I spend a great deal of time working with parents who struggle with their child’s behavior. They complain about the power struggles and disrespect they get from their child. As I watch them interact with their child in the office, I see them missing many opportunities to let their child know what they do appreciate and what they do feel is being done correctly. When I point this out to them, however, they say they shouldn’t have to tell him when he is doing what is expected of him.
My question is, if you don’t communicate when he is meeting your expectations, how will he know? Will it be the lack of communication, lack of threats, lack of corporal punishment? Children are not mind readers. They are also not savvy about cause and effect, especially before the teen years, and even then they are still more concrete and literal than we realize.
Children are born wanting to be loved, accepted and respected. That is a motto I tell parents and professionals all the time. I then go on to remind them that the rest we have to TEACH them. We have to teach them what this looks and feels like in order to help them learn how to reciprocate it. Studies are showing us that babies watch our faces closely to learn about emotions and how to speak. We all know that as they learn to speak, we hear our words (good and swear) come out of their mouths, frequently with the same intonations that we use. They are imitating us because they believe that we are showing them how to act and respond in the world. If we don’t like what we see, maybe we should figure out how to do it differently!
The first thing to learn about communicating with your child is not to ASSUME. The meaning of ASSUME was taught to me by my high school chemistry teacher, and it has held me in good stead over the decades. For a parent, this means not assuming the worse case motive about your child when they do something wrong. I was talking with mother recently about this. She was describing her older daughter, a preschooler, interacting with her toddler sibling. The mother was sure that the older daughter was intentionally taunting her sibling with a toy, hoping to get the other child to scream and holler.
Knowing the older child, I pointed out that she, the mother, knew that this child had language, sensory, and social skill problems for which they had her in therapy. I walked her through the scenario from the perspective of the child. This older sister wanted her sibling to pay attention to her. She also had a toy that she really liked that she wanted her sibling to notice. She didn’t connect the points that the sibling would also like and want the toy. It is possible that she was using the toy to help her sibling notice and maybe play with her. But instead, the toddler wanted only the toy and a battle over ownership ensued.
I discussed with the mother different ways she could have communicated with the preschooler so that she could learn how to get positive attention from her younger sibling. I suggested ways to model for the preschooler ways to engage her sibling for joint play, with immediate positive feedback for attempts. The next week when the mother came in, she proudly announced that her older daughter was indeed trying the strategies and if the sibling wouldn’t play, she (mother) would offer to play with her instead.
We, as parents and professionals, need to learn to step back and try to walk in the shoes of our children/clients. We need to go back developmentally to their level of cognitive awareness and coping skill level. We then need to model methods of interaction that the children can learn from. This will include actually saying things that we no longer need for voice, but that the children need to hear, since they can’t read our minds to hear about weighing options. As we learn to communicate with our children, we will find that they become the type of children and adolescents that we hoped we were raising.