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Communicating with Children to Diffuse Conflict and Increase Cooperation

By: Melissa Katcher L.M.S.W.

How often do we hear our kids, upset and frustrated, retort: “You don’t understand!” 

Most parents have heard this phrase at least once over the course of their parenting journey. The truth is, while we likely do understand…in that moment, we might not exactly understand. Or at the very least, we are not communicating that we understand. It’s common for parents to jump into providing solutions, and in doing so we skip right over a very important part; communicating that we understand. So, how can we do that?

Use Empathy

One way we can achieve a more cooperative interaction is by using empathy. Instead of offering a solution,pause and  focus solely on their feelings and experiences. Empathy sounds like, “I hear what you’re saying. It sounds like you’re feeling really (insert emotion).” It can also sound like, “That sounds really difficult,” or, “Given what you’ve just told me, it’s understandable that you would feel that way.” It can also be helpful to ask, “Do you want advice, or do you just want me to listen?”  Empathy strengthens our connection with our children, by validating what they’re feeling and allowing them some time to learn to process the emotion for themselves.

Use Reflective Listening 

Empathy can be further expressed using a very helpful tool called reflective listening. Reflective listening can feel a bit awkward at first, because it’s not always a natural part of daily communication. It means summarizing what your child said to clarify that you understand. Reflective listening sounds like, “So what I am hearing you say is that you are (insert emotion) because your friend was ignoring you at school today, is that right?”

Sometimes we get it right, and our child will say, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.” Sometimes we might misinterpret what they’re saying, and this is a wonderful opportunity for them to offer a correction, and for us to demonstrate that we really are listening, and want to understand them. 

Taking the time to fully understand, and to express that we understand, shows children that we care how they are feeling even if we don’t agree with how they’re feeling. Without reflective listening, we risk invalidating their emotions and increase the possibility of conflict. 

Use Cooperative Language and Questions 

Often, shifting the way we say something goes a long way toward communicating with your child. For example, if your child is having trouble finishing homework on time, you can ask questions instead of making statements/assumptions or jumping to solutions. This might sound like, “It looks like we’re having some problems getting homework done. How can we solve this? What do you think is working well, and what isn’t? Is there something I can do to help?” Notice the focus on cooperation; this is a problem that you will solve together. 

Instead of providing advice or solutions, asking questions also encourages kids to develop and use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Allowing them to make choices, and even fail at times, provides experiential learning that teaches confidence in both their ability to make good choices, and in their ability to repair if something does not work out. Let them think through and process. Our job as parents is not to tell kids every right decision to make, but to facilitate development of critical thinking skills.  When we facilitate children using their own problem solving skills, we demonstrate that we have confidence and trust in them, which contributes to further cooperation and collaboration. 

Use Positive Reinforcement 

Each day, make an effort to verbally reinforce what children are doing well. You could say, “I really appreciate when you start your homework without asking,” or, “You really show you are responsible when you get up on your own every day.” We don’t have to praise every small effort, but daily reminders of what is going right can go a long way, and creates at least one interaction each day with very little opportunity for conflict.

Lastly – Use Humor!  

Some things in life are undoubtedly serious, but for many parent/child interactions, there is room for finding the humor in our missteps. If we can model taking things lightly, this can significantly reduce conflict and increase cooperation. Using humor to address difficult situations not only helps us to feel better, but it can help break down barriers to approaching a difficult situation.

Empathy, reflective listening, questions and collaboration, positive reinforcement, and humor are a few of the tools that we can have in our parenting toolbox to decrease conflict with our kids.  Try some of these tools at home, and see how your child responds.  Remember, sometimes it will take several repetitions before you notice results. 

If you feel like you aren’t sure how to best support your child, teen, young adult or yourself, Child and Family Solutions Center is here to help. Please call us at 248-851-5437 to get started with supportive services.