Years ago in our marriage (we’re coming up on our 9th anniversary this spring), we attended counselling together. Inevitably as we talked about issues together, some shortfalls in our styles of communication were highlighted. We learned techniques for listening and for speaking that enhanced our communication to one another, which has helped us immensely over the years. It occurred to me recently that those particular technique are not just helpful in my marriage relationship – they are perfect for talking to my preschooler too!
Isaac is three years old. He is at an age where his reasoning capabilities are really starting to develop and grow, and he can understand fairly abstract concepts and conversations. Unlike my 19-month-old, who is still totally literal and limited in communication, he is capable of basic conversations on feelings, morals, metaphysics (the non-physical aspects of the world, i.e. God, etc), and logic. Not all the time, of course, and in some cases I throw my hands up in the air and try to remember that he’s still just a beginner at this stuff. Another important aspect to his development right now is that he is slower to really assimilate what you are telling him. I read once that toddlers take an average of 30 seconds to hear what you are saying, process it, and take action. They will also hear you much better if you are physically touching, or making eye contact with them while you speak. He is now a year beyond toddlerhood, but of course he is still developing in this area.
Today, with these developmental considerations in mind, I’d like to share some practical tools that I use in my parenting with love and freedom.
:: The Situation ::
An issue between him and his little sister where he wanted what she had, or vice versa. A classic case of sibling rivalry that was quickly turning into a yelling/crying/hitting/biting fiasco. His world is still fairly ego-centric, so he finds it difficult to reconcile his intense feelings of wanting something with the commands I give to share and wait his turn. Aliza is of course a typical toddler and does not take kindly to this.
:: The Tools ::
The Bear Hug
I often use this technique when Isaac is highly upset, i.e.” freaking out”, and my words cannot even be heard above the crying and screaming. I wrap his entire body in mine, and hold him tightly so that he can’t get away. As much as I can I try to keep him in a little ball and restrict flailing limbs as well. I gently say “shh, it’s ok, I can’t talk to you when you’re crying/whining/screaming. I want to talk to you, sweetie. Calm down, take a deep breath”, etc. He struggles and fights me at first, but after probably 20-30 seconds (though it feels like forever) he relaxes his body and stops making noise (or at least brings the crying down to a whiny whimper which means I can start talking and he will hear my words).
I often see parents treating a “temper tantrum” or “freak out” as something to be punished or ignored. This approach makes me uncomfortable for several reasons. 1) it teaches the child that his extreme emotions are unacceptable and, 2) it teaches the child that he must figure out how to deal with his emotions by himself (or else he will be punished or ignored).
You may have guessed that the Bear Hug technique is not one that I learned in marriage counselling (haha!), but I find it interesting to note similarities of the power of gentle physical touch, even in marriage. When we are arguing, often a physical gesture like taking my hand in his is the catalyst to our reconciliation. It denotes the breaking down of emotional barriers, and usually softens our emotions to one another. I find many parallels to the Bear Hug tool with Isaac, as I use gentle physical contact to connect on a heart-level with him again.
This is the most powerful tool I learned in counselling, and we find it practically fail-proof in any and all argument (provided we can discipline ourselves to keep at it in the midst of “intense marital fellowship” when emotions are boiling over). It looks a bit more complex in a marital discussion, but when using it with a preschooler – the principle is the same. The idea is to calmly say what you are trying to communicate (in age-appropriate terms), and ensure the other person really understood by asking them to repeat it back to you (in adult interaction you’d rephrase it in your own words).
We’ve used the Bear Hug and he has calmed down enough to listen (after being bitten by his toddler sister out of frustration).
Mommy: Hi sweetie, how are you feeling right now? (I acknowledge his feelings, and continue on…) I just want to tell you something, ok? When you take toys away from Aliza she gets very angry and frustrated. That makes her want to bite and hit you. Remember that there’s a nice way to ask her for toys (he knows the difference between calmly and nicely asking vs. crying and grabbing), and that if you get frustrated you can ask Mommy for help. Ok?
Mommy: So what did you hear me say?
Isaac: I dunno! (He hasn’t truly heard me yet).
Isaac: Don’t take toys from Ally.
Mommy: Yes, that’s right. And why not?
Isaac: She will get angry and she will bite me and hit me.
Mommy: That’s right. I love you. Are you feeling ok now? (Hugs and kisses, etc. The whole conversation took place with him in my lap, with lots of solid eye contact)
(Happily jumps up to go play… and shows clear understanding by being more gentle and cooperative with his sister for the rest of the afternoon. We repeat this as needed (sometimes several times a day), and have noticed that when we are consistent, he is quick to learn and put it into action. By getting him to repeat what I’m saying, he also understands the importance of it).
He is also beginning to understand that others around him have emotions too. I could tell a little lightbulb went off in his head the other day when having one of these conversations, because when I told him that it makes Aliza angry and frustrated when he takes her toys, his eyes widened and he said “ohhhh!”. All of a sudden he began to understand that he has power and ownership in his relationships with those around him – a truly vital lesson to learn in life.
So, these are my two “go-to” tools that I use quite often in “minor” altercations and issues. There are other tools I use for different situations, which I will share more about in the future.
Lest anyone think this is all sounding a bit pretentious, let me assure you that I don’t exactly have this stuff down pat. Most days see me fumbling around trying to put into practice the philosophical framework that we have in our parenting beliefs. It’s a good day when the above scenarios actually go as I described, and I manage to react that way instead of in my humanity – raising my voice, acting rashly, not listening or not being kind with my words. I want to emphasize that I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. You are the expert on your own child, and in offering these ideas I simply hope that you will be encouraged that gentle discipline is not only possible, but so rewarding in the end.
What are your favourite tools for communicating with your preschool age child? What do you find works well, and what doesn’t?