Finding the right words to use with children is undeniably powerful. But coming up with the “right” response in the moment, creating just the script that is called for can be challenging. In fact, knowing this led to writing my first book, Just Tell Me What to Say.
Successful communication with children of all ages, however, is more than your words and your script, (and your tone, your facial expressions, your body language.) It is also about your timing.
Most parents know, for example, that talking to a child when s/he’s in the midst of a tantrum is inviting failure. There is no reaching a child when s/he has gone to the dark side. Talking to your child when you are in a bad mood (or tired, or angry, or beyond neutral) is pretty likely to lead nowhere good. Of course, the same is true for your child’s mood, toddler or teen. Timing is everything.
The time and circumstances in which you have a pointed conversation with your child can make all the difference. As furious as you may be at your child for whatever may have transpired, I can promise you that now is not the time to talk. And if your child is in a “mood,” the same holds true. The best time for having a pointed conversation with your child and having your message processed and absorbed, is during a calm and neutral time for you both.
When either person is in an elevated state, child or adult, two things can happen. First, for the elevated communicator, an unintended message is sent. It is a message heavily seasoned with the person’s strong feelings, whatever they might be. Feelings are far more powerful than words. And second, for the recipient, all s/he hears are your big, usually negative feelings. Mommy is mad at me. Something is wrong. I don’t like this at all. This is not good! Regardless of your intention, the words and the message are not absorbed. Feelings deafen children to words. Deliberate and pointed conversations between parent and child need to happen when no one is elevated. Hard as it might be to have the self control and a plan, the payoff is worth it: You’ve made your actual point.
Then there is something I call Lousy Local Conditions. This is what it is called when the environment sabotages the child (or adult’s) ability to be his/her best self, to hear you, to behave. Young children who are overly tired or hungry, who have been on too many errands or attended too many birthday parties will likely suffer from Lousy Local Conditions. Young children who are in an environment not suited to them, will also catch a case of it. There’s little behaving and certainly no reasoning in the presence of LLC. With older children, including teens, a fight with a friend or a big disappointment, for example, are Lousy Local Conditions.
Just know that when there are LLC, communication will never be what you hope. Not only will you not get your point across, but the whole conversation is likely to go south fast.It is a parent’s job to be aware of LLC. And in that case, abort abort abort! Postpone the discussion.
Finally, as a gentle reminder, most parents talk too much. Children pretty much hear your first or second sentence. The rest flies away. Remember, less is more.
If your goal is to communicate a message to your child, whether your child is young or a teen, you have to be the grown up. Pay attention to the child’s context and time it carefully.