Only half jokingly I have often said that this one skill could change our world. I find that Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber explain and illustrate it best in their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Even as an experienced clinical social worker and family therapist I had not fully “grocked” this skill until I tried it out in a moment when I didn’t know what else to do with my strong-willed older son. Baby asleep, Mama dressed for work, showered and changed out of spit-up coated t-shirt, and 3-year-old ready to go to his weekly dance class with our good friend Sharon. The tight schedule I’d worked out on Tuesdays was clipping along. While waiting for a good friend to come with her two kids to pick Rowan up, we snuggled on the sofa to read a book. At the sound of the horn, I leapt up and excitedly said, “Time for dance class,” which of course I had prepared him for. He screamed NO and clung to my leg, blocking the way to the door. Stressed for time, already pouring with sweat again in the D.C. heat and humidity, and unsure what to do, I thankfully recalled the book I’d been reading and said to my wailing child, “Right, we were having such a cozy time, just you and Mama, and you don’t want to leave now.” He promptly let go of my leg and skipped to the car, and that is no exaggeration. I stood there stunned.
I was on to something here but still tested it in multiple situations with various children (Rowan’s friends in the neighborhood and nursery school) and was truly astounded. Now don’t get me wrong; it did not work like this 100% of the time but it did dramatically affect our lives with our very willful son.
So what had I learned from the book? Acknowledge and name that feeling. It requires a nanosecond of putting yourself in your child’s position, imagining how it feels for him or her. The child’s response will give you the feedback you need, and when you think about it, it’s not so very different from what a parent does when a baby or toddler cries and a parent responds, “Oh that means she’s wet/tired/hungry.” The casual observer hears only one cry whereas the parents can distinguish the different cries. This ability carries on through childhood and adolescence if we keep it fine-tuned. The person whose feeling we try to “reach for” and name will automatically correct us. A child will often visibly relax and/or his body does. An oder child or adult will respond with, “No, not exactly angry. I feel disappointed,” or something like that. This has to do with the fundamental human need to be heard, seen and understood. When we experience that, we relax and can proceed without so much protest. Try it.
I would lend you my copy of the book but it’s so dog-eared from overuse that it would probably disintegrate in your hand. And it works great with your partner as well. Just sayin’.