We’ve all been there as parents. Your kid does something wrong and, instead of admitting it, they shut down and tune out your attempts to talk over what happened. Turns out, this is normal.
After studying the brain, researchers found that during the heat of a moment, your kid’s thinking brain goes offline. In other words, they literally can’t give or receive information when they’ve just acted out or made a mistake. It has nothing to do with defiant behavior. It’s biology. So, what are you supposed to do? After all, you have to address the behavior somehow.
A lot of parenting advice will tell you to wait until the moment has blown over and your kid has a chance to calm down so their thinking brain is back online. While this is true, it doesn’t mean that getting through to your kid will be easy. It’s tempting to plan out a script in our minds in which our kid apologizes immediately for what they did and you both leave the conversation after hugging it out. As we all know, sometimes the opposite happens.
What can you do to maximize the chance of having a productive conversation with your kid after they do something wrong?
While we can’t promise results, we do have some suggestions for you!
Pick Your Battles.
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Does every mistake your kid makes warrant a sit-down conversation? Simply put, no.
Now we get it. The temptation to address every little thing is powerful. After all, we want to raise the best possible kids that we can. But let’s flip this around and think about it from your kid’s perspective.
How might they feel if every mistake they make becomes a long parenting conversation? They’ll quickly feel over-criticized like everything they’ve done wrong is put under a magnifying glass. This feeling will have two effects.
It will create shame.
If your kid starts to feel hyper-criticized, shame will creep in. It’ll convince them that their mistakes make them unworthy. The power of this message will grow until it becomes a voice inside their head, saying that they’re unloveable. This will make it even more difficult for them to have an honest conversation when they’ve made a mistake because they’ll fear losing your love by being imperfect.
It will put up barriers.
Rather than laying the foundation for a strong relationship, your kid will start shutting down the moment they see you approach. Instead of being a trusted figure in their life, you’ll be distrusted. The one they want to come to last. Is that really how you want our kids to view you?
To avoid these two possibilities, take a moment before heading off to talk to your kid and ask yourself honestly if this is a battle worth fighting. Pick the situations that are non-negotiable in your mind, the ones that ALWAYS need to be addressed, and let the other ones go.
Dig For the Why.
If the situation falls into one of your non-negotiable categories and it’s time to talk to your kid, pause and leave all your assumptions behind. The worst thing you can do when preparing for a difficult conversation is to assume you know exactly what was going on with your kid. Bringing assumptions into a conversation dooms it to failure before it’s even begun.
Zoom out on the situation.
As you consider the mistake your kid made, take a moment to ponder the larger picture. Did they just come home from a really difficult day at school? Is there something they’ve been really stressed about? Were they hungry? Even the simple things matter. Think back to the time when you lashed out or made a mistake because you needed something simple like a snack or a moment’s break. If it can happen to us with our years of experience learning to control our reactions, then it can definitely happen to our kids.
Bring your curiosity.
When you do sit down to have the talk, start with open-ended questions that let your kid take the lead in the conversation. Guide them through digging down to the root cause of their behavior without pushing your own assumptions on them. Allowing them the space to do this will keep the conversation from turning into a lecture and teach your kids the tools necessary to develop self-awareness.
Sometimes, though, curiosity still won’t get you anywhere. No matter how hard they try, your kid can’t get through to the why behind their mistake. This is ok.
Believe their “I don’t know.”
We get it. “I don’t know” might be one of the most frustrating responses you can get from your kid. It can easily feel like they’re brushing you off instead of taking the situation seriously. The simple truth is, sometimes they really don’t know why.
Let’s face it. Sometimes we act irrationally as humans and our kids are no exception. They might have been responding to an internal trigger without even realizing it. Even reflecting back, their feelings and actions seem disconnected and they can’t put their finger on the why behind what they did. This disconnect between thoughts, feelings, and behavior can be confusing and impossible to untangle.
Rather than punishing this response, believe your kid and recognize it as a larger learning opportunity. Look for ways to encourage your kid to tune into their body and communicate their feelings before they react the wrong way. Teaching them mindfulness will serve them throughout their entire life, not just as kids.
At the end of the day, remember that getting your kid to open up to you after they make a mistake is a process.
If you’ve been hyper-critical in the past, your kid may avoid admitting their mistakes to you. If you’ve brought assumptions into conversations, they may feel it’s pointless to try and communicate with you. Don’t despair though! By adjusting how you respond, you can encourage your kid to open up to you when they make mistakes. It may take time but with enough patience and consistency, you can build new habits so your kid is willing to talk with you when they do something wrong.