What’s wrong? Suddenly you see your child like a pup with its tail between its legs. You immediately try to “fix” it, but you can’t break through. Your heart can ache as you watch him silently struggle. Your attempts at making everything all better don’t work.
The good news is, kids are resilient and can bounce back from a trying incident fairly quickly. But what if they don’t?
First, look at your child’s life. Has there been a bullying incident? Is your child going through trauma related to your divorce? Has there been a death in the family? Has a new sibling been born?
If you can identify life specifics to hone-in on what’s obviously going on, you can go from there.
All of us have to grow up and be able to handle emotions (emotional intelligence), but it’s hard to know what to do when you see your child unhappy, says Susan David, author of Emotional Agility.
The impulse is to hop in and fix it with a little emotional helicoptering, but that’s no good, David says.
“We step into the child’s emotional space with our advice and ideas,” David says. “And we fail to learn how to help our child help herself.”
What to do?
First, Sandra R. Blankard, award-winning author and parenting expert, says five simple strategies can help you understand your kids better in order to connect with them more. Start by taking the time to get on your child’s level. If you’re always busy, always preoccupied, you will miss experiences that your kids have, and therefore emotional set backs, too. So make time for your kids.
Aside from doing daily check-ins with your children (bedtime is a good time, Blankard says) your goal should be to provide an environment where your kids feel safe enough to consistently open up to you — even when things are “wrong.”
Start by knowing what makes kids tick:
Know what makes kids tick
1. Take kids seriously; treat them like little scientists.
Children don’t think like adults, Blankard says, but this doesn’t mean the way they think is wrong. Consider your child’s childhood as the testing phase for-cause-and-effect logic. To a child, anything really is possible. What they tell you is a window into that world — the world where fantasy becomes discovery. “Anything is possible” is a hallmark of childhood that outside-of-the-box thinkers strive for. Keep that thinking intact by taking children seriously without hurrying them to be practical.
2. Acknowledge your child’s intention — especially when things go badly.
Picture the simple scenario of a child handing you a freshly picked flower (from your neighbor’s yard!), or how your child brings you a breakfast tray in bed, leaving a trail of cereal and milk across the carpet. Remember that the child’s greatness lies in her intentions.
Acknowledge the intention first and thoroughly before bringing attention to any adjacent problems (the neighbor’s yard, the carpet). Remember that solving problems is how children learn. Keep it positive by focusing on their intentions and correct ever so gently as needed. Children’s intentions really are pure, Blankard says.
3. Validate what your child likes and does not like and don’t try to change it.
If your child says, “That’s cool!” about a creepy spider, Blankard says to validate him with a simple, “You like that!” and notice the instant connection.
The same goes with things a child doesn’t like. “Arguing to change a child’s tastes is not only useless, but it increases the child’s resistance and creates distance between you and the child,” Blankard says.
Tastes are personal and the most basic expression of ourselves, experts agree. What you like and love is who you really are. In addition to creating a personal connection, validating what children like and don’t like keeps them from having to dig in their heels to prove they are right.
Of course, in childhood, liking something one day and not liking it the next is typical. Without the need to defend what they like and don’t like, children can remain flexible until their permanent tastes are formed.
4. Don’t push children to join in — describe what they are seeing instead.
Pushing children to join into activities increases reluctance; trusting their desire to join in melts it away. You can facilitate joining in by following their gaze and describing what they are seeing. Children naturally want to join in where there are other children playing.
Trust is easy when you understand how kids work — reluctant children engage by observing first, building their confidence, then joining in. Observation leads to action,so the best way to help a child join in is to describe what he is seeing.
5. Avoid questioning children — make an observation instead.
This may be the oddest tip of all, but it has truly surprising results when applied, says Blankard. Although we are taught from an early age that questions are the way to open conversations, questions tend to shut children down. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that most of the questions we ask put us in control of the conversation.
Once an adult asks a child a question, politeness dictates that the answer. Observations are different. When you simply make a statement like, ““You look busy,” a child can nod and keep playing, or go on to tell you more. How to respond is up to the child. Observations based on what the child is paying attention to are the best because they don’t disturb the child’s flow of thought, they enhance it.
Open Up Communication
According to Ron Taffel, author of Parenting By Heart and numerous other books, if you follow just one of the suggestions below, you will see positive change in the way your children interact with you.
Talk during the “in-betweens.” What were you doing the last time you had a good conversation with your child? Walking or driving to school, baking together, play time, and, of course, bedtime. These times and activities loosen tongues because parent and child aren’t looking at each other. Most of us think talking is supposed to be about relating deeply, but kids actually open up in the middle of doing other things, what is referred to as the “in-betweens” of life.
Be a person. Respond to your child with real emotion. Don’t go over the top with reactions, but don’t be a therapist either. Nodding your head, naming feelings, and reflecting back works well when kids are extremely young, upset, or scared. For everyday tracking, stay in touch with their lives and respond like an actual person. “Are you kidding me, Michael did what to Ashley?” “I love what you said to Jenny, it touches my heart.” After all, don’t genuine responses make you want to share more, too?
Trivial details DO matter. Paying attention to the superficial can often lead to the real scoop. “You lost quarters under the vending machine? What a pain!”
“I was at the vending machine because I didn’t think anyone would talk to me at lunch.” Trivial details is where kids live; they get scared off when we delve for deeper feelings, as in, “How did that make you feel?” Commit to the superficial, and more often than not the trivial will lead to what’s really going on.
You count, too. Talk about yourself if you want your kids to talk about themselves. When you talk about yourself it reminds kids about things in their distant memory three hours earlier. For example, if you say, “I had an argument with one of my friends on Zoom,” your child might well respond, “I had a fight with Jenny during gym.” And a special note about dinnertime: Endless queries such as, “How was school?” are useless. Make an observation instead and see what happens.