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Having the Tough Conversations with Kids

Almost from the time our kids can talk, there are tough conversations we need to have with them, from an impending move ("I'm not going!") to Grandpa's illness to our teens' more serious infractions.  If you can control your emotions and keep the situation safe, your child may be able to stop attacking and start sharing.  That’s when break-throughs happen. How can you master the art of the tough conversation?

1. Don't take it personally.  Your teenager slams the door to her bedroom. Your ten year old huffs "Mom, you never understand!"  Your four year old screams "I hate you, Daddy!"

What's the most important thing to remember? DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!  This isn't primarily about you.  It's about them: their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions.  When your daughter says "You NEVER understand!" try to hear that as information about her -- at this moment she feels like she's never understood -- rather than about you.

Taking it personally wounds you, which means you do what we all do when we’re hurt: either close off, or lash out, or both. Which just worsens a tough situation for all concerned.

2. Manage your own feelings and behavior.  The only one you can control in this situation is yourself.  That means you:

•    Take a deep breath.
•    Let the hurt go.
•    Remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can't get in touch with it at the moment.
•    Consciously lower your voice.
•    Try hard to remember what it feels like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
•    Notice if your “story” is making you upset (“But she lied to me!”) and if necessary expand the story to change your emotional response: (“My daughter was so afraid of my reaction that she lied to me. I guess I need to look at how I respond when she tells me bad news.”)

3. Reconnect with your love and empathy for your child.

You can still set limits, but you do it from as calm a place as you can muster. Your child will be deeply grateful, even if she can't acknowledge it at the moment.  I'm not for a minute suggesting that you let your child treat you disrespectfully. I'm suggesting you act out of love, rather than anger, as you set limits. And if you're too angry to get in touch with your love at the moment, then wait until you can before you set limits.

4. Always start the conversation by acknowledging your child’s position, as near as you can make it out.  Listen to his side of the story.  You might learn something new that will change your entire viewpoint.  At the very least, it will make the conversation safer so he can relax his defenses and hear you.  Let him take off from your comments to correct and elaborate; reflect his corrections so he knows you recognize his side.

5. Extend respect. Remember that more than one perspective can be true at once.  Assume your child has a reason for her views or behavior. It may not be what you would consider a good reason, but she has a reason. If you want to understand her, you’ll need to extend her the basic respect of trying to see things from her point of view. Say whatever you need to say and then close your mouth and listen.

6.  Keep the conversation safe for everyone. People can’t hear when they’re upset. If they don’t feel safe, they generally withdraw or attack.  If you notice your child getting angry, scared or hurt, back up and reconnect. Remind her – and yourself – how much you love her, and that you’re committed to finding a solution that works for everyone.

7. Try hard to avoid making your child wrong.  Instead:

- Use “I” statements to describe your feelings (“It scares me when you’re late and don’t call.”)
- Describe the situation. (“This report card is much worse than your previous report cards.”)
- Give information.  (“Our neighbor Mrs. Weiner says that you were smoking in the back yard.”)

8. Summon your sense of humor.  A light touch almost magically diffuses tension.

9.  Remember that expressing anger just makes you more angry because it reinforces your position that you’re right and the other person is wrong.  Instead, notice your anger and use it as a signal of what needs to change.  For instance, rather than throwing a tantrum because the kids aren’t helping around the house, use your anger as a motivator to implement a new system of chores – one they help design -- that will help prevent the situation in the future.

10.  Your relationship with your child is the most important part of parenting.  It is the only reason your child is open to your influence.  It is the only gratification for you.  Whatever else happens, protect that close bond and work to strengthen it.

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