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.
And there’s one for little kids called ‘How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen’, which is great. (They’ve left out the second bit ‘and listen so x will talk’, presumably because little kids never shut the fuck up).
Friend of mine who’s a child psychotherapist recommended it recently and it’s got all sorts of good evidence to back it up. And it often works on my v v emotional four year old.
How to talk…. etc is my parenting bible. I have an anxious, highly strung eldest and it’s the only thing that works.
One thing though – my eldest has trouble letting go of upsets. If you’ve genuinely done the feelings thing, and genuinely empathised (nb they can tell when you’re faking it), and they’re *still* going on about it or inventing new things to be upset about, I have found it is also important to say, kindly but firmly “Child X, I’m so sorry about xyz. Now it’s time to let it go. Staying upset about it will keep you feeling upset. Come on, let’s do abc together’.
When I first tried this, I got stuck with my eldest going on and on and on and me thinking farkkkk, when will this end?! Of course, that made me snappy and un-empathetic after my well meaning empathising, which she spotted straight off. It took me a while to realise that, at a certain point, it is also my responsibility to be straight with her and show her that upsets do need to be got over.
I also do this on my anxious, highly strung husband :-/
But – How to talk… is genius.
Emily yes, this is so true!!! Sam LOVES a deep chat about his feelings but sometimes takes the piss at e.g. bedtime and drags up old hurts and obsessed over them. It’s a subtle thing but exactly sometimes you have to say “Times’s up, buddy.”
Emma L says
Esther, I commit everything you say to heart but I somehow missed talk of this! How?! I have purchased a copy of How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Children on your command, which helped A LOT but I most certainly need this as well. Even this post made me tear up thinking about how much I do the distracting when my children are upset. When I read it, I though of course! Of course they need to sit with their feelings rather than being distracted by something shiny or chocolatey. I am ordering. Thank you. Another PSA.
Well I’m actually glad you say you missed it because I was worried about sounding like an old bore. This is a good one, right up there with the shouting book – and it’s never too late to start on your kids with this
Stay One DegreeAnnie says
This sounds great, have just ordered the teen edition, will see how we go but definitely need some guidance on dealing with an anxious/unhappy child. Thanks for the recommendation, hope you are all well xxxx
thanks Annie, I hope it helps. The teen one is very entertaining, I love the illustrations x
Needed this today, as I did the opposite with my daughter who was in a funk before school. I’ve read this book many, many times but I need to keep reading it because the lessons are so counter to how I was raised. If I don’t work to keep this approach front of mind, I revert back to the bad habits that come naturally (“cheer up!” or judgment for a sad child who doesn’t seem to have a “good” reason to be sad). In my experience, really internalizing and sticking with this type of communication also means creating more space for and taking care of your own emotions. Often the sad or anxious child sparks some uncomfortable feelings in the parent that you have to really sit with to be able to listen and respond in a way that centers the child’s feelings.
definitely. it raises the feelings of shame that we were made to feel when we confessed to feeling worthless, friendless or depressed. I really struggle with all this, too, and you raise a really important point that this kind of emotional strategizing is a work in progress and in the moment with a billion things to do and the clock going tick tock tick tock, it’s very easy to forget
This is helpful! Thank you 😊
Omg! I love this book- so simple but a game changer. Works equally well with toddlers – which is almost impossible to believe. Mid tantrum, just saying, “you are really cross… you really wanted that (insert here)” has diffusing results…
YES, YES, YES! This is the only parenting book anyone needs to read. It is also a very sensible approach to take with anyone you love, and indeed in the workplace with anyone you manage (assuming that they are not already covered by the ‘anyone you love’ ahem..)
Peabody bites says
Yes I totally love this book (they also have a great one on called Siblings without Rivalry – I reminded myself of the title by googling “book on how to stop my kids killing each other”).
The rationale behind How to Talk comes originally from Magda Gerber’s theories about treating children with respect (cf also Janet Lansbury’s “No Bad Kids” and her excellent blog) – but made extremely concrete and actionable.
The impact it has on you as a parent having to sit with the uncomfortable feelings which your children have, and the resentment you might feel at your own childhood where uncomfortable feelings were not made welcome or accepted is also dealt with very well in the first chapter of Philippa Perry’s “The Book you wish your parents had written”.
In case it’s not obvious, I apparently have no actual maternal instincts to fall back on and so I read a lot of child development books….
Peabody, neither do I! And I would go further to suggest that no-one does. I think maternal instincts are a myth
Ah this is so interesting. I am definitely one of those people who offers proactive solutions to problems instead of a “poor you” approach, and I am totally aware that this winds people (my sister) up. I would like to change, and I’ll try particularly hard when it comes to my two very young sons in future – I love that wish fulfilment finale.
It’s been fascinating to talk to my husband about all of this – he uses all the techniques you mention in his managerial role at work, but has never thought about using them with our children. Lots to consider – thank you so much 🙂
Thank you for sharing this – I have this very book on my bedside cabinet but have not yet made time to read it. I will now. Also, the thought occurred to me that Philippa Perry’s ‘The Book That…’ does cover the whole sitting with your / your child’s feelings quite magnificently, too, amongst many other things….
Cindy F says
Thank you for this. I will try it the next time my twenty something is in a funk. I can see it would help. Nothing worse than being told to cheer up by somebody who is scared to get sucked into The Pit of Despair, and tries jollying the down person along (guilty as charged, but ready to mend my ways).
no-one wants to get sucked into the pit of despair but you won’t be. the listening trick is like a magic carpet that will fly you both out of the pit
“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.”
LOL please tell your friend that I remember this from the first time and have been applying it ever since 😂
Even an ‘oh well’ for a particularly mundane reason that is bumming a child out goes down well at ours. As long as it is said suitably sympathetically of course!
haha! cheque’s in the post
Another mention here for Phillipa Perry’s brilliant book ‘The Book You wish your parents had read’ as it deals brilliantly with the teenage years – lying, drinking, anxiety etc. It gave me the excellent advice to use ‘it makes me feel’ rather than ‘shut the fuck up/put the bloody phone down/get off the XBox’ etc and it REALLY works. I have a 12yr old daughter who is so rude that I feel like I am in an abusive relationship half the time (third child syndrome for sure…) and I now say ‘I’d love to do something with you, why don’t you put the phone down so we can make supper together’ etc etc or ‘it makes me feel really upset when you speak to me like that’. Boy does a bit of a guilt-trip work wonders where threats don’t!
Yes! This is exactly what I am after right now. I’d thought I was a diligent/avid reader of the spike but I only seem to remember the ‘How not to lose your shit’, so thanks for the recap! I have a toddler and want to start off on the right foot with her but don’t really know where to begin. My upbringing was lovely but also a bit on the strict side so I don’t want to repeat that. Then again, I want to raise well rounded, well mannered and kind kids not super indulged ones, so I don’t want to go too far the other way either. I mean, I guess whatever happens we’ll probably all f*ck it up in some ways but it’s good to know the theory of what to aim for. If anyone else has any other good recommendations I’d love to hear them too!