Decoding child communication

The Biggest Problem With Child Communication, And How to Sort It

Children rarely say what they mean and are even less likely to clearly communicate their needs. Can you decode your child’s communication, moderate the threat level downwards (normally), and read between the lines and get in underneath? After you have caught your breath that is!

“I hate you”, “I will chop of your head” & “I will jump out the window”

Taken at face value, a child’s comments can leave a parent drowning in overwhelming and scary feelings along with their child. Parents have come to me hurt and alarmed when their young children have said things such as, “I hate you”, “I will chop of your head” or “I will jump out the window”. I was reasonably confident that these children loved their parents and had no real intention of killing themselves or others. However, they were hurting and angry in response to something that had happened in the family. They were scared of their feelings.

Similarly, tweenagers and teenagers are also prone to such miscommunication. Their threats, anger and hostility can hurt, shame and confuse parents – older children ‘should know better’. The initial parent urge is usually to retaliate and express their hurt. Then the need to discipline kicks in, sometimes in a bid to teach respect and kindness and other times to retaliate a little more 😬.

Something I hear a lot at home and in the therapy room that I wanted to understand a little more is:

“Just ignore me”

I asked my 13-year-old to help me think about what “just ignore me” actually means. This is what we came up with:

  • I didn’t mean it, I had not intended to hurt you.
  • I need you to understand.
  • I am just getting to grips with my feelings, thoughts and ways of expressing myself, you are the person I am safest to practise with.
  • Please don’t take it personally, I am struggling with other stuff, it isn’t about you.
  • Please don’t react in a big way to this, I can’t manage the shame and upset right now.  
  • I am hurting and confused, please see past what I said/did.
  • I don’t like myself right now.

Steps to decoding:

The trick to decoding is to find safety and space to consider, “what are they really struggling with here, what do they most need from me right now?”

  1. As always, my number one tip is: anchor and steady yourself – take a step back, take a deep breath and widen your perspective.
  2. Think about how your child is feeling. It is very likely that your initial emotional reaction mirrors the emotions of your child – rage, hurt, confusion, embarrassment.
  3. Give yourself credit – chances are your child knows all too well about how they should treat others, you have already taught them that, they are not like this with other people.
  4. Create a safe place to explore. Can you feel safe enough to get curious about what is going on for your child? Can you give your child the space, support and safety to understand their overwhelming feelings, changes and struggles? Can they trust that your relationship with them will survive the turmoil? Can you model for them how to repair relationships and mistakes?

The experience of being really understood by another, in a way that you did not even understand yourself, is extremely powerful. That is what creates empathic, grounded, flexible and resilient young people. Not rigid consequences and punishments.

We appreciate this is not easy to do! If you need more support, our online programmes and parent masterclasses might help – Crack the Code: managing difficult child behaviour is could be an option? Or our family consultations can provide you with more focused and personal support to really get to grips with whatever is going on in your family and work out a plan for change.

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"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)