Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

"Just tell me what to say!" - 3 Guiding Principles for Parents

"Dr. Laura...I love your approach.  I understand the ideas.  But in the heat of the moment, I find myself tongue-tied and I can't figure out what to say. I wish I had you there whispering in my ear." - Teresa

We've all had those moments when we struggle for the right words. But the truth is, what you say is not nearly as important as your attitude. Your child feels your warmth and love even when you don't say a word.

And when you do speak, your tone is much more important than the words you choose.

But what about those times when you're not feeling all that much love? When you want to say something constructive, but you're at the end of your rope and you aren't thinking all that clearly? When you wish you had a fairy godmother whispering in your ear?

Try keeping three basic guidelines in mind: Connection, Feelings, Solutions. If you can use them all, great! But even if you only use one, you'll get yourself and your child on the right track. Every one of these works like a magic wand.  Here's how.

1. Connect.

Parenting is 90% connection.  Kids can't hear us, cooperate with our requests, or even feel good in their own skin unless they feel connected with us. So when everything's going wrong, start by connecting.

When your child isn't listening to you, try putting your hand on her arm and making eye contact before you say gently "Hey, Sweetie." (Use your child's name.)

When your child is whining, instead of admonishing her to "Use your grown-up voice" try gathering her into your arms and saying "You are feeling out of sorts, aren't you? Nothing seems to be working for you right now. I think maybe you're out of hugs! Let's see what we can do about that."

When your kids are fighting, get between them, put an arm around each one to connect physically and restore safety, and say "Let's everyone take a deep breath and calm down now.... We can work this out."

2. Empathize with Feelings.

Your child's behavior may need to be limited, but all feelings are allowed. The amazing thing is that once feelings are acknowledged, humans are much more willing to cooperate. Kids don't need everything they want. They DO need to feel understood.

When your child yells at their sibling "I hate you, I wish I didn't even have a sister!" your impulse might be to say "You know better than that! How can you be so mean?"

Instead, acknowledge the feelings that are being expressed, even as you hold your limit: "You're so very mad right now; you want us all to know you are furious. You can tell your sister what you're mad about without attacking her."

When your child is sad, your impulse may be to try to convince her she doesn't need to be sad. "You'll make new friends when we move." But the only way out of an emotion is through. The first step in letting go is to let herself grieve. 

Instead, validate what your child is expressing: "I hear how worried you are about the move, and about missing your friends. I know you love your friends, and it's hard to think about leaving them. I'm so sorry you have to go through this." 

Or, when you take your child to buy a present for a cousin's birthday, you naturally warn her that you won't be buying her a present today, but she -- naturally! -- gets emotional about how much she NEEDS a toy. Your impulse might be to say: "You have plenty of toys, don't be greedy! You know we can't afford that, I TOLD you we weren't buying anything for you today, don't you start crying about this!"

Instead, try acknowledging her feelings, even as you hold your limit: "You wish you could have that. It looks like a lot of fun. Not today, my dear."

When she persists, acknowledge her desire and empower her to achieve her goal in fantasy: "You REALLY love that, don't you? You wish you could have it. I see how much you want it. I wonder if you could earn enough to buy it for yourself? Or we could write it down on your birthday list, and if you still want it when it's your birthday; maybe we can swing it then."

3. Look for Solutions, not blame.

When tensions rise, it's easy to get swept into catastrophizing and blaming. But all that teaches your child is to catastrophize and blame. Instead, focus on helping your child look for solutions to the problem. The problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills your children will learn, with your support, will help them for the rest of their lives.

When your children are bickering, your impulse might be to shut down the disagreement: "Can't you two stop fighting?!" or step in to solve it: "Ok, it's your turn tonight, you can have your turn tomorrow night, and no more arguing about this!" 

Instead, help your kids work together to find a solution to their problem: "I hear loud voices....Looks like both of you want the ipad, and there's only one ipad...I wonder how we can solve this?" 

When your child isn't ready to leave the house in the morning, your habit might be to bark orders like "Get your shoes on this minute!" But that usually makes kids dig in their heels and move more slowly. 

Instead, give your child the responsibility, by pointing to the picture chart by the door with a smile of encouragement: "It's almost time to go...I see you have your clothes on...what does this chart you made show you that you need to do next?"

When your child forgets something, you might find yourself frustrated that you label him: "You are so forgetful! You'd lose your head if...". But those kinds of negative labels are self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Instead, empower your child to solve his problem: "Hmm...that IS a problem, because you need your science book to study for the science test.  I wonder what you can do to solve this problem? Let's think of possible solutions together."

Notice that you always need to begin by taking a deep breath, so you can keep your voice calm and warm. But once you do that, just remember Connection, Feelings, Solutions. You'll be amazed how the words come to you.

Like having a fairy godmother whispering in your ear.

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