As our kids grow up, there are hundreds of little but significant conversations that we need to have. Like chats about which team we support, or why it’s ok for Dad to swear sometimes and the crucial conversation about keeping quiet about your age when we’re trying to sneak you in somewhere that’s free if you’re “under 12”.
When these discussions arise a lot of dads default to the most tempting answer which is “talk to your Mum”, but man-up dads, you can wade into the uncharted waters of these chats as well. It’s the sum total of all of these little conversations that prepare you for the more significant big conversations that you may end up having as your kids become teenagers (things like relationships, sex, alcohol, self-harm, depression, technology or the fact that they think a gap year is the best thing for them). That’s why these little conversations matter, they lay a foundation for big conversations.
All you need to know are the rules.
Here are the four steps to having a good conversation about important stuff with your kid
Step One: Empathy
If your young person genuinely feels like you understand how they are feeling and where they are coming from, then they will feel safe to talk about what is going on.
- Interrupt them and say “you shouldn’t feel like this” (also a good tip with your wife)
- Tell them “Do what I do when I feel feelings. Numb them by watching Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon 3… again”
- Tell them it’s not that bad because when you were their age you didn’t have stuff like phones and social media instead you had corporal punishment, polio, and they’d only made two Lethal Weapons.
Here are things that you can say that sound like empathy:
- “That sounds hard.”
- “I bet you felt/are feeling/would feel disappointed about that.”
- “That would be difficult.”
- “I would feel really sad/happy/scared/overwhelmed/addyourownemotionhere if that was going on for me.”
- “I can see that you feel strongly about that.”
- “Mel Gibson from Lethal Weapon would understand how you feel.”
Now, the tricky thing about this is that it does require you to engage with emotions. I think this is why some dads feel like they need to put the conversation in the “talk to your Mother” category. But it isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Step Two: Curiosity
Emotions can seem irrational. But they do come from somewhere, and if you are having a conversation about something important, it’s highly likely that your child will experience some strong emotions. So be curious about where those emotions come from.
- Jump to conclusions like “You’re only sad because you have your period”.
- Assume you know what’s going on, e.g. “Yeah, I know you’re sad because you’re not very good looking. That’s mostly my fault not your Mother’s.”
- Walk backwards slowly until towards your DVD collection, reach for Indiana Jones Raiders of The Lost Ark, then say “There is no mystery that Harrison Ford cannot shed light on, including your feelings”
Ask them with curiosity why they are feeling the way that they are feeling.
- “I wonder if you are feeling so sad about this because you feel like you are missing out.”
- “I’m curious about why you feel so strongly about this?”
- “Help me understand why this matters so much to you?”
- “I’m wondering if something that happened at school today has influenced how you’re feeling?”
Wherever there is anger, there is usually pain or frustration. Anger isn’t the main problem. Usually, it’s a symptom. Curiosity helps you to understand where the big emotion is coming from.
Step Three: Acceptance
Acceptance is simply understanding that your child’s behaviour makes sense and doesn’t come from nowhere. Once you’ve found out how they are feeling usually their behaviour makes more sense. It doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address their behaviour, there are just a few more steps to go through before you get to that part of the conversation
Remember – you always have to connect before you correct.
- Tell them they should be grateful for what they have because when you were younger you had bigger problems like blowing into game cartridges so they work and disproportionately unfair video store late fees.
- Lecture them about how that’s not how they should feel or behave.
- Tell them that you just don’t understand.
Pause. Take a big breath and remember, if you were feeling the way they’re feeling, you would probably be doing the same thing that they are. We often forget that children are not adults. We forget that children’s brains are not like adults brains. When you can remember what it was like to have a child’s brain, how that felt and how you behaved, then you are most of the way there to connecting with how your child is feeling.
If you want to have a good conversation about what is going on in their world, first you need to understand it.
Step Four: Playfulness
Playfulness is your chance to shine
- Say “You want a phone? Ok here’s a phone!” and give them two cans and a long piece of string
- Challenge them to a cage fight
- Create an internet poll for people to submit creative punishment ideas for them.
- Start mimicking them in a sarcastic tone.
Once you’ve empathised, explored their feelings with curiosity, accepted their current behaviour, then… then it’s time for playfulness.
Make up some sort of elaborate/silly thing that you would have done as a child if you were feeling the way that they are feeling.
- “If I was feeling like you are right now I would probably want to pretend I’m Mel Gibson from the 80s and shave my hair into a mullet, do a poor American accent and sleep in a caravan.”
Humour and playfulness can be great tools to de-escalate emotionally charged conversations. They can help to strengthen the connection between you and your children, and once that connection has been established you ‘ll be able to talk about how your child has been behaving.
When our kids are having big feelings and behaving poorly most dads want to jump straight into fixing their kids behaviour. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you can connect with your child’s feelings, then you can talk to them about what is going on.
Lots of little conversations like this, will set you up for those big conversations that you will end up having in the teenage years. They don’t have to be “talk to your Mum” conversations, they can be “talk to us” conversations.