Your child is looking downcast and more quiet than usual. Do you continue to focus in on the TV, hoping his phase will go away, or do you address the problem? What to do?
When my daughter was 3 years old, a long time ago, I was talking to a friend in the back yard. She came up to me and pulled on my pant leg. “Daddy, I need some attention.” Not your typical 3 year old, and not the kind of attention-getting behavior our children give us. However your child acts, pay attention to the cues.
Rachel gave me a verbal cue. Most children her age will go with a nonverbal cue, like the downcast look and quiet funk. “Hey, Punkin. What’s going on in that noodle of yours?” This is a good lead-in and gives your child opportunity to make her nonverbal behavior verbal. If they don’t respond, accept that and offer to be available to talk when they are ready. If they do respond, hear them out, use active listening and be empathetic. “So, what I hear you saying is…” “Let me get this straight. You feel…?” When you see their emotional fever drop, suggest, “I have some thoughts about what’s up. Do you want to hear them?”
It’s so powerful when you ask your child’s permission to counsel, regardless of their age. Children feel empowered and are more likely to act on what you have to offer. If you offer wise counsel and they don’t want it right then, it falls on deaf ears. Asking their permission opens up their ears to what you have to say.
Be creative in your problem-solving and active listening. Children love to be outside the box. The core feelings for kids are mad, bad, sad, and glad. That’s all you will get and that’s not much. “You feel put upon, vulnerable, excluded.” Take the core feelings a little further. “You sound thrilled, beside yourself, joyful.” These more expressive feelings may be both on target and also will help your child be more creative in expressing what they feel. Helping your child through a problem? Pay attention and be creative.
You and your kids are doing great. You're having fun time with them. They are accepting your authority. Your communication with them is awesome! Can we package this and put it in a pill, so that every family can feel this way? So, what's going right?
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, my lead-off chapter confirms that communication is relationship. What's going great? Your communication with your children. They get what you are saying and you get them. Christian parenting is not about power, who's in charge, do what I say. It's about relationship. How you talk to your children, the communication, defines the quality of relationship
When things are going great, there are four types of communication happening. First, we engage in directional talk. "Be careful, Sweetheart. Don't go too close to the water. It's way over your head." We give direction and it is well received. Second is instructional talk. "Put your shoulder down and drive your defender. The lower lineman wins the battle." Children learn by helpful instruction. Third are check-ins. These by nature are brief comments meant to elicit information. "Dude, what's up?" or, "Hey, Punkin. Rough day at preschool?" With the information you get, you decide how to proceed.
Finally, the Holy Grail of parental communication is teachable moments. In these moments, you impart your wisdom, perspective, and counsel for your child. "Boy, when I was your age, my dad used to tear up my butt for the least little thing. Now, I don't do that with you. Do you want to know why?" or, "You know, sharing works really good. First, when you share, you make a friend. Also, sharing helps you enjoy giving, instead of just getting all the time."
These are the times when all is right with the world and being the parent is your best job ever. Of course, how your words are received determines what happens next. If you get any verbal or nonverbal red light, "Leave me alone." "Not now, Dad." or eye roll, or looking away, then switch gears to Active Listening. This is when you focus on your child's feelings and try to draw them out. A check-in comment can get things rolling. "Wow, that's not like you. Anything going on I can help with?" or, "I have some thoughts. Want to hear them?" When you feel his emotional fever going down because of your active listening, you get to go back to the fun stuff. Be vigilant, but when things are great, go for it.