As a rule, children, especially young children, often have difficulty articulating their feelings; therefore those feelings come out in the form of tantrums or defiance. They simply have not learned another way of addressing how hurt, angry or disappointed they are. All too often, parents, teachers and other adults in a position of authority react to the child’s misbehavior rather than realizing it is the feeling fueling the behavior that needs to be addressed.
According to Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Happier, Easier Parenting, there are things we can do to help defuse children when they are angry. This information should be of benefit to anyone who deals with children of any age.
The foundation of her approach is reflective listening, or, in effect, listening with your heart. Reflective listening provides a way for you to make the child feel better and, as a result, feel like behaving better. It helps both children and adults move through their feelings more quickly and easily, toward acceptance and problem-solving. Listening reflectively is a specific way to constructively acknowledge the child’s feelings after which the misbehavior normally clears up.
This approach is supported by the latest brain research which indicates that when a child is in the midst of “big emotion,” their emotional right brain has taken over. Unfortunately, as adults, we tend to respond with logic and reason – left-brain characteristics. No wonder the two find themselves on the opposite side of the issue at that point in time. If adults can learn a specific way of dealing with the emotions, however, the two sides of the brain can work together to resolve the problem.
Reflective listening is not just about being sympathetic to the child. It is about taking the time and making the effort to truly understand what the child is feeling at the moment, and then reflecting back to him in words he can understand what you imagine he is feeling. First and foremost, this shows the child you care. Likely, we have all told a child to “Use your words.” At a time they have no clue as to what to say. Over time, reflective listening will provide the child with a rich and varied vocabulary for sharing emotions.
Look for the follow-up article, How to master reflective listening for tips from Noël Janis-Norton to help you deal well with upset children.