Listening for the Underlying Message

When kids are upset, it can be hard for them to communicate their feelings. One mom experienced this when her 6-year-old son Zach left his new toy in a guest’s bedroom. Zach did not realize he had forgotten his new toy in the bedroom until the guest was already asleep. Mom explained to Zach that he was not allowed to go into the bedroom to get his toy and disturb the guest’s sleep.

The next morning when mom greeted Zach with “Good Morning!” he responded by whining about how the guest was still asleep and so he still couldn’t get his toy. Mom replied “Let’s not start the day with whining.” When Zach continued whining, she explained that she would listen to him when his voice sounded like hers. Zach’s behavior continued escalating until he was kicking and hitting as his mom tried to hold him.

He really lost it when mom became concerned about what the guest would think of Zach’s behavior and told him he was acting like a brat. He screamed back "I’m not a brat!"

Yikes! How could this situation have been handled in a way that might not have resulted in Zach’s behavior escalating?

When Zach woke up in the morning and whined about how long it was going to be until the guest woke up, Mom addressed the whining instead of the underlying message. Zach had really been patient waiting all night to get his new toy and now he had to wait even longer. His reaction may have been different had Mom responded "I'm so impressed with how you did not disturb our guest all night. Wow! It's really hard to have to wait even longer isn't it?"

Zach might have then felt understood. When people feel understood, their behavior calms down instead of escalating.

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