(Written by Katherine Gordy Levine) A lot of therapists stress the importance of communication in relationships, that every issue should be talked out and each person’s position understood. I side with John Gottman, a leading expert on marital relations, who says “Phooey” when it comes to stressing the importance of communication. Gottman instead suggest that if you and your partner exchange positives five times as often as you exchange negatives, you will build a positive, strong relationship—and I recommend that this works for parent-child relationships also.
Claude Steiner, a Transactional Analyst (TA) invented the “warm fuzzy” and “cold prickly” terms in his story A Warm Fuzzy Tale. No need to define the terms. We know what a warm fuzzy is when we get one and are just as sure when someone hits us with a cold prickly! When it comes to building positive and strong relationships with your children, having it in your mind to keep a balance of five warm fuzzies for every cold prickly will set you in good stead.
Now it can be mighty tricky to give five warm fuzzies for every cold prickly at some ages and stages. I’ll admit, caring for my two and a half year old grandson two to three days a week stretches my ability to keep the ratio on the side of the fuzzies! The years between four and ten are easier ones, unless a child has a challenge—say hyperactivity, a learning disability or a major mental illness. Then come the pre-teens and teens. When I was a foster parent, dealing with good teens doing bad things, I had to work very consciously on making sure I delivered more fuzzies than prickles.
Here are some parenting tips based on what I found worked for me:
1. Warm fuzzies do not have to be big deals. Super Nanny stresses the importance of a hug at the end of a time out, for example, and I agree. Such hugs are big fuzzies (especially for young children). My grandson rushes to my arms when the bell rings to signal that a time out is over.
2. When hugs no longer seem to be a child’s warm fuzzy, try offering a hand shake with the words “Welcome back”. One father I helped in a parents group used to hold up his hand with a smile and say “Slap me five and lets get on with the good stuff.” I often just said, “Glad to have you out of time out.”
3. Behavior charts, properly constructed, help. All children need to have items on the behavior chart they enjoy doing and will accomplish easily to offset the harder to earn points. If such a behavior chart is very hard to construct, it could indicate a problem and time to get outside help.
4. For older children who no longer enjoy a behavior chart an earned allowance is useful. If you’re on a severely limited budget use privileges as the reward. When you can give an allowance here are the guidelines that worked in our house for teenagers:
- A little “Just because we love you” money.
- “Good behavior” money for following the big rules. These should be written down and posted (such as a House Rules poster). And yes, if you punish a child for cursing, parents have to be punished also. The foster kids got a bit charged when David or I slipped on language. Our fine for the foster kids was fifty cents an episode and if we slipped we had to put $1.00 in the fine bottle. Some weeks the proceeds went to charity, other times for a family treat.
- “Chores done well” money.
- “A good behavior bonus” for the rare child who meets the good behavior and chores goals.
- Finally, the right to get a paid job from us and also to get one outside the home if a child earned their full allowance four weeks in a row.
5. Good manners directed toward your child provide not just warm fuzzies, but model behavior that will draw more warm fuzzies as the child grows. “Please” and “Thank you” and “May I” are the calling cards of good manners and, properly used, are warm fuzzies.
6. Second hand compliments work well and particularly with teens; here is what I mean: “I ran into Mrs D at the super market. She said you helped her out with her packages and she wanted me to know how helpful you were.”
7. When a child is obviously struggling with pain or hurt, offer a few encouraging and brief words. Young children respond well to “That hurt” or “That’s hard to do” or “Learning takes time.” For a teen, “That’s rough” or “Can I help?”
8. Angry teens sometimes do well if you say “That must have hurt” or “That must have been scary.” Some will deny the hurt or fear, but even if your warm fuzzy is rejected, the message of care is heard. Parents are often afraid to ask an angry teen how they can help for one of two reasons: Fear the child will ask for something impossible. If that happens then one can just say, “I can’t do that, any thing else I might be able to do to help?” The second reason is the offer might be met with more anger. If that is the case, a simple “I care and I’m here for you.” works followed by ending the conversation because you have something you must do.
9. Arguing with anger is a cold prickly. It thows ice water in the other person’s face. Not useful. Listen to a complaint without arguing, but nodding your head, or making sympathetic sounds. When the complaint is winding down say “How can I help” to deliver a warm fuzzy.
10. Distracting with fun events or small treats can be a warm fuzzy. The communication gurus and talk therapists too often want all bad feelings to be talked or explained away. I liked Gottmans “Phooey” on that one. Some things are the way life is and all the talk in the world won’t change that. Things happen, good and bad.
Distraction is suggested for the very young crowd, but works just as well with all ages. Moreover, they don’t have to be large distractions. Here are some examples:
- “When I’m really unhappy, like you are right now, talking doesn’t always help. Sometimes watching a really funny tv show works better. The Simpsons are about to start and they always give me a laugh. Want to watch with me?” Even if the kid says no, you have been there and being there is a warm fuzzy.
- “I would love to keep hearing you on this, but I have to get dinner, want to come and help me and we can talk while we work together?”
- “Sounds like time for hot chocolate as well as a sympthetic ear. Lets make some.”
- “I was getting ready for a jog, that often helps me feel better. Want to join me?”
Building strong positive relationships with your child is not just about communicating every feeling. A positive relationship is built on positive warm fuzzy moments and a balance of five warm fuzzies for every one cold prickly is an excellent scale to aim for. Try my tips and remember to give yourself a good dose of warm fuzzy praise too. Care for yourself, because that is the only way you can care for others.
* Photo courtesy of Pinterest
Katherine Gordy Levine is a wife, mother, grandmother and professionally she has worked as the Program Coordinator, Mental Health Association NYC; Direct Group Home Program SCAN NY; Associate Adjunct Professor at Columbia University; and Director of Social Services at St Luke’s Women’s Hospital, among other leading professional roles.
She and her husband David struggled and laughed through 13 years of mayhem in their New York home. This experience, and raising their own two sons, and Katherine’s professional career as a counsellor, social worker and academic, inspired her book ’When Good Kids Do Bad Things. A Survival Guide for Parents’.You can find more parenting advice from Katherine at her blog: http://parentsfriend.wordpress.com/