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How a Little "But" Can Change Your Child’s Life

Words matter. By changing their descriptions, you change their experiences.

With permission/Gettyimages
Source: With permission/Gettyimages

"I hate myself," a young boy told me when he came to my counseling.

"I can't do this anymore, my child is driving me crazy," a mother announced in an email sent to me recently.

"You are so stubborn, and should never have been born," is unfortunately also what some children hear their parents tell them.

All of these expressions are quite common. Many of us use negative defining language without thinking about what meaning it has on ourselves or those we are talking about or to. We sound controlling, even though we have good intentions. We either label unfairly or say the opposite of what we really want to communicate. This can be confusing, and our brain can't really distinguish between which parts should be kept to ourselves and which shouldn’t.

I am a fan of the Robinson Crusoe method, a well-known reframing method after a negative thought or event with some great results. It puts draining thoughts into perspective and develops perception. The method is named after the main character in Daniel Defoe's book Robinson Crusoe, in which Robinson writes for a real reframing of the situation. With this method, you will learn how easy reframing can be. It is all about directing negative thoughts toward a more positive output by using only one word.

This method works to end a negative thought with a 'but' and then consciously fills in a positive thought. For example: "I hate myself, but I have become better at believing in myself, which I am really proud of." "I can't do this anymore, my child is driving me crazy," could be followed with, "but I love how she makes my heart melt when she kisses her baby brother." The "but" followed by the positive deletes or at least minimizes the negative.

With "You are so stubborn and should never have been born," however, you must take responsibility and apologize to your child and say that you didn't mean it. Let your child know that you were stressed, frustrated, or sad – whatever made you lose your temper – and say that there is nothing wrong with the child. Such devastating words can leave scars and will require a lot of positive words to build up trust again because the power of your words is so strong.

This Robinson Crusoe method is an excellent way to practice how you get your brain to look for the positive aspects of your life. It belongs to the concept of reframing, which is so beneficial to humans that it should be in the water we drink, says James Gross, the founding father of emotion regulation research (Rock, 2009). In my new online course, “Do you want to raise happy children? Parent the Danish way,” I have devoted a full section to this important and beneficial concept. For children, the "but" is easy to implement, as it is simple to use in everyday situations.

When my daughters feel frustrated about an assignment from school or can't concentrate, I use the 'but' to support them in their process of learning essential life skills. I say, "I see that you are struggling right now, but you can think about this as a journey in which you are building a scaffold and every pipe is needed to make it stand on its own. The process is important, and I greatly admire your ability to immerse yourself in the subject." It makes them accept the situation better. Often I also incorporate soft adjectives into the conversation. I say, "It will come along gradually." or "You are just not there yet," or "One step at a time, sweetheart; it will come." It helps them acknowledge that grabbing new “pipes” and making them work takes time and will require a lot of practice. I think that it is a useful life lesson to pass on to them. I don't use the "but" here; nevertheless, they have the same accepting and calming effect.

If your children are finding something challenging and you can see it is draining them, try to use these phrases to mitigate:

  • Until today, you couldn't, but I can see that you are working hard on it. It will come.
  • It doesn't matter if you are not there yet, but I love the effort you are putting into it.
  • Currently, you're putting all of your energy into swimming, but when the time comes, you'll see the results.
  • One step at a time is the best way to learn new things.
  • It will come gradually.
  • Be patient, you will see the difference.
  • Along the way, you will pick up some new strategies.
  • It's just a new path that's being strengthened, so everything is perfect as it is, in its own pace.

For me, the process of learning and acquiring new knowledge is where I get my energy. I have come to the conclusion that I am still in the process of becoming better at almost everything, and I have started growing gray hair. I don’t think it is scary; I think it is beautiful that life is still full of surprises. I hope to teach my children that they should always seek new ways to pick up “pipes” that can be added to their existing scaffold.

Today there is massive pressure on children’s shoulders because they have to do well in almost every aspect of their life. It can be stressful for them and give them the feeling that they should perform better than they do. The ‘but’ and the accepting prompts can help to provide a broader perspective on learning from the stressful situations and provide reassurance. This is not only very helpful, but also so important to leave with your children as a life-lesson.

There are many ways of describing problems that are not necessarily negative. By changing your descriptions, you change your experiences. That goes for your children too. The more you become aware of the power of your language, and how it affects you, the better you can teach kids to reframe too, which will make them happier in the long run.

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