Teaching Kids to “Use Your Words!”

August 6th, 2015 by Dionna | Leave a comment
Posted in Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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teaching kids to use your words

When I taught preschool at a special needs facility, one of the catch phrases that every teacher used multiple times a day was “Use your words!” As a parent, I’ve often said it to my own kids. But telling a child to use her words does not make a difference unless you first teach her what to say.

Coaching Emotional Intelligence

No child is born knowing how to “use their words.” It’s an acquired skill. Recognizing one’s emotion and expressing one’s feelings to communicate is part of something called “emotional intelligence.” In Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, Dr. Markham writes that emotional intelligence is made up of two things:

  1. “understanding our [own] emotions so that we can regulate them to reach our goals”; and
  2. “understanding the other person’s feelings and expressing what we want while respecting the other person.”1

Dr. Markham lays out six ways parents can build kids’ emotional intelligence skills2:

  1. Talk about feelings. Teach kids feelings words (here’s a great “feelings inventory“). Understanding their own feelings not only helps children be more sensitive, but it helps them understand others’ points of view.
  2. Ask questions about feelings, needs, wants, and choices.” When your kids start arguing, get in there and ask them questions. Stay warm and non-judgmental, and help them discover how they feel about the conflict, both their own feelings and that of their sibling. This includes questions like “how do you think he felt?” and “did you get what you wanted?” Asking questions that make them think about the conflict and the needs/feelings of everyone involved will help them develop judgment.
  3. Explain and model. This is the part where you can give them the words to use. When you notice a conflict arise, calmly step in and help model the words your children can use to problem-solve. “You may have a turn after I’m done spinning.” “I don’t like it when you take my toy without asking.
  4. Practice finding win/win solutions. If you have had experience with Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life or Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids, this step is in line with the underlying philosophy of both. What you’re trying to do is have the kids come up with solutions that will work for everyone. This takes a lot of practice! I recommend both of those books, especially RPRK, for parents of young kids.
  5. Model “I” statements. Show your children that you can express your own needs instead of attacking or judging other people. “Describe what you feel, what you need, and how you see the situation.” For example, “I feel frustrated because I have asked three times for help picking toys up, but the toys are still on the floor. Please come in with me now to help put toys away. We’ll work together and get it done before our minute timer goes off!”
  6. Model prosocial behavior. Put these habits in place between the adults in your house, so that your kids can see good examples of positive communication and problem solving.

Imago Dialogue

One of ways I’m trying to model positive communication is by practicing a technique my husband and I learned in counseling. Our counselor uses Imago Dialogue, a communication method where the speaker and listener use mirroring and empathizing to better understand each other, even when they do not agree.

The Imago website has complete instructions for an Imago Dialogue for adults. We’ve simplified the steps for our kids. This is what we ask them to do (either with a parent or with our help in a sibling conflict):

  1. Speaker: Briefly, and using “I statements” as much as possible, describe their view of the conflict, what they felt, what they need.
  2. Listener Summarizes: Give a summary of what the speaker said.
  3. Listener Validates/Empathizes: In Imago Dialogue, the listener validates the speaker’s statements (i.e., “what you said makes sense to me because ______”), and empathizes with the speaker (i.e., “I imagine that you felt ______”). With our kids, we pay particular attention to the “empathizing” portion, imagining how the speaker might have felt.
  4. Reverse Roles: There is never one side to any argument, so each sibling gets a chance to be the speaker and the listener.

I have already noticed a difference – especially with my seven year old. He is much more quick to calm down after a sibling conflict when he hears how his sister felt.

Dr. Markham gives many other problem-solving and negotiation tools in Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. What techniques do you use to teach communication skills and help siblings with conflict?

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Photo modified (added words) with permission from Sarah Horrigan via Flickr Creative Commons.

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