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This one is about: Talk to Me!

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by Joanne Green

"What did you learn in school today?"
"Nothing at all?"
"Oh, come on. You must have learned SOMEthing new. What did you do in school all day?"
"I dunno. Can I have something to eat?"

It's the typical ritualistic conversation that passes between parent and child every school day of the year. What is lacking from that conversation is a vital element: Communication.

Communication is a complex skill. Many young children have yet to master it. And yet, for children who have something very important weighing heavily on their minds, it is a skill that they cannot wait to develop. They need to communicate NOW!

Suzy was called a name on the playground. She felt hurt by the remark but did not know how to respond to it. Once home she was embarrassed to share the experience with her mother. And so, when asked, "What did you do in school today?", Suzy responds with "Nothing." How can Suzy's parents help her to deal with the problem if they don't know about it?

Communication is a two-way street. Information must flow in both directions for communication to occur. But it takes more than an exchange of words. Communication doesn't happen unless an exchange of ideas and thoughts takes place. Suzy and her mother exchanged a few words, but neither left the exchange knowing anymore about the other than she had before. Suzy does not possess the skill to effect a more productive exchange. She does not know how to really communicate yet. It's up to Mom to teach her.


Mom may have noticed something in Suzy's behavior that suggested all is not well for her little girl. Yet, Suzy cannot find the language to tell her mom what it is. Mom can probe by using what is called "open-ended questions." Those are questions that require a thoughtful answer, as contrasted to a question that requires a simple yes/no or one-word response. For instance, Mom might ask, "Who did you play with today?" or "What story did your teacher read to you?" etc. Such questions elicit more of a response from Suzy, which in turn helps Mom to ascertain what is causing the melancholy mood.


Before a person can share her thoughts she must feel that those thoughts will be understood. We can show our children that we understand their thoughts by reflecting them back. For instance, if little Johnny comes into the house, throws his coat roughly onto the sofa and shouts, "I'm MAD!" you can respond in one of several ways.

You could inhibit communication by correcting the inappropriateness of his outburst, ("I don't care how mad you are, you don't go around throwing your clothes!"); or you can deny his experience ("Oh, come on now, you can't be that mad."); or you can attempt to solve his problem for him ("What has made you so angry, and here is what you can do about it.") What he needs first, though is to know that you hear his statement and that you validate his experience. ("Johnny, you are really angry.") You simply reflect back to Johnny in your OWN words, what he said to you.

Back to Suzy, when Mom asked her, "Who did you play with today?" Suzy's response might have been, "Jane and I played until that mean old Sandra showed up!" To which Mom's reflective response would be, "You are Jane were having fun, but Sandra spoiled it for you." Thus the door is open for Suzy's response. "Sandra is mean." (You see, she still does not have the language to tell her mom exactly what happened.) "Sandra does mean things to you and Jane?" "Well, not to Jane." "Sandra makes you feel bad?" "Yes. Especially when she says mean things." Bingo! Now you're talking!


A child knows what she feels. she is not asking you to tell her what she feels. She wants to know how to handle it. When Tommy says, "I hate Michael!" he really means that he hates Michael. You could attempt to invalidate his emotion by saying, "You don't really hate Michael, now do you?" and thereby tell him that since you don't understand what he is feeling, you cannot possibly him to deal with it. Or you can correct him by saying, "It's not right to hate someone. Maybe you are just mad at him right now." Now he feels that he is wrong in your eyes and therefore possibly even punishable. He's not about to come forth with any other revelations.

Or you can validate his feelings by reflecting, "You seem really angry with Michael." "Yeah, he stole my race car and says it's his." or you can validate his statement by acknowledging that you heard it, "Boy, that's a very powerful anger you have there. What's it all about?" Tommy knows you hear him. He's ready to talk.

Suzy's mom knows that Sandra made Suzy feel bad by saying something mean. "Mean" words can hurt deeply. Now it's time to validate that sentiment.

"Sandra made you feel badly because she said something mean to you."
"What did she say?"
"She called me a 'flat nose'."

Once Suzy felt that Mom heard her and understood, she found the words to report something that was very painful. She has communicated her pain. It would be nice if it stopped there, but it does not. Now Suzy must be helped to sort out her own feelings and deal with them.


Children know how something makes them feel, but they seldom know how they feel about it. In other words, they know that teasing makes them feel bad, but they feel at one time embarrassed, and at one time guilty, and at one time angry and at one time depressed. They don't know how to internalize what they feel and put it into perspective. You can tell them what to do with one emotion or another, but that won't help your child for the next time. It is far better that you help your child discover what he or she feels. Then when the next time comes your child has had some experience with this most difficult of tasks.

Eddie was in a rage. "Rodney told the teacher that I was passing notes in class, but I wasn't!" You could confront him and destroy all possibility of further communication, "Come on, Eddie, were you passing notes?" Or you could tell him how to solve the problem, "Eddie, you need to tell your teacher that Rodney is just a liar!" Or you could march on down to the school and take on the problem yourself.

Or you could help Eddie find his own solution to the problem. First, help him to understand what the problem is - is he angry at Rodney for lying, or is he afraid that the teacher thinks he is passing notes? "Eddie, how did you feel about that?" "I'm mad. He shouldn't go around saying I'm passing notes when I'm not!" "Why do you think he said you were passing notes?" "I don't know. I guess because he saw someone pass a note by me and he thought it was me." "What do you think you can do about it so he won't think it's you again?" And so Eddie postulates some solutions until he comes up with one that just might work. The important thing is that he did his own problem solving. You merely guided him. The problem was defined as he saw it, and the solutions were ones he came up with.

What about Suzy's problem? Maybe it's time Mom guided her toward a solution.

"That was awfully mean of Sandra to call you that. How did it make you feel?"
"It made me feel sad and ugly."
"Do you still feel ugly?"
"No, I guess not."
"Do you still feel sad?"
"What could make you feel happy again?"
"A hug would make me feel happy again."
"Ok, a hug." Hugs her, "And what else?"
"If Sandra didn't say things like that to me any more I would feel happy."
"Is there anything you can do to stop her?"
"Maybe I can talk to my teacher. She might make her stop."
"That's a very good plan. Some people who are mean don't stop doing mean things just because someone tells them to stop. What can you do if Sandra doesn't listen to your teacher?"
"I guess I just shouldn't listen to her then."
"That's right. I think that's a good plan."

What happened in that scenario is communication. It sounds so easy on paper. It also works perfectly when you are writing the script. Unfortunately, the kids don't read the script and the parent doesn't have it in front of her when the time comes anyway. But don't worry, It's very difficult to irreparable damage a child with one botched conversation. You are the parent. You see your child every day. You get lots of chances.

The important thing is that you work to keep the communication flowing. Keep your questions open-ended so that your child has a cue from which to speak. Reflect and validate your child's feelings. There is a time for instruction and a time for communication. Let your child tell you how she feels in an atmosphere in which she will not feel judged by her emotion. And finally, don't solve your child's problems for her. Let her learn through guidance how to solve them herself.

Someday Suzy will be talking with her best friend over a cup of coffee in her own kitchen about the relationships they had with their mothers. And Suzy will be thoughtfully saying, "One thing I will always appreciate is that we were able to communicate."

-------------------Joanne Green has an MA in psychology, with experience as a child and family counselor. She
is the mother of three cleft-affected children. She is also the editor of WIDE SMILES Magazine.

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