Better Listening

The Most Important Words You’ll Ever Say to Your Upset Child.

I’m already feeling uncomfortable.

My stomach twists in a knot as my heart thuds against my chest. Bugs may as well be crawling up the back of my neck. It’s like that.

My daughter’s been screaming on and off for the better part of two hours.

I can hear her again in the background now, and for the life of me, I cannot seem to understand why she is so emotionally off this morning.

I secretly grit my teeth in defiance, as if that’ll do anything to help her stop crying or resolve the situation. Who knows…maybe it keeps me from yelling and completely losing it.

Mother and daughter walking down a sidewalk with text that reads "The key to calming an upset child: a simple strategy you can try right away."

Here’s the hard truth.

After decades of learning emotional self-control, it’s still a struggle sometimes to not lose it when a child is having a tantrum, crying, whining, or whatever you’d like to call it.

Isn’t that interesting?

Here I am emotionally triggered and flustered (and perhaps the anger is brewing) because my child is acting…emotionally triggered and flustered.

It’s humbling to realize that the one thing I expect of a young child is also the thing I’m still struggling with 30+ years later.

The lightbulb goes on.

Ever remember a time when you were a child and you heard, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Or how about, “If you don’t stop crying, you’re going to your room.”

Or “Just calm down. There is nothing to cry about!”

And there it is.

When you were struggling the most as a child, you were basically told through words and actions…

Please don’t come to me when you’re upset. I’m unavailable.

And layered on top of that are things like…

You are not worthy of love.

You are not worthy of comfort.

You are so unlikable right now, you must be isolated.

And if any of this is true for you, on any level, all sorts of yuck feelings might be showing up right now.

Here’s the kicker.

It makes so much sense why one gets bug-crawling uncomfortable when faced with the emotions of young children.

Everything in your body is telling you to run from the danger. Stop the emotions. Or get away from them at the very least.

Because no one ever told you this:

Crying is actually an adaptive mechanism.

Crying is a child working to adapt to a boundary in the world.

Crying is the child working to tell you something that is important to them.

So when you stop for a moment and SAY WHAT YOU SEE®, where you describe what the child is thinking, feeling, doing and saying, the child starts to feel heard and understood.

And when a child feels heard and understood, they no longer need to escalate to prove to you that it is okay for them to feel this way.

The goal of SAY WHAT YOU SEE isn’t to stop the crying; the goal is to create understanding, and through understanding, you can help your child learn to facilitate their emotions. The end result is often the child calming sooner than they would’ve otherwise.

The most important words you’ll ever say to an upset child.

When your child is falling into whining, crying or a full-blown tantrum, the most important thing you can SAY is what the child is doing, thinking, feeling or saying without teaching, questions, judgement or fixing.

If you don’t know what to say, you can start things like:

“You wanted…”

“You wish…”

“You feel….”

“You like…”

“You don’t like…”

This strategy points you to the root of the issue.

It’s the key to unlocking your child’s heart and getting them to open up to your guidance.

So when my daughter persists with crying on and off for a couple of hours, I know there is something I’m missing.

We aren’t at the root of the issue yet.

I go to her and say, “There’s something upsetting you. You want something but I don’t know what it is.”

She nods, but then cries more.

Kids often do not have the communication skills, nor maturity, to articulate what’s upsetting them. When kids cry more after a SAY WHAT YOU SEE, it can be a sign that more validation is needed. There is some more facilitation needed on the part of the parent.

I continue using SAY WHAT YOU SEE, “This is something big. It’s important. You’re having a hard time telling me in words.”

Then she says, “When are we going on our trip?”

This question has been repeated by her over the past several days, and I kept reminding her that we were not taking any trips until the summer. It was puzzling at the time — her continuing to repeat this question despite me answering it.

Then I realized our miscommunication.

Her crying this whole time was because her brother had school and she had a day off from preschool. She thought we were going on a “trip” or a mother-daughter date while her brother was at school.

Of course! I didn’t realize what she meant by the word “trip.”

I finally got it.

So while she was busy crying over every little thing at home that morning, it was actually an unheard upset that was deep down in her heart.

She had no idea how to get me to understand other than crying over things like…getting dressed, eating the wrong breakfast, playing with the wrong toy and beyond.

I said, “Oh I get it! You wanted us to take a short trip or adventure today while your brother was at school!”

The yearning in her eyes confirmed I was on the right track.

“Hmmmm…you really want this day to be special between us. There must be some way you can make this day special.”

And from there her eyes lit up, she starts talking and together we are problem-solving ways she wants to make this day special.

When a child’s eyes light up, this is the exact moment you can see the power of SAY WHAT YOU SEE. It completely shifts the dynamic between you and the child from opposing sides to working on the same team.

This is so common.

In working with hundreds of parents over the years, and teaching Language of Listening®, I can tell you that everything children say and DO is a communication.

There is always a reason why kids do what they do.

The child working to tell you something that is important to them when they cannot find the mature and articulate words to say it.

Talk about a lightbulb moment! How many adults do you know that still struggle to communicate in a direct way with others when they like or don’t like something? Of course a child would struggle to get their message across.

Try this today.

When your child is upset or behaviors seem to come out of nowhere, get curious and try SAY WHAT YOU SEE.

After a little bit of back and forth with your child, what your child eventually shares might surprise you.

Hey there! I’m Lauren, a Language of Listening® parent coach, and I help parents just like you take simple steps to help your kids want to listen AND become the amazing grown-ups they are meant to be. To get more awesome and insightful parenting ideas using Language of Listening, click the button below to get started.

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  1. Very well said. This is all part of a larger problem I sometimes struggle with and that is sharing my feelings at all. You are right, that learning to help them express what they are feeling and trying to understand what they are feeling and why is the core to good communication throughout life.

  2. You hit the nail right on the head, when you say that my kids big emotions bring up ugly feelings in me – I want to hide their emotions! I love love love the idea of Say, What you See, logically I know it’s so important to explore and accept their feelings and find out what’s really going on.

  3. Very interesting post. It is difficult for everyone to explain his pain, it is worse for childs.
    Even if we want be good parents, it could be difficult every day. Love, Love, is beginning of the answer. After we need translator for childs ( and maybe for men). 🙂

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