In countless articles or survey results across the internet, are the topics of parenting, relationship success and conflict resolution. Some terms that continually show up in relation to these topics are: communication and how conflicts are resolved. I started thinking about my work with children and parents, my personal experiences, and how language can powerfully impact relationship outcomes and emotional events.
It is natural for people to argue. We have such different perspectives and experiences that shape how we see specific events and the usage of language in communication. Some of us may lean towards more rationale responses than others, and many of us may be considered sensitive or highly emotional. And in between, there is a range and shift in using emotion or logic depending on context. We respond differently, and when you put two or more people together, there is high change for misunderstandings or saying things that could hurt someone’s feelings.
This is the case especially for children, since their decision-making parts of their brain are not fully developed yet. It will take time and practice to shape a child’s brain and habits into being less reactive, and there are ways for adults to help.
So, what do we do about this? Since communication is such a broad topic, this blog will cover the usage of the word, “No,” negative comments, or declining suggestions by others. These examples can be used in parenting children, romantic partnerships, professional relationships, or other interactions you may have.
Please note that tone, body language, and volume also affect how someone interprets language. This list can be a starting point to take note of how we default in communication with people in our lives, and the possible, small steps we can take to improve outcomes.
Alternatives to Saying, “No,” “Don’t do that,” “Stop it,” etc.
For parents and caregivers when kids are being noisy, breaking rules, running around, or interrupting:
The automatic response might be to yell, “Stop doing that!” While this can get the attention and response of children, it may also make them feel bad for simply being energetic. A possible alternative could be:
Give Options: Please find a toy or book to look at. I can help you find one in a little bit. I am busy right now. This way, the adult can control the options, but give a child a sense of autonomy to choose. This also gives a heightened responsibility to have alternative activities available for children to use. Sometimes there won’t be options, but with creative thinking, there could be an increase in finding options when possible.
Redirect: When children don’t get their way, it can lead to a tantrum. Physically moving your child to another object/person of interest can help de-escalate situations quickly. (Is this something you do all the time? Probably not. However, redirection is very successful when time or safety is an issue.
Be Specific: Children don’t always know what to do when they’re told to stop, or what exactly it is they need to stop doing. “Crayons go on paper,” is more specific than "Stop doing that.” It also gives the child a chance at being successful with their interests. Instead of “Stop running around the house!” saying “Feet are for walking in this house” or “Slow down, and choose a toy to play with” can help a child make a better choice.
Identify Rules: Hands are not for hitting. How else can we use our hands? Using stuffed animals or family members can help a child repair a moment of chaos. When they bite or hit, offering a chance to show they know the rules can help pair this memory with positivity and success.
What is (item) used for? Show me where it goes when we’re done.
Who does this belong to? (Child answers) Let’s give it back to (person), or put it back.
Identifying the Wants and Emotions of a Child: I see you really want that ice cream (activity) right now. You are so excited, but now upset/sad/angry. As the amygdala and limbic parts of the brain are more reactive with children, it will take time to develop an emotional vocabulary as well as self-soothing skills. Part of a parent’s job is to help give children this language and model how to cope with such big feelings. Naming emotions helps reduce limbic firing so a child can be more receptive to moving forward. Identifying the wants of a child can also make them feel important, even though they did not get what they wanted.
Reasons or Consequences for Decisions: “If you eat ice cream before bed, you could have a tummy ache.” This may not eliminate a tantrum or tears, but it can slowly pair decisions with consequences. The more we use language to explain reasons for things, the greater the foundation a child may have to not make impulsive decisions, as well as see that adults are not “out to get” them, but have the best intentions for stopping a child from running across traffic or petting that nice alligator.
Using Humor: Being playful and using humor can very much help soothe a child when they aren’t getting their way. Please note that some situations may not call for humor, for instance, death and serious themes of loss or pain. In general, toddlers and children can be more receptive following rules and quick changes implemented playfully.
“Stickers don’t go on the wall!” or “Toys don’t belong in the toilet!” in a playful way is less intense than yelling or reprimanding a child for being a child.
Note: If a child is doing something unsafe where there is no time to use this as a “learning moment”, there may be necessity to yell, “No!” or “Stop!” The volume and intensity of the words can make children freeze for an adult to gather, or more quickly responsive to get to a safe location. In these types of scenarios, there is no need to think about validating a child’s emotions or giving options of where to go. If there is danger, react accordingly and ensure kids are safe.
Is it expected to use these strategies all the time and never say, “No,” from now on? That’s impossible. Parenting is one of, if not, THE most difficult job on the planet. It’s filled with stress, and lots of people telling you to do this and that, and sometimes it’s thankless, and overwhelming. The joy and precious moments of raising a tiny human being into a whole person is worth it all, and yet, there is no one correct way to do it right. Please give these items a try, and if you say no here and there, you’re still being the best parent you can be for your child, and that’s all they could ever ask for.