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When “Use Your Words” Isn’t Enough
By Noël Janis-Norton

“You just don’t understand!” Sound familiar? If so, then your child’s meltdowns might stem from his inability to properly express his feelings. Learn how reflective listening and staying calm can help defuse anger.

Child feel bad

When our children feel bad, they behave badly. It helps to remember that a lot of bad ADHD behavior stems from a strong emotion the child is feeling. Kids often can’t articulate their feelings, so they come out in tantrums or defiance. They don’t know any other way to communicate how angry or disappointed they are. Parents usually react to a child’s misbehavior, instead of realizing that we need to address the feeling that is fueling the ADHD behavior.

Quiet Down — and Hear Your Child Out

Reflective listening will give you a way to help your child feel better and, therefore, feel like behaving better. Reflective listening helps children and adults move through their uncomfortable feelings more quickly and easily, toward acceptance or problem-solving. When you learn reflective listening, which is a specific way to acknowledge your child’s feelings constructively, the misbehavior usually clears up.

The latest brain research helps us make sense of this. When our kids are in the throes of a big emotion, their “emotional” right brain has taken over. We usually respond to their outbursts with logic and reason, which are left-brain characteristics. The bottom line is that these opposite sides of the brain can’t work together in that moment. However, when you learn a specific way to acknowledge the emotions, the two sides of the brain can work together.

Reflective listening is more than being a sympathetic ear. It’s about taking the time and making the effort to try to understand what your child is feeling at the moment, and then reflecting back to him in words what you imagine he is feeling. This kind of attention shows that we care. Have you ever told an upset child, “Use your words”? Often children don’t know what words to use. Over time, reflective listening teaches children a rich and varied vocabulary for expressing their emotions.

These steps will help you master reflective listening when your child is upset:

Put your own emotions and wishes aside temporarily. When we try to deal with a child who is upset, we often get upset. We find ourselves getting angry when our child behaves defiantly, or feeling anxious or guilty because we wish they weren’t feeling so bad. The problem is that our strong feelings can cloud our thinking and lead us to react impulsively, rather than taking time to use each interaction to help our children.

Before you do or say something, calm yourself down. Here’s a tool that has helped a lot of parents accomplish that: Visualize yourself scooping up your anger, worry, or disappointment with both hands and place that uncomfortable emotion at the side of the room. Picturing yourself doing it can clear your mind. Your feeling will still be there, waiting for you, if you want it back later.

Stop what you’re doing, look at your child, and listen. Sometimes our children are open with us about their feelings, and it’s easy to listen. But it’s also easy to get distracted. We need to look at our child and to show that we are listening. It helps to make listening noises, words, and phrases, such as, “Hmmm,” “Oh,” “Really,” “Goodness.” These responses make it easier for a child to register that we are listening and that we care how they are feeling.

But what if your child won’t explain what’s wrong? You need to “listen” to her body language or facial expressions, posture, or gestures. You can instantly feel that something is bothering your child when you hear your daughter’s surly or disrespectful tone of voice, or when you notice that your son doesn’t want to look you in the eye, even though you may have no idea what triggered it. These are cues for us to stop what we are doing and reflectively listen.

Imagine what your child is feeling and reflect that back to him in words. Ask yourself what feeling might be driving your child to do what he’s doing or to say what he’s saying. Take an educated guess about what might be going on inside him, below the level of his words or actions. Then, rather than trying to change his thoughts with logic, reassurance, or a lecture, reflect back to your child what you imagine he is feeling. In other words, you reflectively listen. Here are several examples:

  • Once you have told your child to put his toys away, instead of saying it again when she seems to be ignoring you, you could say, “You really don’t want to stop. You’re having such a good time.”
  • When a child complains that he can’t do his homework, instead of saying, “You can do it. It’s really not hard,” you could say, “You might be thinking this looks too hard. You don’t want to get it wrong.”
  • If you are at a birthday party and your child is hanging around you rather than running off to play, instead of saying, “Don’t keep standing here next to me. Go and play,” you could say, “Maybe you’re not sure if those children want to play with you.”
  • If your child gets frustrated because he can’t do something he’s trying to do, instead of saying, “Don’t worry about it, dear,” you could say, “It looks like you’re feeling frustrated. You tried so many times, and it’s still not working.”

Give your child his wishes in fantasy. The last step is valuable. It shows children that we are on their side. If your child is hunched over his homework looking mutinous, you could say, “Wouldn’t you love to have a magic wand right now that you could wave over your homework, and it would correct all your spelling mistakes?” Your child knows that this magic wand doesn’t exist, but responding this way injects a welcome note of humor and lightness into the situation.

I remember when my son was eight, and I had to deal with his upset, angry feelings about not being allowed to eat, in one sitting, all the Halloween candy he had collected.

With a sympathetic expression and a friendly voice, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if broccoli were bad for you and candy were good for you?” I watched his angry face soften, and then he said, “Yeah, and M&Ms would have a lot of calcium!”


Excerpted from Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, by NOEL JANIS-NORTON. Copyright 2012. Penguin Group Inc.

Updated on June 7, 2019

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