I have written about the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk here before, but it was only in passing. And something happened last week that made me think I ought to give it a standalone post. Feel free to skip this if you already know what I’m going to say.
My friend, X, called me from her car. She was unhappy. Her eldest child tends towards anxious and this peaks right before school drop-off most days. It can be bad at other times, too, and X spend hours going back and forth with her child, soothing, placating, motivating. It’s not working, they’re both miserable and wrung-out.
“Have you read the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk?” I said. She had not. So I explained the central principle, which is very simple and has just been padded out to fill an entire book.
It goes like this:
Most people deal with unhappy people by offering them look-on-the-bright-side solutions, platitudes, compliments or it-could-be-worse scenarios. Parents often offer unhappy children food or other bribes to cheer up.
We do this most usually because this is what was done to us when we were children. We are cheering them up, isn’t this what it looks like? Added to this, other people’s bad feelings bum us out – we’re only human! – and we want them to stop bumming us out with their crappy mood, cheer up and get lost so we can get on and enjoy our day, which is going just fine thanks.
But, not only is this teaching your child that their feelings aren’t important, or they’re not actually feeling the way they’re feeling or that you don’t like or are afraid of their feeling, you’re making the problem worse. Your child will go away because they can see they won’t get from you what they need, but you won’t have helped.
When an unhappy child – or adult – comes to you and says “I am so unhappy”, the reponse should not be “Why?” or “Don’t be!” or “Have a biscuit/glass of wine!” it should be “Wow, you sound really down.” Because all the unhappy person wants is for you to look at the ugly, messy feeling they have brought to you, acknowledge that it is there and sit with them through it.
Not only will you reduce the overall emotional labour you have to do long-term, (as when bad feelings are acknowledged and validated, they become more manageable and less all-consuming), you will raise a person who doesn’t reach for alcohol, food or internet shopping every time they feel shitty about themselves.
Child: I hate school and I’ve got no friends
Parent: You sound bummed out today
Child: Yeah I am bummed out, A and B were ganging up on me in the playground and wouldn’t let me play their game
Parent: It is really hard to feel left out like that, you must have felt sad
Child: Yeah I felt really sad
Parent: I’m sorry you feel sad, feeling sad is hard work
Child: Yeah it’s hard work
Keep doing that for a bit. Don’t say stuff like “But it’s the weekend soon!” or “When I was your age I was sad all the time” or offer a solution. Stay there, stay in that feeling until the child is ready to move on. It won’t take as long as you fear it will. Then when the child is looking like it is running out of things to complain about, you deploy your wish fulfilment finale. This is the bit where you get to do some old-fashioned cheering-up, without reaching for sugary snacks. It goes like this:
Parent: Do you know what I wish?
Parent: I wish that we were on the beach right now and it was sunny and we were splashing in the waves and we didn’t have a care in the world
Child: YEAH. I wish I was on a beach getting an ice cream
Parent: That sounds great, I wish that for you too
And you’re done.
I explained this to X over the phone and she texted later to say that she had deployed this with her eldest child after school and she was stunned at the response. It worked, it was quick and everyone felt genuinely better afterwards, without any need to resort to bribes. She argued that this book deserved a second outing here because she was pretty sure that lockdown will have raised more existential panics in previously placid children and parents will be at a loss as to what to do about it.
I told her that my readers read my writing faithfully and commit it to heart and will know all about this already and she raised such an eyebrow at me that I felt rather humbled and like I ought to just type it out again.
If you’re half inclined, I recommend you buy the book, as it has more excellent advice and example conversations. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How To Listen So Kids Will Talk is available here. There is also an edition for teenagers, which is very good.