Why Smart Parents Ask “What Is It Like to Be You?”

An excerpt from ‘Parenting Without Power Struggles’

There are two stages involved in the process of working with a child whose behavior is problematic. The first, which I refer to as Act I, has to do with providing a troubled child with the opportunity to offload her upset. The key phrases I ask parents to keep in mind as they’re interacting with their child are “What is it like to be you?” and “Tell me more.”

Act I and Act II 

QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS

ACT I:

“What was it like for you when you kept asking Davis to pass the ball and he didn’t seem to hear you?”

“Oh, honey...”

“You were so looking forward to watching that program.”

“That’s a very big feeling.”

“It’s hard to get a C when you studied so hard.”

ACT II:

“You know Davis isn’t good at passing the ball.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“You could record that show and watch it later.”

“I’m sure there’s someone else who can come and play.”

“I don’t think  your teacher really hopes you’ll flunk.”

The goal of Act I is to allow the child to express the “neck down” portion of her experience. While I don’t expect youngsters to accurately put into words the reasons for their anger or resistance, I have come to understand that it is essential to allow hurting children to feel heard. I ask parents to refrain from offering advice, suggestions, information or insights during Act I. If a child has adequately offloaded and expressed her emotions, and comes to feel understood during Act I, she will more naturally be receptive to what you have to say in Act II.

Still, I tell parents to ask the child, after Act I, whether she would be willing to hear their thoughts or ideas. If the child says no, I urge parents to drop the matter for the moment. Generally speaking, once a child has said her piece, she will be open to hearing what her parents have to say, but if you “crash the party,” a child will typically be resistant. You have to be invited to the party.

Act I questions are designed to keep the child talking. Sometimes your comment will simply be an expression of dismay, designed to communicate your compassion and care. “Oh, honey…” might be a perfectly appropriate thing to say.

“How did that make you feel?” is not an Act I question and tends to shut children down. Most kids don’t accurately know what they feel, and this question feels like you’re trying to talk like a therapist. Simply ask questions or make noises (one of my clients refers to it as the “clucking” that a hen would do!) that motivate your child to keep expressing and offloading her upset.

When you are using Act I in the heat of the moment, use questions or appropriate sound effects (“Oh sweetheart!,” “Mmph!,” “Aw…”) until your child has settled down. If you skip to forcing suggestions or advice (Act II), he won’t really hear or process what you’re saying. I call that “crashing the party.” Remember, when you need a child to feel better, you’re abdicating your captain-of-the-ship role and shifting the dynamic so the child is in control. Don’t be needy! Take your time with Act I and avoid rushing to Act II.

One image that I use to suggest when it might be time to shift from Act I to Act II is the way the hair on a dog stands up when he first sees a stranger approach. Most of us have learned not to push ourselves on a dog that’s in an agitated state. Instead, we watch for his ears to lie down, his tail to start wagging and the hairs on his back to lay flat again. This is the sort of thing to watch for that will indicate a child is ready for your input, advice or information.


Parenting Without Power Struggles bookRepublished from Parenting Without Power Struggles, available March 13, 2012, with permission from Atria Books.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, an educational therapist, parent educator and professional speaker. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Developmental Psychology from Johnston College/University of Redlands, a California K-9 Teaching Credential, a Masters of Arts degree from Antioch University in Clinical Psychology, and a California Marriage and Family Therapist license since 1991. For more information, visit parentingwithoutpowerstruggles.com.

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