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Four Ways to Approach Difficult Conversations with Your Child

Parents and teen son after quarrel at home

As parents, we love our children, and showing our love means having difficult conversations with our children; it is part of our job description. Many times we get worked up and anxious about the necessity of having a tough conversation and, as a result, our emotions intensify, causing the conversation to start off in a really intense, awkward and negative way. Unfortunately, this turns our child off, and we have set ourselves up for a really painful conversation.

Parents, let’s please give ourselves a break and allow for some grace. When we are able to manage our emotions, being open, vulnerable, and honest, then the chances of actually having a dialogue with our child, versus a monologue, are greatly enhanced. It is when we are able to dialogue that breakthroughs can happen. Here are some tips to keep in mind when the time comes to broach a difficult conversation with your child:

Stay Calm
If you want your child to really hear what you are saying, you have to manage your intense emotions, thereby projecting a sense of calm. If your child begins to become upset, or say something that is hurtful, don’t take it personally; remind yourself that your child most likely has really tangled up feelings, and they have difficulty controlling them. Keep in mind that the brains of children and adolescents aren’t yet fully developed. If they say something like, “you never understand!”, don’t construe this as an attack on you as a parent, instead, take what they have to say at face value and convey to them that you are aware of their feelings. When you stay calm, it will help them to de-escalate, which will increase the chances of them actually absorbing what you are trying to say to them.

Start the conversation with a “soft start-up”
Family Researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., suggests that the way you start a conversation is more than likely to reflect how the conversation will end. If your difficult conversation involves a problem that needs to be solved, a soft start up will increase the chances solving the problem to mutual satisfaction . If the child feels as if they are part of the process, they are more likely to follow through with their responsibilities in the agreed upon solution, i.e., what they need to change or do differently. A soft start up involves starting the conversation positively, using “I” statements instead of “You” statements. Try, “I get really nervous and scared when you come home after curfew”, instead of , “You never listen to us and always disobey and get home after we told you your curfew time”. Describe and provide facts about the situation instead of judging the situation. Talk clearly about what you need and provide limits and boundaries for your child.

Do not criticize the person, instead, confront the behavior
When you criticize by calling names, you are attacking your child’s self identity. Criticism of this kind usually comes from a fearful place as you try to “motivate” or change your child. When you criticize your child, you are actually pushing them away from you, sending the message that the relationship they have with you is unsafe and hurtful. Criticism negatively affects their view of themselves; if they are told over and over that they are, “lazy, dumb, mean or ungrateful” it is only a matter of time before they will truly start to believe that about themselves. It is a subtle difference, but to say, for example, “you are acting lazy” or, “that was a mean thing to do”, confronts the behavior without attacking the child’s core, and sends a completely different message while addressing more effectively the point that needs to be made. Then try adding an affirmation such as,”You are better than that”. This will go a long way in positioning ourselves as their advocate in their eyes, rather the enemy. It will lessen the chance of them shutting down and turning to other people, usually their peers, for acceptance and love, instead of us.

View this “difficult conversation” as a time to connect
If you enter into this difficult conversation thinking and believing that at the end you could actually be closer and more connected to your child, that thought alone will change how you manage the situation. It puts you and your child on the same page, as teammates trying to get through something hard together, versus opponents. Remember that we are our childrens’ teachers. We are modeling to them how to approach difficult conversations with others in the future.

My hope is that we can be intentional about how we talk to and respond to our children and not just reactive. These are just some ways to accomplish this.

Dr. Courtney Harkins, Psy.D, is a local licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and mother to three young children. She runs a private practice as well as works with children at various organizations in Orange County. She specializes in adoption and parent child attachment, and is currently a doctoral candidate for clinical psychology.
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