Write this word on your hand. It’s a magical way to connect with a child of any age, can ease tears and tantrums and even prevent them. It’s a simple but surprisingly challenging thing to do, particularly tough to remember in the heat the moment…
Before you tell your child that it’s time to leave the park, or remind him that the really cool truck he’s examining has to stay at the store, acknowledge his point of view. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and wishes, even if they seem ridiculous, irrational, self-centered or wrong. This is not the same as agreeing, and is definitely not indulgent or allowing an undesirable behavior.
Acknowledging isn’t condoning our child’s actions; it’s validating the feelings behind them. It’s a simple, profound way to reflect our child’s experience and inner self. It demonstrates our understanding and acceptance. It sends a powerful, affirming message… Every thought, desire, feeling — every expression of your mind, body and heart — is perfectly acceptable, appropriate and lovable.
Acknowledging is simple, but it isn’t easy. It’s counter-intuitive for most of us, even when we’ve done it thousands of times. Won’t acknowledging our child’s wishes make matters worse? Won’t saying “I know how much you want an ice cream cone like the one your friend has and it does look yummy, but we won’t be having dessert until later” make our toddler hold on to the idea longer, cry harder? Wouldn’t it be better to dismiss or downplay the child’s feelings, distract, redirect or say:”Oh, sweetie, not now”?
Our fears about an honest acknowledgement of the situation “making things worse” are almost always unfounded. Feeling heard and understood allows children to release the feelings, let go and move on. Here are more reasons that acknowledging our child’s truth is worth the conscious effort it takes…
1. Acknowledging can stop tears and tantrums in their tracks.
I have witnessed this many, many times. Whether a child is upset about an injury, a disagreement with another child or anger over a conflict with a parent, acknowledging to the child what happened or that he is hurt, frustrated or angry can miraculously ease the pain. Feeling understood is a powerful thing.
2.Acknowledging, instead of judging or “fixing”, fosters trust and encourages children to keep sharing their feelings.
Parents and caregivers have an enormous influence, and their responses have an impact on young children. If, for example, we try to calm children by assuring them that there’s no need to be upset or worried about something that’s troubling them, they may become less inclined to express their feelings. If our goal is our child’s emotional health and keeping the door of communication open – just acknowledging is the best policy. “Daddy left and you are sad.”
I was reminded of this recently when one of my teenage daughters shared her anger and heartbreak over a long time best friend’s lies and betrayal. How hard it was not tell her that this friend is flawed and that my daughter deserves so much better! How hard it was to just listen and acknowledge the hurt and disappointment. As painful as this experience was for me, I treasure it, because my daughter trusted me with her innermost feelings. I’ll do all in my power to encourage her to share with me again. (My daughter ended up resuming her relationship with her long adored friend, having noted her limitations, and I was so glad I held my tongue.)
3. Acknowledging informs, encourages language development and emotional intelligence.
Children gain clarity about their feelings and desires when we verbally reflect them. But don’t state the feeling unless you’re sure. It’s safer to use the words “upset” or “bothered” rather than jumping to “scared”, “angry”, etc. When in doubt, you might ask, “Did it make you mad when Joey wouldn’t let you use his blocks?” “Did the dog’s bark frighten you or just surprise you?”
An added benefit: talking to babies, toddlers, children of all ages about these “real things” happening to them is the most powerful, meaningful and natural way for them to learn language.
4. Acknowledging illuminates, helps us understand and empathize.
To state our child’s point of view, we have to first see it, so acknowledging helps to give us clarity. When we say, “You want me to keep playing this fun game with you, but I’m too tired”, we are encouraged to empathize with our child’s point-of-view (and he ours).
Acknowledging the situation and asking questions (especially when we don’t know the reason our child is upset) can help us to unravel the mystery. “You’re upset and look uncomfortable. You just ate, your diaper is dry. Maybe you need to burp? Okay, I’m going to pick you up.”
5. Acknowledging struggles might be all the encouragement your child needs to carry on.
This is another scenario in which a simple acknowledgement can work like magic. Rather than saying, “you can do it!”, which can create pressure and set the child up to believe he disappoints us, try saying, “You are working very hard, and you’re making progress. That is tough to do. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?”
6. Acknowledgements instead of praise help children stay inner-directed.
This is as simple as containing our impulse to cheer loudly or say “good job!”, and instead smiling and reflecting, “You pulled the plastic beads apart. That was really hard.”
“Let your child’s inner joy be self-motivating. You can smile and express your genuine feelings but should refrain from giving excessive compliments, clapping your hands, and making a big fuss. If you do this, your child starts seeking satisfaction from external sources. She can get hooked on praise, becoming a performer seeking applause instead of an explorer. Praise also disrupts and interrupts a child’s learning process. She stops what she’s doing and focuses on you, sometimes not returning to the activity.” –Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby
7. Acknowledging proves that we are paying attention, makes a child feel understood, accepted, deeply loved and supported.
Could there be any better reason to give it a try?
“People will forget what you said; People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou
“We all need someone who understands.” –Magda Gerber
I share more about respectful care and emotional health in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo by girlwiththecamera on Fickr)