By Sara Teichman, Psy.D.
Do you feel like you can’t tell your kids anything? Even something like “remember your lunch money” or “Did you shut the air in your room?” Forget about something that is actually instructive – mind you, not critical.
So, does a reminder that there is a family Bar Mitzvah the night before finals or a suggestion to take winter clothes to the school Shabbaton elicit a barrage of eye rolling and an emphatic “Mommy!”
In all honesty, some things just can’t be ignored, as in when someone [read sibling] is being hurt, but when you do comment on some real offense, are you faced with a defensive reaction like “I didn’t do it!” or “You never take my side?”
Like many parents, are you looking for better communication where you can say something without getting the defensive response?
It’s no secret that parenting requires tremendous skill and patience on our part and the issue of defensiveness is a universal one. How do we get our family members, young and old, to respond positively to our well-intentioned observations? Note I do not say criticism, but rather observation. The truth is that most of us cannot tolerate criticism, certainly not in the measure that it is doled out by many a parent or school. So, how and when [if ever] to criticize is the subject of another article.
In this article, I will use the word criticism rather loosely because, in truth, that’s how many of us hear just about anything that we don’t want to hear. Whether this is a carry-over from childhood and its endless commands or overly critical adults, be it a parent, teacher, or boss in our lives, we tend to hear instructions as critical. We too often hear “you are bad/wrong” when we are just meant to listen to a reminder. Hence the “Remember to brush your teeth” to your adolescent son with braces may earn you “Why are you always yelling at me?”
Let’s begin by looking at how we can ease the sensitivity around directives and/or requests. As a general rule, when an area is sensitive we need to leave it alone. Refrain from comment, notice, directives, warnings etc. Ignore. Ask yourself, “Will it matter five years from now if my son brushed his teeth or skipped a lunch?”
Sometimes it is almost like we are on autopilot, delivering a running commentary on our children’s [and spouse’s] activities for the day. Learning to let go, even a bit, will ease our teens’ put upon feeling. But, if we absolutely must comment, always do so in a respectful way: a neutral tone of voice, positive language, and with the intention or helping, not hurting, the other. Once our children feel emotional safety in the surety that nobody is out to get them, they can relax and be less reactive to our less-than-positive input.
In addition to over focusing on the behavior of others, which is the opposite of ignoring, some of us may overreact to mistakes and see them as catastrophes. Even worse, we may personalize them and see them as injuries. We need to take it down a notch or two and recognize that a mistake is simply a mistake. Whether we or another err, we want to try to develop an ayin tov and see the mistake as simply a good faith error that needs addressing. That’s it. Case closed.
These two strategies, ignoring and de-escalating our reactions, are long-term strategies. In the meantime, you want to start educating your children in how to react to directives or criticism.
By now you realize that teaching/lecturing is bound to elicit a negative reaction, as that would only add more words fuel to the fire. But you can teach in the most subtle and effective way by modeling. Modeling is the most positive and least offensive method of instruction. So, for example, we model table manners or phone etiquette in the hope our children will get the drill.
The same principle of modeling applies here: we need to show our children [and spouses] how to deal with respectful input. Unfortunately, too often when someone points something out, we immediately retreat into our shell and make excuses: we didn’t do it, we don’t remember, it’s not like that etc. Though this is our desperate bid at self-protection from shame, guilt, and further criticism, we accomplish nothing by this retreat. We rebuff the other, withdraw into ourselves, and learn nothing of value about our behavior or ourselves.
We can react differently. We can take respectful comments as valuable information, an opportunity to reflect and learn about ourselves. We can consider advice as a way to improve our behavior. In that case, a “Thank you for pointing that out” or, at very least, “Let me think about it” might be more to the point. Even if we eventually decide that the criticism is unwarranted and best ignored, we can show our children that the perspective of others can be a powerful force in our self-improvement rather than the tool aimed at our destruction.
Turning our natural defensiveness into an opportunity for growth is not easy. It is a lifelong goal to strive for but our example and resolve will pay off in better communication in our home and in lifelong skills for our children in their years to come. Their spouses will thank you one day.
Disclaimer: This article refers to respectful communication. Abusive communication is never okay and needs to stop but that is a subject for another article.
Dr. Sara Teichman, formerly of Los Angeles, now resides in Lakewood, New Jersey where she maintains a private practice and sees individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.