"I have no control over what my child does." This realization ranks as one of the scarier discoveries in parenthood. And sooner or later, no matter how good your child is, you still come face to face with this truth.
While you can't control them, you can work on building a relationship in which they respect you and listen to what you have to say.
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Dave Herz knows this firsthand. In addition to being a psychotherapist and founder and director of therapeutic services at Vive, a Boulder, Colorado-based organization that counsels families and coaches parents to create more meaningful relationships, he's also a father.
Regardless of your child's age-toddler, tween, or teen-there are a few things to keep in mind when speaking with them, Herz says. "There's a lot of overlap when we're talking about how to get kids to listen and how to communicate, because in a lot of ways 2-year-olds and teenagers have a lot in common," he says. Both are trying to assert their individuality. "A terrible-2 throwing a tantrum and a teenager pushing up against their parents' rules can be more similar than different, believe it or not."
If your child is testing boundaries, respond with empathy, set boundaries and show curiosity towards your children. Kids may not always heed your advice, but with a strong relationship they'll at least be open to hearing what you have to say.
Herz shared the following scenarios and tips:
Want a toddler or small child to listen? Start by empathizing. If you only show judgment, rather than empathy, they're going to push back.
Example: You have a 2-year-old who's sitting in his high chair and mom brings him Rice Krispies and says, "I want Cheerios!"
"Well I only have Rice Krispies, honey."
"But I want Cheerios!"
With a 2- or 3-year-old this situation can turn into a full-blown tantrum. And that will probably happen if the parent says, "Hey listen. I only have Rice Krispies. I don't have Cheerios. And if you keep crying and throwing a tantrum then I'm going to have to give you a time-out because you're really being disrespectful."
Instead, try, "Boy, you really seem mad. You really want Cheerios, don't you? I hear where you're coming from. I bet you were wishing we had 10 Cheerio boxes in our pantry. Wouldn't that be awesome if we never ran out of Cheerios?"
It's more of an empathetic approach, and it works. Often it diffuses the situation because the child feels heard: "Yeah, you understand, I want those things, I'm mad about it!"
Good kids, bratty behavior? Parents.com has quick and easy tips to help.
Establish Internal Boundaries
We also have to let the child know how their reaction affects us. Think about the kid with the Cheerios. Empathizing doesn't mean lettin them do whatever they want. We have to create internal boundaries, and those are different than consequences. If a kid is having a full-on temper tantrum because he can't have his Cheerios, then he might end up going in his room as a consequence.
Parents often take this approach: "I'm putting you in your room because you're having a complete meltdown and you're a total brat and this is not appropriate. You're going in your room for a time out."
But parents have greater success with a different approach, one that establishes how the parent feels rather than revolving around the child's misbehavior.
Try saying: "Hey honey. You are really mad right now. I get that and it's not working for me for you to be mad right here with me. I don't need this right now. It's really uncomfortable for me and it's unnecessary for me to be hearing it. So I'm going to put you in your room, you can get your 'mads' out and once you're done we can talk about it."
Instead of "you're bad," you're telling the child, "this is what I need to do for myself, I need to put you in your room for a little while." That helps kids. When he comes out of his room, he won't feel like he did something bad, he simply knows that mommy needed to take care of herself. Children are less shamed with this approach, and it's also a way of teaching them to empathize with their parents.
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Rather than express judgment, come from a place of curiosity. If your 17-year-old came home with a tattoo on his or her arm, your immediate instinct may be to say, "Oh my god, you got a tattoo! What the hell were you thinking? Do you have any idea what that's going to do later on in life when people see that? That's going to affect you negatively. You may not get a job. You might get Hepatitis C." You closing the door to finding out why they did what they did.
A more rewarding approach is to connect with them. You don't have to empathize, but show curiosity. The goal is to get to a place where they feel safe and can share with you. So, instead, try saying, "That is cool. Let me see that. How was it for you? Did it hurt? I never had a tattoo, what was it like?" Then the kid might say, "Yeah, I've been wanting one, I was sort of scared to tell you."
By taking this calm and curious approach, hopefully the child will open up and listen to what we have to say, such as, "I'm a little nervous that you got a tattoo but I'm glad that you did it. I just want to make sure you understand that lots of times if you get a tattoo they look different when you're older. I don't know if you knew that. It's important that you go to a place where they use clean needles and it's safe so that you don't get any kind of disease. I'm not sure if you know that you can catch one if you go to someplace that's maybe not clean." They might not do as you say, but at least you will be able to get through to them on some level, and at the same time leave that door open for future discussions.
To learn more about the Dave Herz and the Vive approach to parenting go to www.chaostoconnection.com.
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By Kate Silver for Parents.com