Look for their Voice!
When we believe that our words don’t matter, humans start to express their needs through behavior. This is part of the universal experience of being human. If asking for something will surely get me a ‘no’ then why wouldn’t I just take it (if I believed I needed it?). Have you ever justified behavior by saying to yourself “asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission?” Sure- if you believed that using your words wouldn’t help you get what you need. I know we could spend hours debating what is a need vs. a want, particularly when your child is throwing a knock-down-drag-out tantrum at Wal-Mart because you aren’t buying them a new Barbie doll, but for the sake of argument, let’s just agree that sometimes our brain is confused about needs and wants. Sometimes a want feels like a need. Sometimes this is true even for us as adults. It’s true a LOT (maybe most of the time) for our kids who have experienced trauma and loss because they are largely operating out of the part of the brain that does not distinguish needs from wants.
One of my primary areas of focus when I’m working with a family is helping parents give their children voice. Voice to process their trauma. Voice to ask for what they need. Voice to express their internal experience. Voice to reduce physical aggression, verbal aggression, manipulation, control….all of these behaviors are about not believing you have a voice. Most kids have no idea that this is why they engage in those behaviors…that’s OK! We can just help them.
How do we get kids to start using their words? Well, it’s not really a simple algorithm of ‘do this then that’ and the process will definitely go much more smoothly if you can use your intuition, but I get the need for a basic outline when you are trying out something new.
- Be able to be curious. What’s really going on? Labeling behaviors with words like ‘just’ (he’s just trying to get attention, he’s just trying to make me mad, he’s just being defiant) or absolute words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ is our very first clue that we’ve lost our stance of curiosity. ALL behaviors are expressing a need. Seriously. Every. Single. One. The need might be “I need to feel more connected to you” or “I need help with my overwhelming feelings” but there is always a need.
- Check our egos at the door. Don’t take it personally!
- Help your child label what’s really underneath their behavior in non-punitive, non-shaming words.
- If possible, have you child actually use those words!
- Meet the need IMMEDIATELY. Say YES if at all possible. In fact, before you ask them to use different words, guarantee that you will help them. “Hey, I’m going to help you get milk. I just need asking words.” This is a far cry from “I’m not going to get you anything if you keep demanding it disrespectfully.” You may ever start pouring the milk so that your child sees that their need is going to be met…they can risk being more respectful. PROVE to your child that if they will consider swapping words for behaviors that it will be worth it to them. Know that eventually you will be able to raise this bar and eventually say ‘no’ or ‘later’ more often.***
***Quick little disclaimer. #5 doesn’t mean we use bribes to get our kid to stop behavior. I’m not suggesting that you buy them the Barbie doll they are tantrumming over just to get the tantrum to be over. But we stay present through the tantrum. Stay with them through their feelings. Avoid punishing and shaming. “It’s so hard to hear no.” “It’s so hard not get what you want.” “When I say no, I wonder if you feel like it’s because I don’t love you?” Then your child learns something else really awesome….that even when they are at their worst, you still love them and can stay with them. And maybe just maybe there IS an appropriate time to buy the $9 Barbie Doll because your extremely dysregulated child has actually USED GOOD ASKING WORDS and you would pay $1987368 to reinforce for your child how amazing that is. Remember. Build the trust bank. Once the trust bank isn’t constantly running dry your child will have more bandwidth for ‘no.’***
So, what on earth does that five-step algorithm even look like in real life?
At school your child plugs her ears and hollers nonsense words when it’s time to go to math group. This is so inappropriate and disrespectful! And probably embarrassing for you. What if you approached this with a curious mind. Clearly, your child doesn’t want to do math. WHY? And remember, no using the word ‘just’- like ‘He’s just lazy.’ Children- all people- really do want to do well. They want people to like them. Relationship is safer than discourse. So why the theatrics about math? With a little poking, prodding, and some good old fashion guessing, we land on the fact that math is really really hard. It makes your child’s brain actually physically hurt. They are overwhelmed, and then embarrassed because they can’t do the math their peers are doing. Help your child find these words. Write them in a letter to the teacher. And make a deal with your teacher that if your child uses those words INSTEAD of putting his hands in his ears that the teacher will LISTEN and HELP. And this doesn’t mean just acknowledging your child’s feelings and trudging forward with the math assignment. This means “THANK YOU for using your words to tell me that the math is making your brain hurt. Let’s brainstorm some ideas about what we should do when your brain starts to hurt.” This may mean taking a break from math. This may mean doing a headstand, blowing bubbles, or going back to math problems that are a bit simpler. Because if you can get this child to understand that his VOICE MATTERS, you’ve just put $100000000000 in their trust bank. And eventually, you will get them to push forward with the math that makes their brain hurts. And if you DON’T get them to push forward, then you know that it is making their brain hurt too much and they can’t.
What about stonewalling? When there are NO WORDS??? You ask your kiddo, in a kind and regulated way, if they want to pause their video games in five minutes or ten minutes so that they can clean their room. No answer. You get closer to your child, still regulated, and say “Hey buddy! Did you hear my words? Five or ten minutes more?” No answer. Now your blood is beginning to sizzle. How can you get your child to use appropriate words when THERE ARE NO WORDS? Stay curious. What’s going on? How come he is completely ignoring you? This child doesn’t believe words are helpful. Give him some words. “Oh, you don’t want to clean your room. Hey kiddo, I can see that! I really though need some words so we can figure it out together.” No answer. “Wow. I’m hearing it loud and clear. You don’t want to clean your room. It feels like you are saying that without saying it. Can you say it with words? If I can get some words then I’m positive we can compromise on this and figure it out together.” No answer. Continue to resist the urge to rip the game system from the wall. “Buddy, if I can get some words, we can find a compromise. Maybe you need more than 10 minutes? Maybe you need help with your room?” Finally you get “I don’t wanna clean my room.” “Oh that is awesome, thanks for letting me know. Yeah, cleaning your room is no fun. I’m open to a compromise. Do you need more time on the video games or do you need help cleaning your room.” “Both.” “Oh OK, cool, I get it now. How about 20 minutes and then we will work on your room together?” “Yeah fine, whatever.” “Awesome buddy thanks for your words so we could figure this out together. So in 20 minutes you will hit ‘pause’ on your game and we will head into your room together?” Big sigh from kiddo. “Yeah mom, fine.” (Disrespectful words are better than no words. Keep the faith. Eventually you’ll be able to ask for respectful words. For now, the bar is so low that any words are OK. I promise we will keep raising the bar).
20 minutes pass. “Hey buddy, I made us a quick snack to power up for this epic room cleaning task.” And then, you must find a way to make the room cleaning task something that isn’t dreadful, isn’t contentious. Turn picking up dirty clothes into a game of dirty clothes basketball. Put on his favorite music (that you hate). Be willing to put in just as much work as he is, maybe even more, ALL because you know you’re making trust bank deposits. Trust that his voice matters. Trust that he can negotiate his needs if he uses his words. Trust that y’all are on the same team.
What if your kid doesn’t stop the silence? Never says a word and refuses any kind of compromise by simply remaining silent? Well, the first place I would explore with curiosity is how entrenched my kid is in the belief that their words don’t matter. If it’s so ingrained that I can’t get them to eventually engage in a dialogue that ends in me helping them clean their room, then I must look for opportunities outside the current situation to give my child voice and build up their trust bank.
Overtime, you can slowly start to raise the bar. Throwing books across the room (or at you) might become “I hate you!” (Ok, words are good. When kids move from physical aggression to verbal aggression, we need to recognize this as forward progress and keep the faith that things will CONTINUE to move forward and we won’t be accepting verbal aggression for long). Then it becomes “You are pissing me off!” Then it might become “I am so mad at you!” Ok ok, now we are getting somewhere. And now, moms and dads, our task becomes truly being OK with it when our kids yell “I’m so mad at you!!!” Feelings are OK! Feelings expressed appropriately are OK! And yelling when you’re mad, as long as it’s not filled with hateful or blaming words…but instead with words that reflect the child’s inner reality (“I am so mad!) is really OK! But, I suppose that’s a whole other blog post 🙂
I could write 35 pages with examples. Maybe one day I will! But for sure, that’s a blog post that is WAY TOO LONG, so I’m going to bring this one to an end.
Give them voice. You’ll be surprised at how you can apply this idea to just about every difficulty you are experiencing with you child.
Keep on keepin’ on, warrior moms and dads. It’s worth it.
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