Our Voices Go With Them
By Laurie Nelson, MSW, LICSW
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
Who has not heard a parent’s voice in our mind’s ear? Often, we have incorporated these voices into a list of “shoulds” that we subject ourselves to: I should try harder, I should be more successful, I should be happier. Other times, the voice comes to us in critical “I ams”: I am so thoughtless, I am so stupid, I am always making mistakes. Another way we channel a parent’s voice is when we hear it come right out of our mouths: If you don’t settle down RIGHT NOW, I’m going to stop this car right here! Oh, the things that we swore we would never say to our children!
And unfortunately our brains are biased to remember negatives more strongly and more often than positives. In large part this has to do with the affect, or feelings, experienced at the time of the event. “Why are you so clumsy?!” gets our lasting attention more than “I like the picture you painted.” Even people with happy childhoods recall negatives with more weight than the positives.
So why bother to put effort into more positive communication with our children? Well, for one thing, it just feels better to everyone! We want our children to develop a healthy, realistic, positive view of themselves and to develop their own internal voices to support this. Here are some ideas to try to strengthen your positive communication skills when an accident or problem occurs:
• Take a deep breath (or several) before responding. A small pause can sometimes be enough to stop a knee-jerk, critical reaction.
• Focus on the situation rather than personal characteristics of the child. “I see the milk is spilled” sets up more positive solutions than, “Why do you always make such a mess?!”
• Avoid taking it personally. It is unlikely that your child spilled the milk in order to give you more work to do. And even if your child was trying to “get” you, not taking it personally thwarts their motive.
• Use your calm voice. Take the strong negative emotion out of the equation.
• Avoid asking “why?” After all, is there really any good answer to “Why did you draw all over your brother’s face with permanent marker?!”
• Make sure you really want your child’s answer before you ask a question, and then LISTEN.
• Make your child part of the solution if possible. For younger children this may mean giving directions, for example, “I’ll get you some paper towels to wipe up the milk.” As your child gets older, you can ask “What do you think needs to happen to fix this?”
• Help your child to focus on the positive. “How did you feel about cleaning the milk up?” is more helpful than “Now, be more careful and don’t spill next time!”
If this list gives you ideas about improving your positive communication with your child, take the next step and work on putting it into practice. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming and you don’t have to be perfect. Start with one thing, know that you will miss opportunities to try it, and keep on practicing.