To Connect with Kids, Just Call ‘em Like You See ‘em

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As a parent, I sometimes find myself contradicting what my kids say. My 10-year-old son Sava, for example, has a tendency to catastrophize. When the LEGO structure he is building collapses, he’s likely to say something like, “I hate LEGOs. They are the stupidest toy ever invented. I never want to play with them again!”

My reply: “C’mon buddy, you know you love LEGOs. They’re awesome. I bet when you calm down, you’ll want to play with them again.” The result: More fury. And I don’t blame him. Nothing is quite as upsetting as getting rebuffed for your feelings. How many times have we told campers to “chill out” or not to “make a big deal” out of something? The circumstance may not be a big deal, but the feelings sure are. And to be invalidated by an adult mentor is terribly deflating.

As an alternative, I sometimes switch to empathic statements, such as, “I can see that you’re frustrated” and “You’re angry that thing fell apart, aren’t you?” The result: More fury. “Of course I’m upset! Can’t you see what a disaster this is! Do you think I wanted it to fall apart?” And here I thought I was a decent child psychologist. Guess again, genius. It turns out that Sava is the kind of kid who doesn’t want his negative emotions brought into sharper focus by someone with a PhD.

By sheer trial-and-error, I discovered a technique that works pretty well for him. Offering a more realistic version of his hyperbolic statement helps him cope with the bad feelings and puts things in a perspective that helps him move on to problem-solving pretty quickly. Case in point: During a recent ski trip, Sava wiped out pretty good. It was the kind of both-skis-and-poles-went-flying fall that we jokingly call a “yard sale.”

When I skied over to him, he said, “Do you see why I hate skiing? I never want to go again!” I took a deep breath and asked, “You hate skiing…or you hate falling?” I could see his face soften with calm. “I hate falling,” he said quietly. “And you never want to go again … or you’d like to take a little break right about now.” “A break, please.”

Now, that’s better. He was calm enough to put his skis back on and relieved enough that by the time he reached the chairlift, he didn’t want to take a break.

So, the next time you’re tempted to contradict or empathize, try a realistic perspective on for size.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training.