I looked at the clock. 8:44 am. I felt absolutely done for the day. I was out of patience and all the things you need for parenting, and we hadn’t even made it to midmorning yet. I was washing dishes and packing lunches and frustrated at the lack of sleep and neediness of my young son.
I don’t know about you, but I have these moments way more than I wish. Stress gets high and patience runs low in parenting all the time. It’s normal. Parenting is hard, so it makes perfect sense.
What I’m wondering about today though is what happens in the midst of that stress?
A friend of mine and fellow therapist posted a quote this week I haven’t quite been able to get out of my head. It said:
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
I don’t know about you, but I have all kinds of reactions when I read that.
I feel the weight and responsibility as a mom to my son. I feel regretful at some of the ways I’ve spoken to my boy in stress and proud of other times.
This parenthood thing feels heavy to me sometimes. I want to do everything right and in this case, create some perfect inner voice in my son’s mind. Then, it takes about 45 seconds for me to get off my path or for a hardship to creep in or frustration to take over and suddenly, my tone and words aren’t what I intended… again.
Ultimately, I think there is a load of grace to offer ourselves for that. We will all say things to our children we don’t mean and we will all hurt them at some point in time, yes. Especially in stress.
We will ask for forgiveness and we will try again. They will be okay if we continue on that path of compassion for ourselves and them too.
What if we just had a baseline for how to talk to them or a few simple rules for speaking to our children?
Here are five gifts we can give our kids when we talk to them that will create the inner voices we dream of for them:
Do you talk to your kids like what they are thinking and feeling actually matters, like they actually matter? Do you find yourself rushing too often and pushing to get out the door to the next place and you just don’t have time for another ridiculous elementary conversation?
Your kids pick up on that so quickly. They know if you are respecting them, believing in them, listening to them. When we rush them or consider their conversations less than smart, we are often communicating the opposite of respect for who they are as individuals and how intelligent we believe them to be. Their inner voice may trend toward critical and derogatory.
Do they understand all you’re saying and the complex thought processes you’ve been having about a certain topic? Maybe not, but is that even the point?
What your child has to say is valuable and to be respected, whether they are two and just learning to talk or seventeen and wondering about great mysteries of the world.
2. Time and Attention
One of the best ways to respect your children is simple. Give them your time and attention. Slow down and listen.
This can be as simple as turning off the tv for ten minutes and asking intentional questions or setting a night or two a week that you all have dinner together, no technology allowed. It could be snuggle time at bedtime or a date you set aside to take them to their favorite restaurant for one-on-one time.
Creating the time and putting our phones down to look in our children’s eyes means more to them than they know to express.
This one can be a little tricky, specifically in the realm of divorce, but it is significant and worth discussing.
Stop and think for a minute about how you’re talking to your kids. Do you have any boundaries, any off-limit things that you don’t talk to them about?
What I mean is this: your kids are your kids. They are not your friends and they are not your therapist. They deserve to continue being kids.
The weight and pressure it puts on our children when we treat them like peers is too much for them to bear. I’m certain you need someone to talk about your spouse with. Call a friend or schedule an appointment with a therapist.
Set some boundaries with yourself for how you talk to your kids. They’ve got enough going on without feeling the need to carry all of your burdens on their little shoulders too.
4. Eye Level
Did you know your body language communicates as much or more to your child than your actual words?
Getting on eye level or below with your kids when you’re talking to them communicates humility for yourself and worth ascribed to them.
Squat down, sit in a chair, get on the floor.
Show them with your actions that you are listening and love them.
Remember the way you felt when you first looked into your child’s eyes when they were just a tiny baby? Before they learned to throw fits or talk back or argue? My gut says that love is still there, it just sometimes gets pushed aside in the midst of a stressful life.
Recalling the love we have for our children before we try to communicate with them can help us remember who they are and why we care so much about what we’re saying.
What to Do With the Gifts
With those five skills, here’s a picture of what we’re cultivating: confidence, respect for self, respect for others, a belief in themselves, safety, resilience, trust, self-esteem, kindness, love.
What if your child’s inner voice was full of those things? Doesn’t that just make you want to weep joyful tears?
There is one caveat however, and it is this: We can’t offer what we don’t have. So if you don’t deeply believe there is room for you to be spoken to like you are worthy of love and belonging and deeply good despite mistakes, you will not be able to offer that to your children.
So, how do you talk to yourself?
I know coming out of a marriage, it could be a time you feel totally broken down. Whether it’s shame or fear or inadequacy thoughts, you may be speaking the worst to yourself right now. Maybe your spouse spoke down to you for years. Maybe you’re ashamed because you never thought you’d be here and you’re beating yourself up.
I’m here to tell you very simply that you still deserve to be spoken to as if you are loved, deserving of time and attention and care. We still believe in you, even if you don’t.
I encourage you today to simply notice how you speak to yourself and your kids.
What’s the first thing you say to your kids in the morning? The last at night? What do you ask them about school or their friends? Are you always assuming they made a mistake? Do you ask their permission or demand? Are we valuing our little people as human beings with hearts and minds and souls and opinions? Are we valuing ourselves?
This morning, I missed it. I snapped at my kid and didn’t make space to get on his level and listen. He was cared for, sure.
His lunch was packed, he was bathed, fed, and dressed in clean clothes. That’s all I had to offer before school today.
When I pick him up from school this afternoon, I’m going to try again. I’m going to scoop him up and listen to what he says. I’m going to ask his opinion and be present with him. I’m going to apologize, even though he may not remember.
I’m going to use my words and actions to craft that inner voice that’s ever-growing in my little boy. I wish for you the space and presence to do the same with your kid-loves too.
“Use your words. Everyone needs to know that they’re loved, that someone sees the magic that makes them them.” – Shauna Niequist
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