Sunday, August 31, 2008

Save the Words for the Happy Times, Part II: Circling Back

We looked last time in Part I at what you might do right in the moment in the moment to avoid the flood of words that can come during difficult situations with your child. We could think of there being two phases to saving the words for the happy times. There's the not sayin' much phase during the difficult moment, and then there is the second phase, which is what you do say and do during the "happy times". Or as I like to say, when you circle back.

Note: As it it turns out this has morphed into a four part series rather than the two I originally planned. The second phase has a few different directions it can take and I think at least three of them deserve a closer look so they're detailed enough for you to use.

"Save the Words..." Origin
Incidentally, the title to this two parter is a mnemonic phrase used by Jim Fay of the Love and Logic Institute. I think by "Save the words for the happy times' Jim largely meant to communicate the concept I'm calling the Attention Principle. If you're doing lots of talking when things are aren't going well, you are inadvertantly reinforcing behaviors you would like to see less of, but that because you're pouring on the words, you are going to see more of.

I like his phrase because it is brief and easy to remember. It sticks. But it does elide the fact that you can save the words not only for the happy times, but also for "neutral" or even just "more neutral" times. Beyond the avoiding inadvertent reinforcement the attention principle predicts, it also give the brain a bit of time to cool off. And finally and just as importantly as the others, it gives you time to think. When we make decisions in the heat of the moment as parents we're going to see painful, smoking bullet holes through our shoes more often than we'd like.

Finding Out What Happened and Re-Connecting (Empathy)
So assuming we manage to keep our words brief and not do a lot of talking when our kid is acting in a challenging way, what are we going to do when we circle back?

Your first best bet, however you decide to proceed is find out more about what was going on. Let's say the situation was that your tween was on the computer and when you asked her to get off. She did, but started screaming at you about how mean you are and slammed a couple of things around on her way to her room.

That is done best with a bit of empathy. "Looks like you were pretty ticked at me when I asked you to get off the computer," can be a nice way to start off. Asking your child to tell you about what was going on with her is a good idea. Sometimes if she's reluctant, we can provide a little help by taking a guess or two about how she experienced it. "So was part of it that you were frustrated that what you were focused on was being interrupted. You were really into your game?"

Checking In
Check in with your child to see if they think you've got the gist of how they experienced the interaction. If they don't think you've got it, I'd suggest a couple of repetitions. Ask them to explain again, and then see if you can communicate back to them what it was that they said. Most kids soften considerably when they get the sense that you are are really trying to understand. I've seen many kids go from completely withdrawn and angry to genuinely talking about what was going on with them.

Usually when she sees that you really get what was going on with her at the time, she is willing to hear out what you have to say with a lot more willingness. And sometimes after hearing what was going on with our kids, we legitimately see things differently than we did at the moment when all that seemed to be in our field of vision was disrespect and insolence. This isn't too surprising when it happens because when we're not in the heat of the moment, our frontal cortex comes back online.

Where to Go From Here
Often though even when we do see what the incident or interaction was like for our child, there is more to talk about, and some instances where something needs to be done. These options can range from you just letting them know what the interaction was like for you; to doing some preventative collaborative problem solving; to applying a consequence. Often the best solutions end up being blends of the three.

So in Parts III and IV we will look at some of the common options for the second phase of Saving the Words for the Happy Times after we've done the initial reconnecting. Don't miss out on these. They've saved my hide as parent, teacher and as a parent coach more often than I can count.

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