Your child comes home from school visibly upset. Sadness, anxiety, confusion, or hurt may be lurking below the surface.
Perhaps your child had a disagreement with a friend or didn’t do well on a test. The natural response is to start asking questions to find out what is wrong. Your child may gladly talk with you which is great. But how do you proceed if your questions are met with anger or silence instead? You were just trying to help and your emotional child doesn’t want to open up.
Emotions are tricky. Brain research explains that the overloaded emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, needs to be released in order for the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, to function.
Imagine the limbic system as a pressure cooker that comes to a boil and needs to release steam through the release value or else it will explode.
With effective responses to the pressure cooker child, you open the valve, allowing the emotions to release so improved thinking can follow.
You can tell you are on the right track because your child will continue to express emotions that gradually lessen as you listen. You will listen without a need to control the conversation and fix the problem right away.
With ineffective responses you close the valve, causing the emotions to stay stuck.
When stuck, the limbic system keeps trying to release them with heightened intensity or shuts down and keeps boiling inside with no ability to think flexibly or cooperatively. You can tell you have shut the valve when you hear, “You don’t understand”, “You think you know it all,” “It’s not like that now,” or all of these with an additional turning away and slamming of a door. Thus, you experience the wall that leaves you feeling helpless and confused as to what went wrong.
The first step to opening the valve is to avoid communication blocks.
The over loaded emotional limbic system needs to feel connected, safe and supported in order to release. A communication block is any remark or attitude you express that injures your child’s self-esteem to the extent that communication is broken off. Sometimes, just the timing, rather than the content, of your response determines whether it turns into a block. When your statements have not created an emotionally accepting environment, your child will shut down. This is the signal that your choices of words, at that moment, have closed the release valve.
Here are common communication blocks and the underlying hurtful messages that turns these comments into blocks. Anger is always a block. Responses hurt self-esteem when the underlying message your child receives is that he is in some way deficient. Your child “hears”, “I shouldn’t think this way”, “I can’t make good decisions”, and even “You think I’m stupid.”
1. Commanding: You don’t have the right to decide how to handle your own problems. “Tell me what is wrong.”
2. Interrogating: You must have messed up somewhere “Why are you so upset?”
3. Giving advice: You don’t have the good sense to come up with your own solutions “if you had studied when you first came home, you would have done better on the test.”
4. Placating: You don’t have a right to your feelings; you can’t handle discomfort. “You’re such a nice person. I don’t understand why your friend is mad at you.”
5. Me-tooism: My experience is more important to talk about now. “I had struggles when I was your age, too. This is what I did.”
6. Know-it-all: Since I know it all, you must know nothing. “All you have to do is be less sensitive. Just ignore them.”
7. Sarcasm: You are ridiculous. “You think school is supposed to be easy?.”
8. Moralizing: Don’t you dare choose your own values. “There are kids who don’t have any friends. Be grateful for the ones you do have.”
9. Psychologizing: I know more about you than you know about yourself. Therefore, I’m superior to you. “I think your friend felt left out and that is why she was mean to you.”
Refrain from blaming your child for getting defensive with your attempts to help. Instead, self reflect on which communication blocks you used, admit your error, and try again to listen without blocking. Continue learning more effective responses that will keep the communication flowing towards problem solving together.
*The author of the communication blocks concept is Michael Popkin, PhD, ©Active Parenting Publishers.
*The communication block me-tooism is developed by Barbara Whiteside of Whiteside Workshops.
Learn more about the underlying hurtful messages of these communication blocks.
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©2014 Cynthia Klein, Bridges 2 Understanding, has been a Certified Parent Educator since 1994. She works with parents and organizations who want more cooperation, mutual respect and understanding between adults and children of all ages. Cynthia presents her expertise through speaking and private parenting coaching sessions. She writes the Middle School Mom column for the Parenting on the Peninsula magazine. She works with parents of 4 – 25 year-old children. Contact Cynthia at bridges2understa.wpstagecoach.com, cynthia@bridges2understanding,com, or 650. 679.8138 to learn more about creating the relationship you want with your children.