Three Lines to Commit to Memory:

  1. I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.

  2. You really know you feel that way.

  3. Tell me more.

My daughter came home from school crying that she wasn’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party.  My son is realizing that a bunch of his friends are in a higher reading group than he is.

My daughter shared that she hit a friend during recess and had to spend the remaining time on the bench with her teacher. 

How do we handle such critical moments?  When we are given a window into our kids’ emotional lives, we want to make the most of it.  We want to help our kids get perspective; we want to help our kids build coping skills; we want to help our kids maintain their confidence. These are all in-the-moment things we want to give our kids when we talk to them.

But… there’s something much longer-term that I think about: I want to establish myself as a person my children will turn to when times are tough.  Because when my children are older and their struggles are even bigger than birthday parties, reading groups, and recess time, I hope they think, “Oh, my mom? She’s someone I can turn to. I’d like to talk to her about this.”

So, how do we establish ourselves as a soothing, desired presence during the emotionally tough moments? So glad you asked, because I have a pretty sure-bet three-step process.  And, best of all, this approach is super simple.  There are three very simple sentences to commit to memory.  Let me write them out, then we will dive into the psychological relevance of each, and then we’ll talk about how to employ them.

I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.

You really know you feel that way. 

Tell me more.

Seems like you’re not saying much, huh? No advice, no fancy phrases, nothing particularly memorable.  Why? Read on.

I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this. Effective communication is all about establishing connection and understanding, which have more to do with the messages and feelings underneath words than the content of the words themselves.  And the message in “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this,” while maybe also throwing in here and there, “This is so important” – speaks to a child’s attachment system, which is the evolutionary mechanism in which children seek proximity to their caregivers for safety and survival. Yes, that’s right – I’m connecting evolution to this simple sentence. Children must attach to, meaning literally be close to, their caregivers to feel secure.  So, children are constantly assessing what makes their caregivers come closer (Read: “Ah… safety.  Keep doing what I’m doing.”) and what makes their caregivers move further away (Read: “Danger! Danger! Stop doing what I am doing! Shut down!”).  Want your child to “open up” to you? Then we have to communicate to our children that we are moving closer to them.  Having your very first response to your child be “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this” tells your child: “I’m here. I’m safe. I want to be connected to whatever part of you is having this experience and telling this story.  I like that person.  I am moving closer to that person.”

You really know you feel that way.  Here’s something interesting I’ve noticed: after telling children, “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this,” they feel safer… it’s as if we’ve given them the green light to share more.  And then, almost on cue, kids often share a feeling.  And when they do, or you intuit that they are trying to share a feeling, the next line to commit to memory is “You really know you feel that way.”  I could write a separate entry on why this is so critical, but here’s the crux of why you should use this line. Emotion regulation relies on three things: acknowledging a feeling, experiencing the feeling as real, and giving yourself permission to be having that feeling. It is very challenging for us adults (including me!) to take these three steps for our own emotions, which is why it rarely feels natural to extend this courtesy to our children.  Feelings cannot be willed away, no matter how hard we try; we have to go through them, meaning they have to be experienced.  Avoiding our uncomfortable feelings ensures emotion dysregulation, which is when our feelings basically say, “Oh you thought you pushed me away successfully? I will prove to you how real I am by coming out in an unexpected and amplified way!”

Ok, back to emotion regulation, the better of the two alternatives: I can only effectively manage my anger if I say internally, “Oh… that’s anger.  Yes, I really am feeling anger.  It’s ok to be feeling that way.”  After that, I might engage in some helpful behavior (journaling, deep breathing, talking to a friend, screaming into a pillow, taking a run, stomping on the ground) to further manage our feelings, but I can only think to do any of these activities if I’ve engaged in that first three-pronged approach: awareness, validation, permission.

Telling our children, “You really know you feel that way” tells them that a feeling inside them is real. This is critical to emotion regulation but also critical to your child feeling safe.  We can give our children a get-ahead-in-life gift by teaching them that feelings should be met with acknowledgment, not denial.

Tell me more.  So simple.  It’s an invitation for a child to tell more and a signal that you want to learn more.  This is so important when we talk to our children: we want to do the listening and for our children to do the talking, not the opposite.  We don’t want to fix our children’s problems for them; we want to connect to our children’s problems with them.  Once we start to connect, our children emerge as pretty fantastic problem solvers themselves.

To connect instead of solve, say the following: “Tell me more,” “And then what happened?” or “Keep going…”.  Use these lines until your child has nothing more to say.  Essentially, you are establishing that you want to know every ounce of their experience.  And, when we establish attachment safety for our children by lending a listening and curious (asking, not telling!) ear, our kids often figure out solutions to their problems – on their own. This is very different from being given parent-generated advice at the beginning of an interchange, which almost always makes a child “shut down.”  Think about the image of you just quietly sitting down on a bench next to your child.  Your goal is for them to know you’re there but not much more.  What happens when kids become aware of our supportive presence is that they talk… and talk and talk and talk. And then one of two things generally happens: 1) kids come up with their own thoughtful solutions or 2) kids talk until they feel understood and then, at that point, the situation just feels better without having ever come to a solution at all.

Let’s go back to the examples in the beginning and respond at first with the very normal parental instinct of immediate advice or judgment (I know this instinct because I also have it!).  Then let’s play out these examples using these 3 Important Lines:

Child: “Ugh, Sophie didn’t invite me to her party, I can’t believe it!”

Parent: “I’m sure she wasn’t intending to leave you out, honey.  Birthday parties sometimes have to be really small. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Child: Rolls eyes internally, shuts down, stops talking

 

Child: “Ugh, Sophie didn’t invite me to her party, I can’t believe it!”

Parent: “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.”

Child: “I’m so mad.”

Parent: “You really know you’re feeling mad.”

Child: “Yeah because Sophie’s always telling me that I’m her best friend.  Arianna isn’t even nice to Sophie, but Sophie invited her and not me!”

Parent: “Tell me more.”

Child: “Well she’s having a slumber party, just Arianna and Piper and Kate.  She told me that her mom said she could only have 3 friends but how come I wasn’t one of the 3?”

Parent: “Keep going…”

Child: “I just really wish I was invited.  I know it’s going to be fun… Hm, maybe I can invite Sienna over that night and we can do our own thing?”

 

Child: “Jack and Juliana are all in the green reading group. I wish I was in the green group.”

Parent: “Every child learns to read at his own pace. You’re doing a great job.”

Child: Smiles, shuts down, stops talking

 

Child: “Jack and Juliana are all in the green reading group. I wish I was in the green group.”

Parent: “This sounds important.  I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.”

Child: “I know the green group is for better readers.  It’s embarrassing that all my friends know I’m not a good reader.”

Parent: “You really know you’re feeling that way, wishing you were in the green group and feeling embarrassed about not being there.”

Child: “Yeah, because they give out colored books in class, and the teacher thinks that because they’re colors, no one knows the levels, but everyone knows!”

Parent: “Tell me more.”

Child: “Well, Jack, Mason, and Juliana all get the green books … and I get the purple books with Sadie and Matthew.”

Parent: “And then what happens?”

Child: “Well, then everyone reads and the teacher goes around asking questions to the different groups.  I want to be in their group though.”

Parent: “I get that, sweetie.  That sounds like a tricky situation.”

Child: “Yeah, it is.  The handing out is the worst.  But once I get started reading, I just get into my book and forget about it.  It gets better.”

 

Child: “Dylan wouldn’t give me the ball; it was so annoying! I hardly hit him but then he told the teacher and I had to sit out for the rest of recess.”

Parent: “You know we don’t hit.  You should just go talk to Dylan and figure it out.”

Child: Cries or feels ashamed, shuts down, stops talking

 

Child: “Dylan wouldn’t give me the ball; it was so annoying! I hardly hit him but then he told the teacher and I had to sit out for the rest of recess.”

Parent: “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.”

Child: “I was so frustrated.”

Parent: “You really know you were feeling that way, so frustrated.”

Child: “Yeah because Dylan always gets the ball during football and the other kids don’t even care, they just give it back to him to be quarterback every play. He was quarterback every day this week!”

Parent: “Tell me more.”

Child: “I really wanted to be quarterback.”

Parent: “That seems tricky, huh.  You and Dylan both want to be quarterback but somehow he gets that position most days.”

Child: “Exactly! I need to talk to him, figure out a schedule or something.”

 …

Let’s play this all out with adults.  Let’s say you had a tough moment with your boss and you come home to talk to your partner about it. Let’s look at two scenarios:

Me: “I had an awful day.  That presentation I had … I thought it was great but of course my boss picked apart every single thing.”

Partner: “Don’t take it so personally. Your boss is always like that.  I’m sure it was fine.”

Me: Frustrated, shut down, stop talking

 

Me: “I had an awful day.  That presentation I had … I thought it was great but of course my boss picked apart every single thing.”

Partner: “I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this.”

Me: “I’m so frustrated.”

Partner: “I can see that.  You really know you feel that way.”

Me: “Yeah, I mean I’ve worked for weeks on it and every time I’ve asked my boss to get some feedback, she’s been too busy. Then after the presentation, she calls me into her office and tells me all these things I left out and criticizes my speaking style.”

Partner: “And then what happened?”

Me: “I don’t know. I didn’t say much. Just got through the day and couldn’t wait to come home.”

Partner: “Tell me more, what else?”

Me: “That’s kind of it.  It’ll be ok, just have to sleep it off.  My boss can be critical in the moment of things, I know she’s just like that.  Thanks for listening.”

Try This at Home:

Try these three lines with your child this week. Or try two of the three, whatever combination works for you. (You can print them here). Maybe push yourself to use the three sentences with your partner. You could even experiment with a colleague at work.  And maybe most powerful: start by using them to respond to your own experience, to your own feelings.

Collect some data: see how it feels for you to experiment in this way (it may feel uncomfortable or weird! That’s ok – anything that feels uncomfortable is a sign that our body is doing something new, and sometimes new is good!), how people respond, what you end up hearing, where the conversation goes.

Here are the lines, again, to commit to memory.  I’ve coupled them with some other similar-in-impact sentences to give you some optionality in finding ones that sounds like you:

I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this. This is so important. I’m so glad you came to me with this. 

You really know you feel that way.  I can see you’re feeling (name the feeling).  You are so aware of what you’re feeling, and that’s really cool.  I can tell that this feeling (maybe name it) is so real inside you.

Tell me more.  And then what happened? What else? What happened next? Is there more?