Ed was trying to be patient and thoughtful, but he was at the end of his rope. Instead of helping him fix dinner, his two daughters were upstairs arguing loudly and disrespectfully. As he listened he thought to himself, “That’s it, I’ve had enough. That’s the last straw!”
Seconds later the inevitable happened: screams cascaded down the steps and into the kitchen as the older sister innocently appeared for her table-setting duty. With loud voice and popping veins Ed erupted. “Are you happy now? Your sister is crying! Did you get what you wanted?”
As Ed retold the story he looked discouraged. He’d been working on asking constructive questions and empowering his kids to solve their own problems. Technically, he asked a couple of questions, but we can immediately recognize the intent was not to discover new information or empower his daughter. “I was angry and I knew I wanted to ask some questions,” he said sadly, “but those were the only ones that came to my mind.”
I said, “That is awesome!”
The road to becoming the parents we want to be can be quite bumpy as we let go of old habits, but while Ed clearly didn’t respond the way he’d ultimately like to respond, I still saw a change in the trajectory of his parenting. Instead of quickly barking orders when the kids fought, he waited. He did the best he knew how to empower his kids by asking questions. While his efforts fell short of his goal, Ed no longer wanted to talk about how to get kids to quit fighting and do chores, but about what had happened and how he could keep making the parenting progress he wants to make.
I repeat — “That is awesome!”
As Ed received this encouragement, we moved on to talk about the subtle negative messages his efforts conveyed to his daughter:
- You are making me mad. (aka: you are in control of my emotions)
- You are a problem.
- You are incapable of relating well to your sister.
- I am responsible for you and your sister’s relationship.
We then talked more about how to ask constructive questions, and encourage his kids with positive messages. Here’s the essence of our conversation.
First, ask yourself some questions:
- Is my heart for my child, and prepared well to talk with him/her?
- Have I asked God for guidance and help? (Keep in mind that high levels of anger, irritability, or frustration need to be in check or even good questions will be perceived as trapping or incriminating.)
- Are my tone of voice, facial expressions and body language inviting a conversation? (Keep in mind that non-verbal communication holds even more power to communicate than do words themselves, and that the nature of eye-contact given is the most potent of all.)
When parents take time to reflect on these questions there is often greater receptivity by the child to talk about what is going on. The message kids receive is, “You are safe with me.”
Then, engaging kids with a some constructive questions may bring about a surprisingly different outcome. For example, in the above scenario, saying:
- “Seems like the two of you are having a rough time. Are you two doing okay? (This causes her to assess the situation for herself.)
- What happened to get you yelling and her crying? (This allows her to tell you her side while also considering her sister’s perspective.)
- What do you think needs to be done to get your relationship to a place where you both feel good about each other again? (Asking for their input puts the responsibility for the relationship on them.)
- What would your sister say is needed? (Helping her see it from her sister’s perspective is important for reconciliation.)
- Is there anything you need from me to help resolve this conflict? (Offering to give suggestions or be a resource is important to help kids think through their options.)
Of course the above situation could go a hundred different directions! Perhaps the sisters will need time apart to consider how they want to repair their damaged relationship. Perhaps younger sister will need a couple minutes of comfort and question-asking as well. Perhaps the conflict won’t be resolved until after dinner or the next day. No matter how the conflict resolves, the important thing is to focus on communicating positive messages to your children in ways that support their conflict resolution.
The positive messages parents convey in this approach can be capsulized this way:
- “You are safe with me as I work to calm down and sort out my own issues.”
- “You are loved – even when you squabble like this.”
- “You are capable of caring for each other and of learning to sort things out.”
- “You are responsible for your relationships.”
If you want kids to believe these things, start by telling them. Then, ask questions that help them act accordingly. If you do, the trajectory in your home will keep changing too.