How We Speak is More Important than What We Say
Don’t worry about the words. Focus on your breathing, tone, and pace.
When our kids are upset and we are trying to handle the moment in a productive way, what should we focus on? So often, we try to think of the “right thing to say,” but I’m going to go on record here and say that the words don’t matter nearly as much as we think they do. So, the pressure’s off! Well, actually, you’re not totally off the hook, and here’s why: there’s something else that matters, which is how you speak. The most impactful part of communication with our children (and with other adults) involves our non-verbal cues, not our language. What do I mean? Let me explain.
The effectiveness of our verbal communication rests on the nature of our non-verbal communication. Another way of saying this is this: it’s not what we say… it’s how we say it.
Why does non-verbal communication matter so much? Said simply: evolution. Here’s a bit of science to explain it. The lower part of our brain, responsible for detecting threats in our environment, activates much sooner than our front brain, which is the part responsible for rational thought. This has huge implications for us and for our children. Imagine the brain as a house with every floor having its own function. Under this model, the basement’s job is to assess risk, and it has yell “Hey, we are safe down here! All clear!” for the upstairs floor to turn on its lights and do its job of thinking, learning, and self-control. And if the basement ever yells, “Threat! Threat!,” the upstairs floors immediately go dark. We have to keep our bodies feeling safe to “think straight” and learn. So, if a child’s brain senses danger in your voice, he won’t be able to process any of the language you’re using.
We all assess safety in the how of a moment, not the what. Think about yourself: if your boss shows up with a grimaced face, announces with a mocking tone, “Good morning everyone, have a GREAT day!” and then storms off, do you hear anger or enthusiasm? If you’re trying to talk to your partner, he is distracted on his phone, and you say, “Thanks for listening,” does your partner hear your frustration or gratitude? Our brain is remarkably sophisticated in that it can feel the emotions underlying the words and not get distracted by the words themselves.
The opposite can be true too – have you ever had someone say something hurtful to you in a way that actually felt loving and supportive? I have. I remember a friend saying to me, “You haven’t called me back in a while. I’ve been pretty upset about it.” But her voice wasn’t fast, biting, or antagonistic – it was soft, slow, and thoughtful. I felt like she wanted to connect to me, not reprimand me. We ended up having a really nice talk.
So take the pressure off yourself to come up with the “right” words. Our bodies feel before the language-based, logical parts of our mind even turn on. Safety first, thinking second. So, how we talk to our children – especially in emotionally heightened moments – is more important than what we say. And, when we can put the two together – safe soothing words delivered in a safe soothing voice – well, then, we are doubling down on our calming impact.
Try This at Home:
In some ways, it can be challenging to focus so much on our non-verbal communication, i.e., our tone, pace, breathing, and body language. But in another way, it’s actually relieving to know that there is no perfect script to talk to your child, no magic words to say in a difficult situation. I find this to be liberating. I’d invite you all to release the burden of “saying the right thing” and instead use some of that energy to focus on your presence. How? Read on.
A few concrete ways to work on your non-verbal communication with your child:
1. Take a deep breath in front of your child. During stressful moments in my house, I often say, “Big Feelings Here!” and then take 5 straw breaths in front of my children. The words “Big Feelings Here” serve to press a bit of a pause button on the moment, and then through my deep breaths, I can start to non-verbally communicate safety. Or, tell your child, “I need a moment to calm my body” and start your breaths. The breaths are more important than the words.
2. Slow down your voice. Speaking slowly communicates calm.
3. Speak softly. Literally, use a quieter voice. Your child needs this low decibel level for his brain to start regulating. Loud voices are scary to children (and to adults).
4. Repeat this mantra to yourself, “Tone matters more than words. Tone matters more than words. Tone matters more than words.”
5. Start singing a repeatable mantra when your kids are upset. I love this technique for younger children. It speaks to the science mentioned in this post: when kids are upset, they need to feel your calming influence to start the regulation process. And music has a calming impact on our bodies. As I write this, I picture a moment a few days ago when my youngest son was crying after his block tower fell down. I reminded myself, “Tone matters more than words,” as this was not the time to give some life lesson about rebuilding or patience or grit or growth mindset. All of those things matter, but my son’s brain literally cannot process words at this moment.
So, I give the logical part of my brain a rest and just sit next to him and start singing, softly: “Harry Harry, it’s ok…Harry Harry, it’s ok… Harry Harry, it’s ok… Let’s take a deep breath” – then take a very slow audible deep breath both for my benefit and my child’s benefit. I do this song on repeat for 10-15 cycles. Yes! That long. I watch his body calm down as I repeat this “song” over and over.
* If any of you want to hear how I actually sing this, check out my IGTV piece “Helping Your Child Regulate.” As I mentioned, tone matters more than words, so it’s worth the watch to hear my tone and sing-songy voice than to just read those made-up lyrics.
So, try it out. Pick one of these five strategies and set the intention to experiment with it one day this week. Put a post-it note somewhere to remind you. See how it feels to speak really slowly or really quietly. See how it feels to you to make up a sing-songy verse to use in your child’s presence. Remember that things that feel uncomfortable are our bodies’ way of telling us that we are trying something new. Unfamiliar = new = change, so if one of these techniques feels awkward, cheerlead yourself a bit by reminding yourself, “Ah, yes, this does feel awkward. I remember Dr. Becky said it might. It feels awkward because it is new, but new is a good thing because it is a sign that I am doing something different. I can tolerate this awkward feeling because it means I am making a positive change.”