Whether you have younger or older children, helping them process their experiences can give them a sense of understanding of both the world around them and their responses to that world. The deeper that children and parents understand their feelings and reactions to what is happening in any given moment, the better they can be present to their own and others’ experiences, leading to less mindless reactivity, which reduces reactive conflict and challenging interactions between family members.
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This blog is written by the clinicians at Jonah Green and Associates, a mental health practice based in Kensington, MD that provides quality services for children, teens, families, and adults. It is intended as a resource for families who are seeking to expand their knowledge about mental health and mental health services, and also as a resource for families who are seeking quality mental health services, especially in the mid-Atlantic region. Please feel free to post questions and comments on any of the entries as well as on any topics or articles from our companion web site www.childandfamilymentalhealth.com.
Therapists, coaches, and “how-to” books offer a lot of excellent communication advice for conflict resolution. One recommendation is to use “I” rather than “you” statements: “I feel hurt” rather than “you’re so mean”. Another suggestion is to acknowledge the other’s point of view, with statements such as “I get how you would feel that way”. Additional skills include paraphrasing the other’s words, being specific with complaints rather than making blanket statements such as “always” or “never”, and avoiding “mind reading” (“I know you’re doing that just to manipulate me”).
When I was an adolescent my sister-in-law taught piano lessons out of my parent’s home. She and I developed a weekly routine. I would babysit her infant daughter while she taught, and afterward, she and I would sit down at the kitchen table and chat until dinnertime. I look back on those afternoons with such warm feelings. Like a typical middle schooler, I was struggling with exploring my identity, maintaining friendships, and establishing some independence from my parents. Unlike other adults, I remember Amy patiently listening as I talked and talked and talked. I felt so important and grown up. Even though I was much younger, I considered Amy to be a close friend. She knew the power of listening and I was so grateful to experience that.
Your child comes home from school after receiving a lower grade on a project than she expected. She feels that she did a great job and is angry and confused because she does not feel that she was graded fairly by her teacher. There are three ways she can respond to this situation of perceived injustice. She can choose to be passive, aggressive, or assertive.
A child who is passive might refrain from communicating with her teacher altogether for fear of the way she might react or respond. A child who is aggressive might yell at the teacher or interrupt the lesson to accuse the teacher of unfair treatment. As you can see, these two extremes are not the most adaptive way of communicating.
Assertiveness is the healthiest style of communication. Assertiveness requires us to recognize and stand up for our own rights, while simultaneously respecting the rights of others. Further, assertiveness is the ability to advocate for ourselves in a way that is honest and respectful. An assertive response to the situation above might involve the child asking to speak to the teacher after class to explain her position. The child may say “I feel frustrated and confused because of all the hard work I put into this project, and I don’t feel like my grade reflects that. Might you be able to explain what I could have done differently?”
Both adults and children can have initial difficulty with assertiveness. However, like any skill, with practice, it gets easier. For children, assertiveness skills play a very significant role in a variety of situations, from the playground to the classroom to a sleepover; from bullying to teasing to peer pressure. For adults, learning to advocate respectfully for yourself in the workplace, in your family, or with friends is paramount to establishing healthy relationships and maintaining high self-esteem.
Here are some ways that you and your child can develop your assertiveness skills, and in turn establish healthy communication patterns:
Talk about Assertiveness
Sometimes, we tell our children to do things without offering them much of an explanation. “Be assertive” is something that a child might not necessarily know how to do without your help. Ask your child about situations with friends or at a school where she has struggled with assertiveness. Maybe she was excluded from a game at recess or teased on the bus. Role-play a healthy conversation where you respond in an assertive way. Switch roles and have your child practice being assertive.
As parents, modeling appropriate behavior is one of the most effective ways to help our children learn how to conduct themselves. Assertive communication skills are no different! It is important that your child sees you standing up for yourself in various situations, especially where your opinion might not be the most popular. When you practice statements like “Thanks for sharing your perspective. I have a different opinion, but now I understand yours,” it teaches your child that it is okay to disagree, but it is important to stand up for yourself respectfully.
You can teach your child the follow these steps when asserting himself:
- Make eye contact.
- Remain calm.
- Speak clearly.
- Use a confident voice.
By learning and practicing how to communicate assertively, you and your child will gain insight into yourselves and each other, tolerance of others and their ideas, and confidence in your ability to speak up feel heard.
-Post by Erin Futrovsky Gates, LGSW
As teenagers become more independent, they often spend more time away from home, and when they are home they are often behind closed doors or focused on other things. It might also feel like your child is less interested in talking to you, but there are plenty of things you can do to maintain a strong positive relationship and stay connected with your teenager. Hint: It’s the little moments, not the big occasions, which can really count.