve, and be independent and as they grow. They don’t always want their parents to “fix” things. They often just need their parent’s listening ear.
So, during the next meltdown when the urge to “fix it” presents itself, just listen…it really is that simple. And it works.