When it comes to parenting, what you say to your children really matters (no pressure), and the way we communicate has a lasting impact that can help shape how they interact with the world around them. While most loving parents mean well, the typical go-to phrases we use may not have the effect we want or create the long-term outcome we desire.
Think about a typical playground setting: As children chase one another and swing from the monkey bars, watchful parents on the sidelines scream, “Be careful!” or “Don’t do that!” or “Watch out!” … sometimes to ad nauseam. While these subconscious thoughts and instructions may influence behavior for a brief period of time, it can also be questioned whether everything goes in one ear and out the other after so much repetition, leading to frustration and probably more screaming on the sidelines.
If this sounds familiar and you feel you repeat the same phrases almost instinctively, then you may find mindful communication useful in helping to develop an intentional process of communicating with your kiddos in a way that helps them thrive—and allows you to feel more in control.
Another reason to consider mindful communication? You feel like you hear your mother talking every time you open your mouth to speak, and you don’t like it.
“How we were raised has a huge impact on how we raise our children,” says Kelly Nadel, LCSW, director of clinical training at Good Inside, an expert-guided community platform that provides parents with strategic tools to solve challenges faced in the home. “Unless we actively work to change our circuitry and rewire ourselves, we often repeat the patterns we experienced in our own childhoods. Learning to become more aware of our reactions and triggers can dramatically impact our ability to change the way we parent.”
Feeling triggered? It’s OK! According to Nadel, awareness is the first step in shifting your communication patterns, so you’ve already made the first step. Read on for a better understanding of mindful communication, its application, and how it can positively affect your parenting.
What is Mindful Communication?
As the name implies, mindful communication involves being present and aware of your current state and choosing to be intentional with your next move. In parenting, this means you’re also considering your child’s state and thinking before responding, which is the opposite of the playground example mentioned above.
“When we find ourselves repeating the same phrases over and over again, it’s time to pause for a moment to reflect,” says Nadel. “As children develop, they are always asking two main questions: Am I safe? Am I loved? Unfortunately kids don’t say, ‘Hey, mom! I need you to keep me safe right now because I don’t know how to do [this] and I’m having trouble slowing down and listening to you!’ Instead, their behavior tells a story. We always want to look beneath our child’s behavior to understand that particular story.”
She goes on to explain that being a mindful parent means noticing these stories and messages being sent by your child regarding safety and feeling loved, and speaking more to that deeper experience versus whatever is on the surface, like your kiddo climbing up the slide for the millionth time.
When you feel the urge to tell your child to stop or slow down, Nadel says to pause and ask yourself: Is this a dangerous situation or a problem-solving situation?
If your child is in danger, stepping in can look like one of the following options:
- Activating yourself and actually walking (or running!) over to your child and helping them stay safe.
- Replacing “be careful” with other language, such as, “You’re showing me that it’s hard to stay safe while playing. I’m going to help you.”
If your child is not in immediate danger, it may mean that they are taking on something with a level of risk and need support, explains Nadel. In this instance, “we actually want to activate our child’s problem-solving skills and awareness” because it encourages risk assessment and gives your child the freedom to explore, increase curiosity, and become more comfortable with problem-solving.
“For example, you may say something like, ‘Hey, I see you’re trying these monkey bars. What’s your plan here?’ or ‘What are you thinking you’re going to do next? How will that work? What do you think might happen if (fill in the blank)?’ All of these exploratory questions [encourage these benefits],” shares Nadel.
This difference in intent is mindful communication in action.
Why Does it Matter?
This communication style focuses on feelings, which Nadel says is crucial in childhood.
“Being a mindful parent means being in an intentional relationship with your child about their experiences, choices and feelings; feelings are the center from which everything else happens.” She further explains, “We have a feeling in our body before it becomes a thought or an action. Getting to know our child’s feelings is one of the first stepping stones in emotional regulation, which is key to resilience, frustration tolerance, and successful interpersonal relationships.”
This fostering of your child’s feelings provides that needed assurance of love and safety while building a foundation of trust. This happens when giving them freedom to test a limit and when setting a firm boundary in a loving way. For example, you could say, “I see you’re having a hard time listening. That’s why I’m here. I’m going to stay with you until you can play safely.”
“Letting our children know that we are in charge of their safety eventually becomes that child’s internal voice: I will keep myself safe. I know how to do this because it was done for me,” explains Nadel.
While we’re the first to admit that taking a moment to reframe your thinking and intentionally choose to speak to your child’s inner feelings in the moment is hard (especially when that moment involves a rude attitude or a massive tantrum), these quality interactions can lead to quality of life as your little one grows, positively affecting their self-esteem and beliefs about themselves. What’s more, they will take their ingrained communication skills into future relationships, and possibly apply them to their own journey in parenthood.
Everyday Communication Tips
Mindful communication involves changing your habits one decision at a time. Here are a few practical ways to help apply it to everyday life.
“Think about communication with our kids as an attempt to keep answering those questions [of feeling loved and safe],” says Nadel. “This means communication can often fall into two categories: boundaries and connection.”
She explains that in order to increase cooperation, parents need to increase connection, which can be achieved in various ways, though she suggests the following:
- Try one-on-one time with your child, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. Special time should be child-led without the use of technology. (That means no phone for you, too!)
- Discuss your feelings with your child more frequently. If your kiddo isn’t keen on talking about their feelings, then start with your own to increase emotional range.
- Tell your child stories about your own childhood. “This is a huge moment for child and parent connection. Children love hearing about a time their parent struggled as a child because they feel less alone in their struggles,” notes Nadel.
Boundaries, on the other hand, communicate love through setting limits and asserting sturdy leadership while also demonstrating empathy. Additionally, this is an area where she says repetition is a good thing, as it leads to the idea of consistency in abiding by family rules and upholding family values. Here are a few scripts Nadel suggests using when needed:
- “We have to hold hands when we cross the street. You’re allowed not to like it. It’s my job to keep you safe.”
- “You’re showing me you can’t play safely with (insert item). I’m going to take it for a little while, until we can figure out how to play safely with it.”
- “I won’t let you (insert action).” Then step in and stop it. Followed up with, “I know you want to (insert action), but it’s not allowed. To help you stay safe, I’m going to pick you up and carry you.”
- “It can be hard to slow down! Especially when you’re having so much fun. I’m going to sit with you, and we can take some deep breaths to slow our bodies. Then we can try again to play and listen at the same time. I know it can be so tricky.”
Another key tactic Nadel recommends is this problem-solving strategy when conflicts arise.
“Often during a point of conflict we look at it as: our child + their problem against us (the parent). This equation sets us up for more conflict and less connection,” explains Nadel. “I love to shift this paradigm, and look at it from the position of: our child + us, looking together at the problem.”
“Once we make this orientation shift, we can be on the same team, looking out at the problem together and creating meaningful connection and problem-solving. This feels better to us and to our kids! The more we open up and explore together, the more likely we are to have collaborative conversations that bring us closer together and solve problems,” she says.
Togetherness is the goal, and mindful communication is one type of vehicle to reach that destination, though the road may be bumpy along the way. And if you’re ever lost at any point. Nadel simplifies it down to two roles: the role of the parent and the role of the child.
“Our job as parents is three-fold: to keep our children safe; to validate, empathize, and connect; and to set clear boundaries. Our children’s jobs? To feel their feelings.”
Like all mindfulness practices, it takes time, patience, and persistence. If you’re interested in learning more, visit goodinside.com for additional resources.