Using Language To Guide Kids Towards Resilience And Awareness
Do you ever find yourself regretting what you had said 10 seconds prior?
Do you notice the look on your child’s face after you opened your mouth, and think, “I shouldn’t have said that” or maybe, “I could’ve said that better.”
Let’s be real. We all could practice communicating with more clarity, honesty, and kindness. But the truth is that it takes awareness and practice. When I grew up, my family excelled at NOT talking about anything difficult, confrontational, or vulnerable. So I learned to stay silent and “go in” when things got hard. And this got me nowhere besides experiencing bouts of spiraling negative thoughts (whilst feeling alone and sad). It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t doing anybody favors by not speaking up – or saying my truth, especially when things felt hard (sidenote: I am still working on this). On the flip side, when I am extremely comfortable with someone (cue: my tall, handsome Dutch partner), I can’t stop talking. I share too much. I say stuff I would prefer to keep in my head.
And then I look at his face and think “I shouldn’t have said that,” or “I could have said that better.”
That said, I am no communication guru. However, spending the last three years teaching kids how to talk about their thoughts and feelings has taught me a lot about language and the importance of using it with care. Actually, to be honest, I do feel like a communication guru when I am teaching kids. And that goes to my training as an educator, reading books upon books, and practice (and more practice). I think it’s important to remember that when we are communicating with children, we are not only communicating with them; we are also teaching them how to communicate.
So, here are five of my go-to language tips using language to empower children with resilience and guide them towards awareness.
SEE ALSO: 11 Tools To Heal Psychic Wounds
1. Create a “language” to talk about hard things
This is probably my biggest piece of advice and what has led to my success in helping kids confront and overcome their fears, anxieties, and obsessions. We use metaphors, stories, and analogies to talk about the hard stuff. For example, when we talk about a difficult emotion, we give it a name, face, and color. Or we create a monster who represents that feeling. We describe our fearful, jealous self as the red wolf inside of our hearts and our compassionate, loving self as the blue wolf inside of our hearts. Then, we talk about which wolf we are feeding in different situations (if you don’t know this analogy, watch this video).
We assign colors and associate feelings to our thought bubbles and then share them with those labels. For example, a child might say, “I had a big purple thought bubble last night before falling asleep and couldn’t get it to pop,” meaning, I had a fear-based thought and couldn’t stop thinking about it. In this way, words act as a tool for kids to make their own connections and meanings, while also understanding their thought processes along the way.
2. Create, don’t corrupt
Help your child create their own beliefs and ideas by asking them questions. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel? I believe that all people are creative. What do YOU believe? Corrupting language is raising, or teaching a child to think, act, and believe exactly what you believe. How we talk to kids either swallows them in our own beliefs or leaves space for them to create their own beliefs about our world.
To practice this, when you share an opinion, belief or value, make sure you own your experience and use the words, “I think” “I feel” or “I believe”.
Take ownership of your own statements and make sure your kids know that this is just your story, not their story, and not everyone’s story. One example of this is asking your kids what you think they are like instead of telling them. Instead of “Wow, you are so smart and creative.” try “Wow, when I look at that project, I notice x, y, and z.”
Give them space to assign their own identities to themselves by asking, “What do you appreciate about you?” So often, I ask kids this question and they can only rattle off what their parents appreciate about them, not what they actually appreciate about themselves. Because no one ever asked them.
Side note: I think that this is one of the biggest problems in our world today. People aren’t willing to listen to others’ opinions or even acknowledge that they exist. And in my opinion, the way to overcome this begins with educating our future generations to listen to a multitude of stories, not just the one inside their head..
3. Make it short and sweet
How much you say and how you say it matters.
Say what you need to say in the least amount of words possible. That gives you a better chance that the child, or adult, you are speaking to will hear all of it (and not tune out by the middle). Instead of “when you don’t listen to me and you stare at the screen, and keep playing that video game, it makes me want to….blah, blah blah,” try “Press pause on your game, and please look at me right now.”
Now for the sweet part.
We all know that it’s not just what we say; it’s how we say it that matters. Practice using a tone of voice that emanates what you need in that moment. Do you need a little more patience and calm? Then, use a patient, calm tone of voice. Do you need more energy? Try adding a little zing and singing your words!
Believe me. It works.
In my work, I have noticed a direct link to my students’ behaviors and my tone of voice. If I speak with a calm, direct, and neutral tone of voice, I can see that calmness reflected in their own bodies and language. If I speak with energy and joy, I also see a mirrored effect, and the kids start to get excited and want to share.
4. Acknowledge, then awareness
People want to feel seen and heard. And so do kids. In fact, I would argue that kids need to feel seen in order to feel a deep sense of love and belonging. If you are busy and your child is speaking to you, make sure they know you heard them, thank them for sharing, and let them know you would love to chat about that in x amount of time. Then, follow through. In my mind, being fully present and looking at someone while listening is always better than half-listening because then you get the whole picture.
“Thank you for sharing.”
When you don’t know what else to say, or you don’t have an answer, thank the child for sharing with you. I always think that when a child shares something they are opening their own hearts to you, and trusting you with what they are sharing. Create a positive, trusting connection with your child by assuring them that you are listening to what they have to say. Another key practice is guiding your child towards awareness, instead of placing emphasis on what needs to be done differently. Instead of “be careful” or “don’t do that” guide your child to awareness of themselves and their surroundings. “Do you see that rock right in front of you?” “Do you notice the look on your sister’s face right now?”
This not only builds trust between you and your child but gives them room for growing their own awareness and understanding.
5. Differentiate between behaviors and beingness
This is another big one, and it could help your child grow up to be more shame-resilient than shame-prone. Differentiate between your child’s behavior and beingness. If their behavior is unacceptable or they are breaking your “family norms” with one of their behaviors, make sure they know it is their behavior that’s wrong, not them. If a child consistently is “yelled at” for dealing with their emotions in the wrong way, that can easily slide into “I am a bad boy/girl,”which can develop into a shame mindset. When kids are stuck in shame around who they are, it is extremely hard to dig their way out.
On the flip side, when they exhibit an undesirable behavior, and you explicitly share with them that their behavior is unacceptable (and it’s NOT who they are), while stilling showing them empathy and understanding. You can do both at the same time. Call out their behavior, show understanding, and talk about how you can help them get it right next time. If your children don’t know what your family’s expectations or norms are, then I would consider starting here. Create a list of ideas with your kids for how everyone in your family is expected to treat themselves, others, and their surroundings.
10 of My Simple, Go-To Phrases That Encompass the Above Suggestions:
- “Tell me more,” or “Could you tell me more about that?”
- “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
- “Thanks for trusting me and sharing that with me.”
- “I’m not sure what to say right now except that I am glad you told me.” (I got this one from Brene Brown’s amazing video on Empathy)
- “I think x, y, and z. What do you think?”
- “What do you appreciate about you, today?”
- “I notice that you (insert: factual observation).”
- “What could we do together to help us calm down right now?”
- “I need _____________ right now.”
Could you please (insert: action) in the next minute? Cue: put on a one-minute timer.
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