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What to Say in Challenging Situations with Children: Sentence Starters for Parents

Published Oct 6, 2015 | Updated Feb 19, 2020

Here are some phrases that may work well during challenging conversations with your children.

It is everywhere. The advice, the suggestions, the tips for parents, usually with a disclaimer that it is important to trust your gut, and to remember that there is no absolute right way to parent. This is true. A parenting style is personal, individual, and most of all ever-shifting. Classes and books offer a roadmap, but what about when you seem to get derailed and the map no longer holds true.

Parents often ask professionals for general tips and tricks for communication and with specific language to use in difficult moments. Here are some phrases that may work well during challenging conversations, and with a few small edits on your part (replacing simple language with more complex ways of communicating), you might find you can use a similar approach for children of any age.

Acknowledgement:  Often the greatest reward that you can offer your child is your attention. To keep them focused, to build and maintain connection, and to model healthy communication, it helps to say:

  • I see you doing…
  • I hear you saying…
  • I notice that…
  • Thank you for…
  • It makes me feel good when…

Getting Kids to Talk: When you don’t know exactly how to get the conversation going, or when your child is reluctant to talk, try this:

  • I want to understand.
  • Tell me more about that.
  • How did that feel for you?
  • It seems like you…

Addressing Challenges: Children of all ages look to adults as a guide. They take their cues from us, and our voice becomes their internal voice. Our reactions impact their motivation, courage, and sense of self. When your child is frustrated or having a hard time with something, it helps to say:

  • You tackled that challenge.
  • That sounds hard but I believe in you and so I think you can…
  • That seems to be getting easier for you!
  • You might feel like you can’t, but it is important to try…
  • Remember back when you didn’t know how to__________ and you learned it? It wasn’t easy at first, but now you know how. This new challenge will be like that too.

Getting Kids to Help: We all know how wonderful it is to receive help, but how do we encourage children to respond positively to our requests? Most often, when we use the following phrases, we see positive results.

  • You made my job easier when you…
  • You are good at_____. Would you use this skill to help me by…
  • You don’t have to understand, and you don’t have to agree, but you do need to be a listener, helper, and team player despite that.
  • It feels good to help you when you help me because it feels like we are doing things together.

Disappointments and Strong Feelings: Children (of all ages) struggle to understand their emotions and explain them to others. We see them shut down, loose motivation, question their abilities, criticize themselves, and at times project their feelings onto those around them. Different situations, varying emotions (rage, anger, frustration), and specific environments (school, home, the grocery store) call for different responses to feelings. Honoring their emotions, putting the feelings aside, trusting that feelings change, and finding a way to not be defined by the feelings is complex. We can help them with this by saying:

  • Your brain might be struggling to understand, but you can still make a good choice. Your body might feel out of control, but you can still make a good choice.
  • I can see you feel __________ and wonder if it would help you to (cry, yell into a pillow, tell me how mad you are, take some quiet time)? I will be here when you are ready to return. I might not be able to change how you are feeling but I do want to understand.
  • You feel this way now, and I know it feels like it will be forever. Feelings aren’t facts. Feelings change. Let’s trust that these feelings will pass and new ones will come.
  • There are no guarantees, and I can’t make a promise about that, because things come up and situations change, but I do hear you and I can see how important this is to you. If we can’t make it happen, we can work together to come up with another idea which will probably feel better to you than feeling that you have to give it up completely.

Keep in mind that trying to have logical discussions during a time when your child is steeped in strong feelings is not easy. Take a break, wait until everyone is calm, and then come back together for a conversation. Feel free to contact us at Parents Place if you need help during especially tricky situations with your children.

Liana Unger, MSW, is Parents Place Coordinator in Sonoma County.

In addition to her role as Parents Place Coordinator, Liana is available for mental health consultations with clients. She specializes in anxiety, depression, mood disorders, relationship problems, treating drug and alcohol addiction, dual-diagnoses conditions, and psychosomatic illnesses. Her strength-based approach focuses on attachment and family dynamics with an integration of relaxation and mindfulness techniques. Aiming to support the whole person – mind, body, and heart – she weaves together traditional psychodynamic and cognitive interventions with mindfulness practices and somatic techniques.

At Parents Place, Liana balances her clinical skills with parent coaching and consultation and the Triple P Positive Parenting Program. A native of the Los Angeles area, Liana received her bachelor’s degree at Sonoma State University and her master’s degree in social work, with a family and children concentration, from the University of Southern California.

EMAIL: LianaU@jfcs.org

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