“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” - Peggy O’Mara
Communication is programming. What we tell ourselves and what we say to others creates our thoughts, our actions, our motivations and thus, our reality. It is likely that nothing is more powerful in shaping our lives than the way we communicate to others and to ourselves which is why I’ve devoted an entire chapter to the subject. The way we communicate to ourselves and others is one of the primary interventions used in psychology to help people grow. For example, to eliminate anxiety and depression in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy asks people to change the way we think and speak to ourselves. In couples therapy, one of the primary ways to repair and strengthen a relationship is in the way we think and talk to ourselves and our partner. Using Transformational Communication can be life-changing not only in your parenting, but in nearly every aspect of your life. There are five principles for Transformational Communication: 1. Be Authentic 2. Use Empathy 3. Take Responsibility 4. Don’t Threaten 5. Encourage instead of Praise
Be Authentic Authentic communication means you say what you feel and mean what you say. This sounds simple but it is not simple at all. Communicating authentically can often heal and provide safety for the listener yet it requires the one who is speaking to be vulnerable. Instead of an accusation such as “why did you do that?” communicating how you feel would include stating the feeling and why the feeling was brought up; “I felt upset when you didn’t come when I asked you to. Because it reminded me of another time I felt upset, I overreacted. I’m sorry.” The opposite of authentic communication is communicating with sarcasm. Sarcasm can be especially confusing for children. When adults reply with the opposite of how they are feeling it doesn’t allow the child to have the opportunity to learn empathy and also can make them feel ashamed. When child asks, “Why are you upset, mom?” and the mother replies with annoyance, “Why do you think I’m upset, Johnny?” it shuts down the child’s attempt at connection. An innocent question of “Did you like the movie?” with a sarcastic response and eye roll “I just loved it” is confusing and makes the child feel as though they were wrong to ask. Sarcasm shuts down authentic communication in its tracks. I know some kind people who choose to use sarcasm as one of their primary communication styles. I’ve often wondered why they feel the need to put up walls for others. Sarcasm tells the listener “don’t go too deep or I’ll shame you.” Some adults have a sarcastic sense of humor but that is different than a regular sarcastic communication style. Sarcasm means you usually say the opposite of what you mean. Generally, sarcasm has anger behind it. If you find that you use sarcasm in your communication a lot I encourage you to make a No Sarcasm rule for yourself. See how you feel differently, see how people open up to you and take a look at why you felt the need to put up walls in the past. Children need us to model authenticity. Sarcasm is inauthentic, often anger in disguise…it also creates shame. Best not to use sarcasm with children. They tend to take things much more literally than adults do. And when they do understand it, it decreases their respect for your communication. When speaking with children, clear, concise communication will increase your authenticity with them.
Use Empathy Empathic listening can be communicated by checking in with the person you are talking to. Asking questions such as “Are you feeling _______?” or statements such as “If that happened to me I might feel ____________” helps the person you are speaking to see that you are truly listening and helps you to make sure your interpretations are accurate. There are actually a thousand ways to check in with someone and to encourage empathic listening. Empathic listening is also incredibly therapeutic and healing and is the basis for therapy. In fact, just practicing empathic listening with someone is enough to heal most wounds and is much more helpful than offering advice or trying to problem solve with the person. This is also true for your child, regardless of his or her age. Every misbehavior can be an opportunity to practice empathic listening and help your child to learn important social emotional life skills. For example, if your child throws a temper tantrum, once they have calmed down, you can ask “I wonder if you felt (guess feeling) because (guess reason)…I wonder what you can do to (reason). This may look like this: “I wonder if you felt upset because your sister was getting more attention…I wonder what you can do next time to ask for attention in a different way. If you really want to have a powerful positive impact you can use the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s infamous quarry which is helpful when someone is hurt or a conflict has occurred: “Is it correct that when you (see/hear)…you may feel…because you need…?” Empathic listening may sound tricky, but it’s a simple way of checking in with the person you’re speaking to to see how they are feeling and trying to put yourself in their shoes. For children, it teaches them an important aspect of emotional intelligence, to learn to recognize and name their feelings. It also teaches them that their feelings are valid. For adults, it helps people feel understood and heard. Empathic listening requires eye contact. Again, this sounds simple, but not always easily done. When you make eye contact with someone, your mirror neurons get lit up and empathy patterns begin to emerge. In other words, it helps you see their perspective and helps them see yours. It’s also helpful to know that one of the best ways to help your child develop positive behavior and emotional intelligence and insight is to use empathy (mirroring) instead of sympathy or diversion (Paris, Bowlby).
Take Responsibility for Our Feelings/Actions “If your feelings are controlled by how others treat you, then you are in bondages” - Drew Gullie Most of us think we are taking responsibility for our feelings but we are not. As adults, no one can make us feel something unless we allow it. It is so common in our culture that we often fail to own our feelings. When we say to our children (or anyone else) statements like “don’t make me mad,” or “that made me sad when you _______” we are telling our children that they are responsible for our feelings. If you were raised this way, you may be thinking, but he did make me feel mad/sad/etc.” It takes some adjusting to realize that we ourselves were raised to feel like we are responsible for our parent’s behavior and this was incorrect. Expanding your perspective in this area will most certainly also have you realize that your behavior may have been manipulated accordingly to not want to be the cause of your parent’s negative emotions. However, one of the core tenets of an authentic relationship and living an empowered life is accepting full responsibility for the circumstances of our life. There are certain words that may very well be a sign that you’re not taking responsibility for your life. The words “had to,” “can’t,” “should,” “must,” and “ought “are not only disempowering, they lead us to believe we don’t have control over the negative things that happen to us. Most people who were physically and emotionally abused will tell you that the emotional abuse hurts more and lasts longer than the physical abuse. Sometimes we communicate and we unintentionally create emotional abuse. “What’s wrong with you?!” Said out of anger can lead to depression and feelings of worthlessness as the child grows. Communicating phrases such as “Now you’re really making me angry”can create guilt. “You are so rude” can create shame. What do we do when we are angry? Aren’t we allowed to be angry with our children and let them know we are angry at them? Well yes, you could continue to be angry at your children but you will miss a learning opportunity for both you and your child as well as a possibility for increasing the connection with your child. The key to this is authenticity and emotional regulation. If you are like 90% of humans and have a childhood that you don’t want to pass on entirely to your child, you may overdo your attempts at raising your child and err on trying to “get it right.” However, during times of stress when we are triggered by our child, it’s hard to remember the “five steps of effective communication.” Transformational Parenting has you work on yourself so you don’t need to remember steps! When we feel angry or upset, instead of focusing out attention on our children, I would suggest that we look at our own needs rather than our anger toward our children. Rid yourself of thinking that blames others for making you feel a certain way, although our child’s behavior may trigger our anger, it is never the cause of our anger. First, stop and do nothing, just take a breath. If a parent time out is needed, take one. Second, we identify the thoughts that are making us angry. Then, we connect to the needs behind our thoughts. To fully express ourselves, we can express what needs we have and communicate our needs. We may feel powerless or sad, but never angry. When we express our needs instead of our anger or blaming others there is a much higher chance that we will be heard. We may also need to empathize with our children. If we are angry at someone that means that we don’t have empathy for them and no matter how nicely we say what we need from them, if we don’t have empathy or compassion for them we will not be heard. Another powerful technique we can use to let go of anger as discussed in detail in Chapter 5 is stepping back from our thoughts and instead seeing yourself as the person who experiences the thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves. We use our language to trick ourselves in believing that others are responsible for our feelings. Instead of saying “I’m angry because they _____________________” you can replace it with “The need that I have that is not being met is _________________________”
Don’t threaten As tempting as it may be to threaten a punishment when your child behaves in a certain way, it only distances your relationship and has them comply out of fear. When you threaten your child, you threaten the relationship between you. In addition, threats produce external motivation (I’ll be nice so I don’t get in trouble) instead of internal motivation (I’ll be nice because it makes me feel good to be kind to others).
Encourage instead of Praise When you praise children for their ability, it makes them focus on looking good—not on learning. Children praised for their intelligence want to keep proving themselves by doing well. This might sound good, but it’s actually counter-productive. And if you aren’t yet convinced of the unhelpful “programming” that generic praise language creates, check out these studies: Researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck conducted a series of experiments on American 5th graders and found that children behaved very differently depending on the kinds of praise they received. When each child was finished with the task he or she was asked to solve, he or she was either: praised for his intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”), praised for her effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”), or given no additional feedback (the control condition). Next, these same children were given a second set of more difficult problems to solve and were asked to explain why they performed poorly. The children who had been praised for their intelligence on previous tasks attributed more of their failure to a lack of intelligence. But children praised for their effort responded the same way as controls did—attributing their failure to a lack of effort (Meuller and Dweck 2002). In other words, telling children they are smart can make kids LESS likely to view themselves as intelligent. By praising children for being smart, we teach them that their performance is a definitive test of intelligence. Children might enjoy the initial praise, but when they encounter difficult challenges later—as they must—the praise backfires. This is even true with preschoolers. In one study, preschoolers were presented with two puzzles to solve and then given one of three types of feedback: • “Person” praise that emphasized intelligence (“You are a really good problem-solver!”) • “Process” praise that emphasized strategies (“You’re finding really good ways to do this!”) • Neutral feedback (“You finished both puzzles.”). Next, the kids were given a much tougher puzzle and they experienced failure. When the preschoolers were offered a similar puzzle weeks later, those kids who had been praised showed more motivation than kids who had received only neutral feedback. But the kids who had received “process” praise showed more motivation than the kids who had gotten “person praise” (Henderlong 2000). Another experiment yielded similar results (Cimpian et al 2007). In this study, preschoolers watched a puppet show in which the protagonist drew a picture and was praised by a teacher. Some preschoolers saw the protagonist receive generic praise about his ability (“You are a good drawer”). Other preschoolers saw the protagonist receive praise only for that specific drawing (“You did a good job drawing”). Then the protagonist made a mistake that the teacher commented on. How did the kids feel about the show? The kids who’d watched the protagonist receive generic praise (“You are a good drawer”) were more upset about the subsequent mistakes. When asked if they would like to draw themselves, these kids answered no. By contrast, the kids who had been exposed to the specific praise (“You did a good job drawing”) were more likely to show an interest in drawing. So what’s the bottom line? Certainly, it appears that telling children they are smart can be counterproductive. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise our children. As mentioned above, even the “wrong” kind of praise can be more motivating than no praise at all. What’s important is to avoid praise that makes children stop challenging themselves. The problem with telling kids that they are smart or talented is that children become frightened of failure. They’ve been labeled positively and they don’t want to do anything to lose that label. Moreover, children praised for intelligence tend to believe that intelligence is something innate and unchangeable (Mueller and Dweck 1998). As a result, these kids are rendered helpless by failure. If you fail, you must not be smart. End of story. If we keep these principles in mind, it becomes clear what kinds of praise are the most helpful. Instead of telling your child she is smart or talented, try these alternatives: • Encourage your child for her strategies (e.g., “You found a really good way to do it”) • Encourage your child for specific work (e.g., “You did a great job with those math problems”) • Encourage your child for his persistence or effort (e.g., “I can see you’ve been practicing” and “Your hard work has really paid off”) Encouraging kids for effort (and not innate ability) may help them develop a better mindset for learning. Here are some examples: DO Encourage the Effort: • “I love how excited you are about learning something new.” • “You stuck with it and did well! That’s great!” • “I like your effort. Let’s work together to help you figure out what you don’t understand.” • “That seemed easy for you, let’s give you something that challenges you.” AVOID Generic Praise: “Nice job!” “You did great!” “You’re so smart” “What a good boy/girl” Learning helpful encouragement instead of unhelpful praise takes practice and thinking through the perceived meaning behind your words. Often, some of the most common phrases used with children are sending messages of external motivation and compliance out of fear or of pleasing others. Here’s a tough one: what do you think of the phrase “You’re such a good boy” or “You’re such a good girl?” Is it helpful encouragement or manipulative praise? At first glance, these words may appear to sound beneficial to a child. However, these words are often spoken in response to a child “behaving” to an adult’s desires. The message that children quickly learn from such praise is if they do not conform to their parent’s wishes, by default, they are a “bad” boy or girl. They also learn the importance of pleasing their parents, and when they grow up, they have a tendency to want to please others. This can lead to not being aware of your true desires and putting yourself last. Alfie Kohn, an educational scholar and influential author also saw this fixed mindset years before Dweck published her groundbreaking book in his work in the schools. He saw children lacking motivation. Indeed, generic praise has been found to decrease internal motivation. Dweck explains how pervasive this limited thinking has become: “The biggest surprise has been learning the extent of the problem—how fragile and frightened children and young adults are today (while often acting knowing and entitled)… Coaches have complained to me that many of their athletes can’t take constructive feedback without experiencing it as a blow to their self-esteem. I have read in the news, story after story, how young workers can hardly get through the day without constant praise and perhaps an award. I see in my own students the fear of participating in class and making a mistake or looking foolish. Parents and educators tried to give these kids self-esteem on a silver platter, but instead seem to have created a generation of very vulnerable people. My hope is that my work can help to reverse this trend.”