The way we communicate with our children is profound. Simple word choices completely change our children’s perception. As parents, we are constantly met with limit testing and resistance. The following are some effective methods for handling some typically tough situations using respectful communication. These easy-to-use scripts can be used over and over again in all kinds of situations that typically arise in the first three years.
Situation: Your baby cries as you are changing her diaper.
Instead of saying: “You’re okay.”
Try this: Narrate what you see. “I hear you crying. You sound really upset. I get the feeling you don’t want me to change your diaper. I will try to change it as fast as I can so you are not uncomfortable for long.”
Why: In that moment your child isn’t okay. If you were upset and your friend told you “You’re okay,” you would not feel heard. Narrating the experience your child is having allows her to know that you hear and respect her feelings. You are still holding the boundary (i.e., she is still having her diaper changed), but you are doing it with compassion. By reflecting her feelings, you also teach her how to be empathic, which helps in the development of emotional intelligence.
Situation: Your child drops a toy on the ground and has a meltdown.
Instead of saying: “Get over it! It’s just a toy!”
Try this: “I see you dropped your toy. You seem really upset! You look like you weren’t done playing with it.”
Why: Sure, to you or me, it is just a toy that fell on the ground, but to your child, this is genuinely upsetting. Demonstrating empathy is far more likely to help her calm down and to feel heard. By responding to her in this way, you become a safe and understanding source of comfort to her.
Situation: Your toddler does not want to climb into her booster chair.
Instead of saying: “Get in your chair, now!”
Try this: “Do you want to climb in or do you want Mom to put you in?”
Why: This gives the power back to your child while still setting the limit. Now there is less reason for her to resist. If she still refuses to get in the booster chair, you might say, “It looks like you are not hungry. Maybe you are too tired to eat. Your choices are chair or crib. You choose.”
Situation: Your son does a great job cleaning up after playtime.
Instead of saying: “What a good boy!”
Try this: You can say, “You put all your toys away! You even put all your books in the basket where they belong!”
Why: The implication is that he is a “good” boy for putting away his toys, so if he doesn’t, he must be a “bad” boy. The words “good” and “bad” connote moral judgment. Children are not “bad” because they don’t do what we ask. A child who is labeled “good” can feel as if he duped his parents when he does something not so “good.” He may also avoid taking a risk, like putting a toy away if he isn’t sure where it goes, because he doesn’t want to lose the title of “good boy.” You are better off describing what you see. This makes your child feel seen and valued.
Situation: At a playdate, your child hits another kid over the head with a toy, resulting in tears.
Instead of saying: “Say you’re sorry!”
Try this: “You hit Carley over the head with that toy. She looks really upset. What can you do to help her feel better? Let’s ask her what we can do to help her.”
Why: Forcing a child to say “I’m sorry” does not magically make her feel sorry. Making children say they are sorry when they don’t really feel sorry teaches them to be insincere. Encouraging your child to help the injured party teaches him about making amends and helping others.
Situation: Your child throws her food on the floor.
Instead of saying: “Stop it!”
Try this: “When you throw food on the floor, it makes me think that you are done eating. It you do it again, the meal will be over.”
Why: When children first get to sit in a high chair, they are curious to see what happens when they drop food. By following the recommended script, you let your child know the consequences of the action, you set up a rule, and you put the power back in her court. She can choose to end the meal by throwing food on the floor, but it is her choice. If she has a meltdown after you remove her from the high chair, your job is to hold your ground, but reflect her feelings (“I know you weren’t done and you wanted to stay in your chair. We can try again at lunch”). If you follow through with the stated consequence, the odds are that the situation won’t happen again for quite some time.