Thoughtful Parenting: Teaching assertive, kinder words

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Ever heard your child say, “You can’t make me do that!” or something that conveys: I’m in charge, and there’s no way you’re going to control what I do. Your immediate response might be, “Don’t talk to me like that!” and then scramble to think of a consequence.

Thoughtful Parenting

This weekly column about parenting issues is written by local early childhood experts. It publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

Part of being a kid is learning how to communicate what you like, want and prefer in a way that others can hear. “You’re not the boss of me!” gets your attention, but it is distracting. Kids can use unkind words to get what they want.

Parenting expert Mary Sheedy Kurcinka calls this “bulldozing.” It’s an aggressive action whereby the bulldozer feels powerful and what’s under it gets crushed. We want kids to understand and communicate their preferences and feelings to family, friends, teachers and classmates, but not in a way that hurts relationships.

Consider the following tips to teach this skill. Remember, practice and progress happens throughout time.

• Have a conversation when things are calm about the idea of bulldozing with words. Ask about the times when your child felt bulldozed and when they’ve done the bulldozing. How did it feel to them? To the other person? Highlight the fact that there are other ways to communicate that respects others and themselves.

• On your own, reflect on times when your child has used this tactic. What do you think they were experiencing or feeling in that moment? Embarrassment, irritation, hunger or fatigue? In the future, you can help them figure out what they are feeling — a key to helping them understand themselves and solve any problem.

• When you hear your child say something that sounds like they are trying to assert themselves in a disrespectful way, briefly state what you think they are doing. “I think your words are acting like a bulldozer.”

• Help your child guess what they are experiencing: “I wonder if you feel irritated when I asked you to pick up your room?”

• Help your child express what she wants in a way that sounds respectful and conveys their preferences: “You can say instead: 'I’m really tired from being at school all day. I need a break,' or, 'I need your attention,' or, 'I think this is unfair.'”

• Encourage your child to rephrase what they want to say. “Try again” is a good, short phrase. If you think your child struggles to find the words, give him examples of what he can say.

• Tone of voice sometimes doesn’t match the message. Encourage your child to try again with a more acceptable tone. Praise them for effort, not for getting it perfect — imagine having to say something in a respectful tone when you don’t want to.

For more information about these ideas, check out "Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles," by Dr. Kurcinka.

Barbara Gueldner, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Steamboat Springs. She is a member of First Impressions, Routt County’s Early Childhood Council. Read her blog at www.successfulkidstoday.com.

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