Words Matter

We recently did an exercise in a parenting class that I teach, where I talked with parents about discipline and ways to speak with our kids to increase the chance that they will do what they are supposed to do. How you talk to your kids and what you say effect the chances that they’ll listen.

Here are some ineffective communications techniques and ways to turn them around to make them more effective:

Vague Commands

What you may be saying: Be good. Behave better. Be nice. You better behave well at the restaurant.

Why this may not be working for you: Saying “be good” implies they are bad. And, these vague commands require them to guess what it is that you want them to do. (What does “be good” look like?)

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Set clear expectations in advance about what good behavior is in that context. “At lunch, you’ll need to sit in your chair or my lap and use a quiet voice.” If issues arise, give very clear, concrete instructions for what they should do. “Please sit on your chair now or you can sit in my lap.”

Try re-writing these sentences:  “Be good at the movie.” “Be nice to her.”

Broken Record

What you may be saying: We’re late, let’s go. Come on, we’re late. Can you just put your shoes on? We’re late, we need to go. Come on!

Why this may not be working for you: If you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over, you should ask yourself: can they hear you? Do they understand what you want them to do? Do they have the skill to do that? What’s stopping them from doing it?

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Connect to Correct. Make sure you have their attention first, then tell them what the behavior issue is. Go near them, get down to their level, establish eye contact, and use a calm voice. Once you have their attention, then offer clear guidance – say it once – loud and clear!

Try re-writing this sentence: “Stop jumping on the couch. Cut it out. No jumping. You know you’re not supposed to jump on the couch. Stop it.”

Only telling them what NOT to do

What you may be doing: Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door

Why this may not be working: If you just say what not to do, they have to first stop their impulse, then figure out what they can do instead. Both are hard for young kids to do!

Alternative approaches: Tell them what to do: “Carefully hand that to me. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t throw your Legos.”  “I hate it when you slam the door.”

Dismissing their Feelings

What you may be doing: I don’t care if you’re mad – we don’t break things…. You know we need to leave the park now – crying won’t change that… I know you’re excited, but you need to sit down.

Why this may not be working: Dismisses their feelings as unimportant. Until the emotion is acknowledged, it may be hard to move past it. Saying “I know you have this feeling, BUT…” doesn’t count as validating, because that “but” implies you don’t care about their feelings.

Alternative approaches: Validate emotions first, then address the behavior or re-state limits. “I know you’re mad. It’s not OK to break things.” “I can see that makes you sad. I get that – I’m sad too. And… it’s still time to leave the park.” “I know you’re excited and it’s hard to stay still. It’s important to sit down so other people can see.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t cry. You know I won’t give you more candy.” “I know you’re mad that he took your toy, but you can’t hit him.”

Over-using If / Then Threats

What you may be doing: If you don’t brush your teeth right now, then no bedtime story.

Why this may not be working: Could imply you expect they’ll do the bad thing. (Kids are good at living up to expectations!) Could imply you’re looking forward to punishing.

Alternative approaches: When / then – When you do [this good thing], then we get to do [something mutually enjoyable] together. “When you’re done brushing your teeth, we get to read a bedtime story. If you’re fast enough we get to read two!”

Try re-writing: “If you don’t help me clean, then you don’t get to go to the park.”

Note: there is a place for using if/then threats as consequences, but start with when/then.

Asking Questions when you mean to give Commands

What you may do: Would you please stop yelling? Are you ready to sit in your car seat?

Why this may not be working: If you ask it as a question, that implies they can say no, or opt out of what you’re asking them to do.

Alternative approaches: If you’re really offering a choice, make sure they know they can choose either option. If you don’t mean to offer a choice, then give a command not a question. “Use a quiet voice.” “You need to sit in your car seat now.”

Try re-writing: “Do you want to put on your boots now?”

Do Try This At Home

Sometime in the next week, test this out! When you find an opportunity to change your communication from your normal style to trying out a new communication strategy from above, then seize the moment and test this out.

Then reflect on these questions

  • What happened as a result of using this new communication strategy?
  • What did you notice about how it felt?
  • What happened with your child?
  • How might this support a relationship with your child?

Share your experience in the comments!

Here’s a free printable version of this exercise on Effective Communication Techniques to Improve Discipline.

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