Anger is a universal human emotion and we all experience it. The feeling of anger indicates an unmet need. Most of the time, when we are angry with someone, we tend to find fault with that person’s behaviour and believe that it is responsible for our emotion. Let’s look at what happened when Sampurna, 11-year-old Rahul’s mother, returned home from work one day.
Sampurna found Rahul messaging friends on his phone. When she asked him if he had completed his school work, he said “I’ll do it later; I am talking to my friends now”.
“Finish it right now, or else I will lose my temper!” she shouted.
Earlier, on similar occasions, Rahul had said the same things but had not kept his word. On those occasions, Sampurna’s angry responses had led to an argument between the two of them but did not accomplish anything fruitful.
Sampurna believed that she was angry with her son because he had not completed his school work. But had she focussed on what was not working for her at that moment, she would have identified what she wanted done, and this could have helped her respond in a different way. She could have said “I am concerned that you may not complete your work after talking to your friends. I need an assurance that you will do it. Can you tell me what time you’ll begin your school work?”
In Sampurna’s original response, Rahul hears a blame and a threat and will be likely to defend himself. In the suggested response, he will be more likely to connect with his mother’s feelings and hear her out. He will not feel the need to expend energy on defending himself and he may even choose to complete his work right away.
How was the second interaction different? Sampurna took ownership of her feelings and needs and shared them with Rahul, besides making a clear request to him. Her focus was on what was going on within her, and not on him.
The method outlined above is known as Compassionate Communication or Non-Violent communication, a process developed by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It focusses on the feelings and needs of individuals and is based on the belief that each emotion a person experiences emerges from a need that can enrich that person’s life. The premise is that by developing an awareness of our feelings and needs and those of others, we can develop a sweeter and more meaningful relationship with ourselves and with others.
Now let us look at how this process can be practised with preteens.
Step 1 - Take one judgemental thought you harbour about your preteen. Start with one that is comparatively less emotionally charged. For better precision and clarity, I would encourage you to write it down. For the purposes of this article, let us go back to Rahul and Sampurna’s story. Sampurna’s preconceived judgemental thought about Rahul in this context is:
“He says he’ll do his work but he never completes it, and it drives me mad.”
Step 2 - Now imagine there is a video camera capturing the entire scene of confrontation between you and your preteen. Write down what you observed your child do, as though you were looking through the camera’s lens. In Sampurna’s case, she would perhaps write “I hear Rahul say he is messaging his friends and that he will do his school work later...”
Step 3 - Ask yourself how you felt on seeing this entire scene play out in your mind. Did it make you feel anxious, annoyed, angry, or perhaps something else? Sampurna would have said “I feel concerned, and worried…”
Step 4 - Identify the element you found lacking, which made life less joyous for you. What were you truly longing to have instead of the existing scenario?
“I would like to trust Rahul when he says he will do his work. I would really like some reassurance that he will deliver on his promise,” Sampurna would have said.
Taken together, these statements will read this way: “When I hear Rahul say he is messaging his friends and that he will do his school work later, I feel concerned, and worried. I would really like some reassurance that he will keep his word.”
Step 5 - Follow this up with a doable request. What could be a small step that you could ask of yourself and your preteen that will ease the situation? Ensure that the request you are making is clear, precise and time-bound. Write it down.
Sampurna would’ve written, “I would like to ask Rahul to commit to a time when he will start his school work.”
Now let’s look at all the statements together - “When I hear Rahul say he is messaging his friends and that he will do his school work later, I feel concerned, and worried. I would like some reassurance. I would like to ask him to commit to a time when he will start his school work.”
You can now substitute the words in this statement with others that will fit the situation you are facing with your own preteen.
The other message that your child is likely to pick up when he hears you express yourself this way is that it’s fine to share his feelings with you. If you look back at your own childhood for a moment, you’ll remember that children refer to their feelings to express how they experience the world. Sadly, as children grow older and their skills of reasoning and other cognitive capacities grow, they also imbibe certain stereotypical behaviour patterns. ‘You should be in control of your emotions’ and ’be brave, don’t cry’, are some behaviour norms that are held up as ideals, suggesting that expressing emotions and feelings somehow take a toll on rationality. And somewhere along the way, people lose their ability to connect to their own needs and emotions and express them. They mask their true feelings under anger and begin talking in the language of right, wrong, should and have to and in the language of consequences:
“If you don’t stop messaging while eating, I will take away your phone.”
“I know what is good for you, so you must listen to me.”
“You can’t talk to me that way; I am your father, you have to respect me.”
“You must learn to control your anger.”
“You should learn from your sister; she is so sincere about her studies.”
If these statements ring a bell, and you think you may have said them to your preteen in one form or another, read them out aloud to yourself once again. And ask yourself, how likely your child is to hear these messages in his heart, and make the changes you are asking of him.
If you find that the way you express yourself now is ineffective, it’s time to review it, revive your capacity to look deep within yourself, and help your preteen do so too.
For further reading:
- Non violent communication book by Marshall Rosenberg
Related video: Control your emotions if you want your child to be well-behaved, says Dr Jamuna Rajasekar, Professor and Head of Clinical Neuropsychology, NIMHANS.
Parul enjoys holding space for people and is a Psychologist who is passionately practicing Compassionate Communication. She can be contacted at email@example.com