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May 8, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

Teaching children how to communicate respectfully no matter what they are feeling.

Dear Sarah Chana,

My five-year-old daughter Jackie is a very bright, happy little girl. Her teachers love her and she has lots of friends. There is just one small problem: when things don't go her way at home, she can act and talk in ways that are completely unacceptable. For instance, she will say to my husband or to me "I hate you!" or "You're so mean!" If it's the babysitter she's upset with, she will stick her tongue out or even kick the poor woman. I've told her a million times that this is not how we behave but it makes no difference. I'm sure she'll grow out of this eventually but meanwhile is there something I can do to speed things up?

Dear Parent,

Yes there are things you can do to speed up the learning curve. In fact, it's a good idea to intervene before your daughter establishes strong neural pathways in her brain for behavior that will not serve her well. Of course, a child can learn to change her ways at any point in life (and, fortunately, so can we adults!) but it is so much easier to change behaviors that are not firmly entrenched

Respect for parents is a prime Jewish value, carved in stone as one of the Ten Commandments. It is so important because it trains a child to ultimately show respect not only to parents, but to every person. Sensitivity becomes a way of life and contributes to successful, harmonious relationships. Most people -- including children -- can be pleasant enough when things are going their way. If a child asks for a candy and gets one, she can be totally delightful. It's when the candy is refused that the challenge begins.

When a child is disappointed, frustrated or otherwise unhappy, her behavior may disintegrate. (This can happen to adults too. We'll have to "cure" ourselves of our own tantrums before we can hope to teach our kids the basics of self-control.) When a parent tries to address the child's behavior without addressing her frustration, the lesson will often fail. There are always two parts to a tantrum or other displays of disrespectful behavior: emotions and actions. Human emotions arise against our will; they are involuntary. Everyone feels upset, angry and resentful at times, just as we all feel frightened, overwhelmed, hurt, insulted, disappointed and every other emotion. Emotions are just feelings and they are all okay. We never punish a child for what he or she is feeling. We never try to talk a child out of what he or she is feeling. We never try to correct a child's feeling.

While all emotions are acceptable, not all actions are.

However, it's a different story completely when it comes to actions. While all emotions are acceptable, not all actions are. Some words and behaviors are unacceptable because they lower one's dignity or the dignity of others. Some are unacceptable because they are hurtful. Some are unacceptable because they are destructive. It is up to parents to teach children how to ACT when FEELING upset. By our model and by our interventions, we can help children to act with dignity and sensitivity, even when they feel disappointed or infuriated.

There is a process that parents can use to teach children how to communicate respectfully no matter what they are feeling. Let's look at each step:

  1. Teach: At a neutral time like story time, bed time or dinner time. Talk about feelings like frustration, disappointment and upset. Give examples of how people can express these emotions in acceptable ways and unacceptable ways. For young kids you can puppets, dolls and role playing to illustrate your points.
  2. Remind: At a time when the child expresses her frustration inappropriately, NAME HER FEELINGS. "You're not happy about this/you're mad at Mommy/you're very disappointed/I know you're upset" etc. Only when the child has returned to a calm state should you go on to REMIND her about the talk you recently had about how one expresses upset feelings respectfully. Ask the child to say what she should have said earlier. Offer praise for the improved version.
  3. Block: After teaching the child what you want her to say and do when she's feeling angry or otherwise upset, and after giving her several weeks of practice using the Reminding Step above, move on to blocking inappropriate words and actions. That is, at a time when the child is reacting in anger inappropriately, quietly say to her "Excuse me?" or "I beg your pardon?" or "Would you please try that again more respectfully?" When the child corrects herself, offer generous praise.
  4. Discipline: After using blocking for about a month, move on to discipline. Tell the child, "from now on, when you don't speak respectfully, there will be such and such negative consequence (name the consequence). Use this until the child's behavior is consistently respectfully.

Coming back to your scenario with your daughter, what you can begin to do is teach her that it's okay and perfectly understandable to be upset sometimes, especially when things don't go the way you want them to. However, she cannot call anyone names, say hurtful things or do hurtful things (like kick the babysitter!). What she can do instead is name her own feelings ("I'm not happy about that" or "I'm mad"). Then, when she is actually frustrated and starts to tantrum, you can name her feelings until she has calmed down. Remind her to use the skills you taught her. Praise her for doing so. Continue through the four steps as needed. Within a couple of months your daughter will hopefully be a skilled and sensitive communicator -- just like you!


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