How do you talk with your kids— and still keep it positive— when things aren’t going well? David P. Sylvestro, a school psychologist specializing in children with attention and learning issues, suggests the following strategies for keeping things positive.
Identify the Problem Clearly
Stay focused on the main issue and avoid any temptation to pile on insignificant details. If you bring up a laundry list of problems, your kids will tune out. “Once they’ve tuned out,” says Sylvestro, “it’s hard for them to tune back in for the important things.”
Review with them how you see the problem, checking frequently for understanding. If, for example, you know you talk too much or too fast, ask what they understood: “I think that was really important. I know I just used a lot of words. Tell me what I just said.” If they have no clue, thank them for telling you and try again, chunking what you want to say into smaller, more understandable parts.
Kids who have poor working memory, receptive language, or processing speed will be lost if you use too many words.
Timing is Everything
Choose the right time to talk. The closer to the problem event the better, but there are a few caveats:
- The less heat the better. If either of you is stressed or upset, wait. No one is an effective communicator when they’re angry, especially impulsive kids with poor emotional control and low frustration tolerance. Take a break to calm down: “I need to cool off a little; my frustration is getting the better of me and I’m not the best at talking about this right now. Let’s talk again in 10 minutes when we’re both calmer.”
- The fewer eyes the better. It’s disrespectful to reprimand kids in public. Pull them aside and let them know you have something to say to them privately.
- The lower the decibels the better. Raising your voice is especially ineffective for kids with sensory issues and sensitivity to loud voices or sounds.
- The fewer words the better. Be as clear and concise as possible (as noted above).
Respond to the feelings behind what your child is saying. If they say something that doesn’t reflect reality but shows frustration and sadness, focus on their feelings, not the erroneous statements: “I see that’s making you frustrated, and I know that when you get frustrated, it’s hard for you to stay focused.” Kids will often come back to a more accurate statement as the conversation continues.
Listen and Summarize
After checking for mutual agreement on your facts, give your child a turn to speak. You want your kids to participate, but make sure to control the parameters of the conversation so it stays on a focused and productive path.
Finally, close and summarize the conversation: “This is what I took away from our conversation…. What did you take away?”
Create a Solution Together
Rather than chastise your child for the problem, brainstorm possible solutions in a positive manner.
- Articulate the goal. For example: To do better on the next science test.
- Brainstorm possible solutions. Discuss effective ways to study so your child sees a range of options (e.g., join a study group, find a study partner, begin studying sooner, implement a daily study schedule, review material with the teacher after school, and/or work with a tutor).
- Anticipate snags. Explain that things don’t always work out as planned and calmly discuss what to do if they don’t.
- Set times for progress checks. If your child has trouble planning, organizing, managing time, assessing progress, and monitoring accuracy, work collaboratively to make a schedule and stick to it.
- Assess the process and adjust as needed. Shifting gears, tolerating change, thinking flexibly and monitoring how it’s going are often hard for kids. You might have to take the lead here. Work with your child to evaluate progress and fine-tune or change the plan you created together, making room for their input (e.g., What worked? What didn’t work? What can you do differently?).
This article is based on a webinar, Encouraging Responsibility and Independence: The Power of Positive Communication, by David P. Sylvestro, MA, CSP, a school psychologist who specializes in working with kids with attention and learning challenges. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT),and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar.
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