August 28th, 2019

Connecting with your kids: don't ask with how was your day?...

Your kids are about to start a new school year, maybe at a new school, maybe for the first time. No doubt you have lots of hopes for them. You want them to do their best, to thrive in the classroom and on the sporting fields, or in the art or music room and also in the playground with friends. You want them to try new things and find activities to throw themselves into with passion. You may hope that they’ll find a vocation which they’ll pursue throughout life, something that will bring them joy and sense of fulfilment.  Above all you want them to be happy.

When kids go to school they enter into a world in which we parents cannot take part. Oh sure, we can and should be interested in what they’re doing but it’s their world. We can, and should, support from the sidelines, but they are the players on the field.

All parents want to know that their children are doing well and have had a happy day. So we ask them: How was your day? Enquiring after their day is so much better than not caring, being too engrossed in our own world, our emails, our texts and our to-do lists, our adult concerns, to connect with theirs at the end of the day. Connection is important.

But if you’ve ever asked your child that question How was your day? You may have felt dissatisfied with the answer. You may have felt it didn’t give much connection. It’s just a ritual that you go through. Every parent knows that the answer to How was your day? is ‘fine’. And the answers to follow up questions what did you learn? and what did you have for lunch? are nothing and I forget respectively, or interchangeably. Sometimes we ask the supplementary question who did you play with?

Don’t kids want to tell us about their lives? Well sometimes, no.

  • For many children who live in the present it is hard to remember what happened earlier in the day. They’re happy, but that was then, this is now.
  • Sometimes they want to keep their school life separate from their home life. That’s their private world.
  • Sometimes they won’t tell us what has happened because they are afraid of our reaction. They may fear our judgment or our involvement. If they tell us that Freddie teased them about wearing ‘girls’ shoes’ and they fear that we will ring Freddie’s mum up and blast her then they may keep it to themselves. They won’t tell us that Mrs Winter was cross with them if they anticipate being cross-examined about what they did that caused her to be angry. They won’t tell us that Robert and Sanjiv had their phones confiscated for accessing inappropriate content because they fear that will mean a crackdown on screen use at home.
  • Sometimes they won’t tell us what has happened because they anticipate a lack of reaction. They might feel that there’s no point in telling us about the girls who teased them about their glasses if we just say that’s silly, your glasses are perfectly nice and you need them to see. Just ignore those girls.
  • Sometimes they won’t tell us about things that are troubling them because they just don’t have the words. They can’t articulate what they are feeling. You may know that something is up because of their behaviour. They may be withdrawn or may react with aggressive or rude behaviour. The trick is not to be fooled into just having a knee jerk reaction to the behaviour –you need to consider what’s behind it. It probably won’t work to ask them why they are behaving like that or even to say ‘what’s up?’ What works is to take an educated guess –you can see that something is troubling them. Put that into words. Describe how you think they are feeling. For you to talk to me like that tells me that something is bothering you. When I came in I could see from your face that you weren’t happy and then I asked you to pick up your school bag and that triggered something in you. I’m wondering if something happened at school today….

We need to listen to what they say without judgment, without lots of questions that imply failure, and without dismissing their concerns. We need to acknowledge and validate their feelings. We can’t take away all our children’s worries and it’s not our job to do so but we can help them to manage their feelings. If our children are talking to us we need to make time to listen (which isn’t always easy in our busy lives) and let them know through our words and body language that we are really paying attention. If they’re not talking we need to supply the words. I’m wondering if you felt a bit jealous when Taylor got that commendation in assembly; Maybe you felt left out when Jacob invited Raoul to go to his house; I sense that you’re a bit anxious about your piano exam; I guess it can be a bit irritating to have to include your younger brother in your game. You wish you could just play on your own; you’re a boy who likes to check things out first before you do something so you’re not sure about getting in the water just yet. Would you like to watch the others first and then get in? What do you need to make yourself feel safe?

But as well as encouraging them to share problems we want to know about the good things in our children’s lives.

Being interested in your child’s life shows you are a good parent. But you need better questions if you’re going to be able to make real connections. Instead of How was your day? , try asking them, “What was the best thing that happened today?”

Curiosity fuels connection.

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February 11th, 2019

Love is in the schedule

On Thursday it is Valentine’s day. You may not celebrate the day.  Even if you are in a relationship. Plenty of people think it is overly commercialised and an opportunity to extort money for cards, flowers, chocolates and dinners at prices vastly inflated compared to the rest of the year. You may feel you have no use for red, scratchy lace underwear or perfume that doesn’t suit. 

Ok so I’m being cynical. Maybe you relish an opportunity to celebrate your love for your partner and having a day set aside for it may be a good way to remind you of it and rekindle the old flame. 

When we go from being a couple to being a family many of us find there is no time to spend on our partners any more. Romance dies along with sleep and we find ourselves griping about the things the other forgets to do as the items on our own to-do list breed and multiply. A night out becomes prohibitively expensive when you add in babysitting and if you try to have a date night at home you may find yourself asleep on the sofa by 9pm. The things that we used to find endearing may now seem really irritating. The foot massage you used to give each other is replaced by the weekly nit check and daily search for matching socks. 

Our children so often become our priority and our couple relationship can take second place. Between work and the kids it can be hard to find any time for ourselves or our couple relationships. This is a big mistake. The relationship you have with your partner is the foundation on which your family relies. It is the template on which your children will model their own future relationships and sets the tone for the sense of belonging in the family. Having someone else to tag team with in the parenting race also makes it much easier. When parents are united about values and discipline the children feel more secure and push against the boundaries less. Of course the adults may have some differences in their styles of parenting, but what’s important is that both mum and dad present fairly similar expectations and limits. 

Here are some ways to develop a united front with your partner 

    • Schedule date nights where you don’t talk about the kids.
    • Set aside (other) regular times to communicate with your partner –discuss what your values are and what you want to happen. Work out your differences in private so that you can be consistent in public.
    • Where there is disagreement, compromise –consistency is more important than the actual rule
    • Acknowledge each other’s strengths. (I recommend the practice of writing down one descriptive praise for each other each day in a little book.)
    • Say positive things to/about your partner in front of the children. Speak to and about the other with respect. Your children will take their cue from you.
    • Be affectionate with each other in front of the children. (Yes they’ll say yuck but it will make them feel secure!)
    • Don’t criticise and try not to argue with your partner in front of the children. If you do disagree do so respectfully.
    • Don’t play good cop/bad cop: Check in with other partner before promising something to the children and if your child comes to you when you suspect they’ve already asked their other parent, ask them “what did mummy/daddy say?” and go along with their decision
    • Don’t compete to be the better parent. Remember that even when your partner is parenting differently from you s/he has the best interests of the children at heart.
    • If you’re not together with the child’s other parent then communication may be difficult. Children can cope with different rules and approaches in different households but be sure you never denigrate the other parent. 

    Involving an absent or disinterested partner

    • Consider why they’ve checked out. Are they working very long hours? Why? Is this a financial necessity? Do they feel more successful/ comfortable at work than at home?
    • Ask for their support, opinions, input on family rules, outings, holidays etc without criticism. Be honest with yourself and question whether your style of involving your partner in the past has largely been to nag and criticise them.
    • Ask for your partner’s involvement in small ways at first where they are likely to feel successful and enjoy the experience such as taking the kids to the park for a short outing. Build up to them taking a full share of the less pleasant aspects of parenting over time. Be appreciative even if you still think they should be doing more. 

    Healthy ways to deal with conflict:

      • Acknowledge and reflect back your partner’s point of view to him/her, especially where this is different from yours
      • Don’t criticise, but make requests and state your needs. eg I need more help around the house. Please can you take out the garbage each week.
      • State how you feel using ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements – “when you leave the kitchen in a mess I feel as if you expect me to clean it up and I feel taken for granted.” not “you always leave the kitchen untidy –you really take me for granted.”
      • Confine yourself to the matter under discussion –don’t bring up history. Don’t use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’.
      • Avoid defensiveness ie denying responsibility for a problem. eg Steve has a sharp intake of breath after Maggie just braked hard in the car. She says: there you go again being a back seat driver! Accept some personal responsibility for at least part of the problem. “Sorry! That was a bit abrupt.”
      • Avoid stonewalling - where the listener withdraws from the interaction and doesn’t respond. It indicates an emotional withdrawal from the relationship. If you feel the need to withdraw ask for a break and agree upon a time to resume the conversation. 

      So take some time this week to focus on your other half and remember why you got together in the first place. Tell them what small things you appreciate about them.

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      May 13th, 2015

      Getting Boys to Talk

      Some kids talk more than others.

      If you’ve got more than one child chances are you’ve noticed this. Some of that is down to temperament and some may be attributable to gender. I have a daughter who is very extroverted. She used to come home from school and tell me everything that had gone on in her day in the first 2 minutes. I had to gear myself up for the onslaught the minute she got home. I became really grateful when the kids got home at different times so I could focus on all their different needs. With Gemma my challenge was just to listen, not to jump in with advice. When I buttoned my lip and let her know I was listening the storm would blow itself out and often she would find her own solutions. She would talk in order to work out what she thought about things. She just needed to be heard.

      I also have two sons who happen to both be introverts.  They like to think through things before speaking. When they got home from school they liked to chill out and wouldn’t offer anything about their day until the evening. I had a friend with a son with a similar disposition and she used to say she only found out what was going on in her son’s life through what I told her I’d heard from my boy.

      Many boys don’t talk about their feelings. Traditionally men weren’t encouraged to and perhaps unwittingly we still give boys messages that in order to be a man they need to manage alone. Sometimes parents still say “big boys don’t cry” or we tell them not to make such a fuss or to be a big boy. If we tell our children to ‘man up’ what do we mean?

      If dads model talking about how they feel about stuff then boys learn that it’s ok for men to do so.

      The best way to get a boy to talk is not to sit down for an eyeball to eyeball conversation but to do an activity together. This is what Steve Biddulph calls ‘sideways talk’. Some of my best conversations with my sons have been while we’ve been walking or even doing the washing up together. When I picked them up from school we were more likely to get a conversation going if we were walking home. Usually pumping them for information about their day didn’t work. We all know that the answer to the question “How was your day?” is “fine”, with all the information that doesn’t convey. Young children live in the moment and often can’t be bothered to dredge up what happened earlier in their day. Some will actually want to keep their school world separate from home. They certainly won’t tell us anything if they think we’re going to judge, criticise, or perhaps even advise them.

      You start the conversation. Tell him about your day. Tell him about age-appropriate things that you care about. Thank him for listening and maybe tell him you feel good talking to him. If you think he has something on his mind tell him you think he might be a bit worried about something. You can tell because of his body language or facial expressions or because of what he has said or done. Try to put yourself in his shoes. If you think you know what he’s feeling describe what that might be like for him. He might not talk now but you’ve opened the door for a conversation. If he does talk don’t say much, just nod a lot. Don’t judge and DON’T offer advice.

      I remember when my older son was preparing (or not) for exams he started being mean to his younger brother. He used to do that a lot when he was younger and I was afraid we were slipping back into old patterns. In my anxiety and frustration I was tempted to tell him off or punish him but I realised in time that it might be connected to the exams that he showed no signs of caring about. I talked with him about how he might be feeling, detailing his anxiety, wondering whether he was afraid of letting us down, speculating that it might be difficult to follow in his academically able sister’s footsteps, even that he might be cross with himself for not having worked harder earlier. He didn’t say much…but his body language changed –his shoulders were less slumped and he made more eye contact. And his behaviour toward his brother changed.

      I’d like to say he aced those exams but that would be fiction. But he developed better habits for the next set and, more to the point, he learnt to process his feelings well and find appropriate outlets for his frustrations and fears. This son still doesn’t talk a lot about his emotions but he is a great conversationalist and has good emotional awareness - he knows how to manage his feelings.

       

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