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When our children are having an emotional meltdown it’s easy to get sucked right in. “Stop crying!”, “Don’t talk to me like that!”, and “Go to your room!” are just some of the refrains spoken to children in reaction to their abhorrent behavior. But whether it’s an unfinished homework assignment, a messy room, or experimenting with drugs and alcohol, it’s crucial that as parents we find a way to respond mindfully to our children, rather than react impulsively. How we handle these conflicts can mean the difference between opening the channels of communication further or shutting them down, leading our children to seek connection elsewhere.

There are 3 skills to healthy, effective communication that you can begin trying today! While they are incredibly effective during a conflict, you don’t need to wait for an argument to arise before using them. In fact, it’s even better to practice them with your spouse, children, co-workers, etc., when you are feeling calm. Try them out and see if they don’t immediately begin changing the way others respond to you. The skills are mirroring, validation, and empathy.

Skill #1. Mirroring

Mirroring is the skill of reflecting back what someone has just shared. Keep it brief and do your best to capture exactly what the other person has said. After you have mirrored back, ask the other if you are on the right track. If you are, you can continue to the next step. If not, have the person repeat it until you are able to accurately mirror back what they’ve stated.

Example:

Child: “You don’t understand! This homework is so hard for me!”
Parent: (Using mirroring response): “You don’t feel I understand. This homework is really hard for you. Did I get that right?”

Skill #2 Validation

Validation is the skill of communicating to another that you understand their point of view. This does NOT necessarily mean that you agree; simply, that you don’t think they are crazy for feeling the way they do.

Example:

Child: “Yes, that’s right. I just don’t get how to do these math problems.”
Parent: (validating): “Yes, I can understand that. It seems like they could be very
difficult.”

Skill #3 Empathy

Empathy is the skill of crossing the proverbial bridge of your reality to another’s and imagining how they might feel in the moment. While mirroring and validation are more cognitive processes, empathy is about feelings and requires being emotionally attuned to the other. After we empathize, we can then ask the other what they need from us in order to help.

Example:

Child: “The teacher goes so fast in class that I just can’t keep up with the
math problems.”

Parent: (using empathy): “Wow, that must feel so frustrating for you to constantly be trying to keep up! No wonder the homework feels so difficult! Would it help if we went through each problem together?”

Keep in mind that if we aren’t used to communicating this way it can feel clunky, awkward or just downright corny. Give it a chance and over time it will feel more natural. It also may seem counterproductive, since as parents we want to fix the problem right away. But in reality, the opposite is true: we must hear and validate the other first, then fix the problem later. Remember, our children will experience mirroring, validation and empathy as an invitation to communicate with us more honestly and openly as they grow.

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Cindy Shadel is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a focus on helping individuals and couples recover from infidelity, sexual compulsivity, and other intimacy-related issues. Cindy served as a Clinical Associate at the Center for Healthy Sex, where she co-created the Intensive Outpatient Program for partners of sex addicts. Prior to her work at CHS, Cindy provided counseling for women and children in violent or abusive relationships at Richstone Family Center in Hawthorne, CA. In addition to her work as a therapist, Cindy is a mother to a 9-year-old boy. She is a graduate of Pepperdine University and holds a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology. Cindy can be reached by phone: (310) 422-5410 or by email: cindy@cindyshadel.com.