What’s Under the Angst?

Decoding The Messages That May Be Hidden In What Children Say

Written By Kassandra Brown 

“I want a lollipop and a cupcake!”

“No, you can pick one or the other.”

“But I want both!”

“I know you want both. The sugar is really tasty, but it’s already more sugar than I want you to have. You may pick one.”

“You’re not fair! I hate you! You’re an awful mom!”

“I hear you’re really upset and you really want both. How about half of each?”

“No. I want all of both!”

The argument went on, but I think you get the idea. My daughter wanted the sweets and I was saying no. My attempts to empathetically listen and reflect came a little late and didn’t seem to be creating harmony. As a parent coach, I’ve learned to use difficult parenting moments like this as food for personal reflection. When my tools aren’t working, it causes me to dig deeper and ask questions like…

What else is going on?

I noticed that I was tired and at the end of a busy day. I noticed that I was distracted. We were in a busy community kitchen with many people coming and going, kids running around, and several side conversations happening. Many people were eating lollipops and talking about the birthday cupcakes to come later. I noticed I didn’t want my daughter having any sugar and I was annoyed to believe I didn’t have a choice. Other people brought it to our community meeting, put it right in front of her, and then left me to negotiate. I felt powerless and when I feel powerless, my habit is to try to control others.

That helps answer the question of what was going on for me. What was going on for my daughter?

She had had a long day of play and distraction. She had caught glimpses of me throughout the day, but we’d had no focused time together. What did she need in that moment in the kitchen? I’m betting she wanted to be seen, heard, listened to, and connected with. She didn’t want me to keep talking to other grown-ups and being distracted. She wanted to feel good. She wanted ease and sweetness.

Reading the Code

I can’t always give my children what they want and neither can you. Yet if we look beneath the surface, we can find the needs imbedded in the behavior. Each whine, demand, and sigh masks or reveals the child’s inner world. Everyday struggles become clearer. Like a foreign language we can learn to read, our children’s incomprehensible behavior turns into clear needs and requests. Once parents start to learn this language, we can have a real response rather than just another habitual reaction. We have the power to stop the cycle of missed communication, hurt, and rejection.

Let’s step into our children’s shoes. Let’s take a look at the hidden messages that may lie within some common kid phrases.

“I don’t care what you do.”

It can be tempting to take this statement at face value and think you should walk away because your child doesn’t want you around. What if something closer to the opposite is true? Maybe they don’t even want to ask you to be with them because they think you’ll say no. This happens with my daughter and I and it has transformed our relationship for me to understand her hidden code.

When my daughter uses this one she sometimes adds whammies like “I hate you and you’re the worst mom in the world.” This is when she’s really feeling like she wants to spend time with me and I’m going to say no. The big feelings inside of her can be likened to falling in love and having her crush rejected. Do you remember that feeling? She’s trying to protect herself in advance from the pain of not getting the love she wants. Do you ever do that?

When I connect with her need and understand her strategy, my anger at her for ‘speaking to me that way’ evaporates. I can see more clearly how I want to interact with her rather than just going into knee jerk mode around “I need my child’s respect. What will the other parents think of me when they hear her talk that way? I need to make her behave and know to never talk to me that way again.”

What do I do? Often I slow down and evaluate my priorities. Even if I need to be away from her, I can usually give her a few minutes to calm down and then sit with her, either rearranging my priorities to make time with her or making a future date that I will keep, to connect with her in the way deeply and without distraction.

In the example dialogue at the beginning of this article, my daughter and I were at odds and she was telling me she wanted lollipos and cupcakes while yelling at me that I was an awful, unfair parent. Once I could get some perspective on the situation, I realized it had been a long day for her too and that she had been looking forward to spending time with me. When she noticed that there were still many other people around and that I was still distracted, she got worried and angry. The limits I was placing on her access to candy was a trigger and good focus for the anger and disappointment she was already feeling. The desire for sugar was masking her deeper desire for connection.

With this perspective, I have the power to behave differently. I have the ability to focus on my child’s need rather than fighting with her about her strategy for meeting her need. This perspective is both freeing and empowering.

“I want screen time.”

Whether in the form of movies, video games, TV or another electronic entertainer, screen time is hard to resist. Most parents want their kids to be in front of the screen less than they are. It’s a constant struggle in many households. Here is one way to understand the pull of the screen.

Children, like all healthy humans, want to be happy and successful. They enjoy watching the screen and imagining a world where everything happens easily. They live vicariously through the characters on the screen. They get to imagine acting in ways they could never act in real life. They can sit back and watch from the safety of the couch with no risk of failure. Many grown-ups do the same thing.

Why children like screen time

What would happen if you connected with your child’s need for easy happiness and no risk of failure? You might find they are trying to get their need for pleasure met while eliminating the possibility of not succeeding. Fears of failure and disappointment are highly inhibitory. You can help them move through those fears and be OK with trying, having it not come out the way they want, sitting with what was and what they hoped would be, and allowing their natural creativity and learning to unfold.

Do you find your own fears and judgments getting in the way? Many parents feel compelled to label things good or bad and to ‘help’. But sometimes this ‘help’ looks more like taking over and is offered to avoid your own fears. You don’t want to fail. You worry that your child will feel crushed if they fail. You worry that other parents or authority figures will think less of you as a parent or person if your child fails. All of those feelings are valid. All of those feelings are about you and your own work; they are not about your children.

When you work through your own fears, you are able to learn from life. Mistakes and successes both become valuable and there is less distinction between the two. I suggest you don’t get too excited when your children succeed and don’t get too bummed when they fail. If you do find your emotions oscillating with their achievements, it may be a good idea to do your own inner work so you don’t need to project (too much) onto your kids. At parentcoaching.org this is exactly what I help you do.

“Play with me?”

Kids long for meaning, order, and a narrative to life. Life is often unpredictable. One benefit of play is to make sense of the world and to feel powerful. It’s the way children try out ideas without having the stakes of failure be so high. Kids also want connection and when you play with them in their world they are more assured of getting the connection they want without being overpowered by your bigger grown-up words or logic. They created the world. They tell you how it is.

Inviting you to play with them is the way kids have of asking you to be in their world. Take the invitation – at least periodically – to peek into your child’s inner world. You’ll learn a lot from her when you listen and participate.

“Can I climb on the roof?”

What? Your child knows better. Of course they aren’t allowed on the roof, right?

Your child asks for something extragavent – a dangerous game or a trip to Tahiti. Your knee-jerk answer might be the one familiar to most parents – “No!” What happens when you examine your “no”? Is it a real answer or is it just echoing what you were told by your own parents when you were younger? You might try to counter your inner naysayer by saying “yes”, but an unexamined yes is not a great answer either. What if there are other options?

Be careful with your response here. Kids do want boundaries and they don’t want to be in pain. However, they also have a strong need to test those boundaries and find out how to be safe. They need to learn to rely on their own judgment. They need to learn that they can get back up after they fall down. “No!” is such an easy answer especially when kids ask ‘stupid’ questions. But what can you do to help your kids know they are safe in their explorations?

decoding what children say

It takes a lot more finesse and attention to help create safety in the exploration than it does to simply shut it down. Making mistakes with livable consequences are great ways to learn. The bummer about shutting down all crazy explorations is that kids will lose their own internal sense of how to create safety within the adventure. Then, when they sneak out and go behind your back, they are more likely to do really scary antics without knowing how to evaluate risks or engineer a ‘safe enough’ situation. Helping them create livable risks is a great way to let them learn from their own mistakes and still test their freedom and capacity.

Hopefully these words give you food for thought. If you’re new to this, I encourage you to patience and a willingness to make mistakes. The habituated knee-jerk responses most of us have are deeply ingrained and not easily dismissed. You will most likely remember, forget, and remember again to use your deep listening ears. This is why parenting is a practice.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you listen below the surface? What have you learned from your children?

handstandKassandra Brown is a mom and parenting coach.   Kassandra can help you decode the hidden messages in your own and your children’s behaviors to create more ease and harmony in your home. If you are interested in an opportunity to work with Kassandra she coaches via Skype and Phone. See more of her work like her latest post on the importance of empathy for your kid’s future on her blog.

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