Stop trying to reason and rationalize with your child!
Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor.
Quick question: I’m curious if you have ever tried to explain something to your child and you give them a really, really important, truthful, logical, rational explanation for something as to why they should or shouldn’t do something or about a rule or an answer to their question, and 10 or so seconds in you realize they’re really not listening or their response lets you believe that they really don’t have a clue what you’ve just said.
That is one of the most frustrating things that parents express to me: “We talk and I just feel like they don’t listen” or “they don’t get it”, or “I just feel like I’m talking for no reason.” “I’m explaining until I’m blue in the face.” The antidote to that, and what I would like to talk about today, is that we have to stop trying to reason and rationalize with our kids.
Here’s why. We as adults are logical, we are rational, we’re intellectual beings. So when we process things, it’s through our minds. We use a cognitive, brain based approach to making sense of the world. Children, on the other hand, are emotional, here-and-now, irrational; driven by their reaction to the moment. So understanding that, it gives insight as to why they shut off, don’t listen, don’t understand. And to kind of parallel with that: often parents will get frustrated when they ask their children “Why why did you do that? What made you think that was a good idea? What happened that you thought to throw that or kick that or whatever?” Typically behaviorally related. We will ask questions and we get one word answers. I don’t know. I just did. They kind of don’t really have much to say, and that can be very frustrating.
Similarly, if we ask them closed questions such as, How was your day? Fine. How was school? Good. How are you? Okay. One word answers, and that can also seem that the conversation gets cut off and it can be frustrating. All of those interactions – everything that I just described are now in perspective for you as to why those things happen. It is not willful. It is not intentional. It’s not to be resistant. It’s not to be defiant. It’s not to be difficult in any way. Your kids are not rational and they don’t reason, and they don’t use their brains.
The analogy that I like to give, especially when I meet with parents at my practice, is kids are driven and governed by their feelings until about the age of 12 or 13. That is when abstract reasoning is naturally developed. It can be acquired a little earlier than that with practice and purpose. But most children will naturally come into an abstract reasoning skill around 12 or 13. So with that in mind, if they can’t reason abstractly, they will be 100% dictated by whatever they feel in any given moment. And the analogy that I use is it’s often like a float switch, so emotions rise and rise and rise. Crest up to the top and it trips a float switch that signals the brain to take a break. Go have a little nap, your little afternoon siesta. Whatever meets their feeling in the moment, however, they feel whatever emotion they’re experiencing, they will serve that need. And then as the emotions come back down, the float switch gets tripped again. Brain comes back into the picture, and often kids will say “Oh gosh, I really went too far. I shouldn’t have yelled. I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have punched my sibling. I shouldn’t have told my parent I hate them” and you get remorse. You get apologies. You get affection. You get all kinds of making amends because the brain has entered back into the picture.
So with the knowledge that children are governed by their feelings, by their emotions, and the brain is not involved, when we try to engage in a rational, reasonable, logical conversation, it falls on deaf ears. Not because they don’t care, not because they don’t want to understand: they’re not capable of doing so.
So now that we’ve discussed that, and you know where they are and the difference in the way we approach things versus the way kids do, what do you do about it? So in previous podcasts and videos, I’ve talked through keeping your responses very short. That is a helpful skill. It’s worth repeating. One of the rules of thumb in the private parent coaching that I offer is ‘If you can’t say it in 10 words or less, don’t say it.’ So a really helpful concept is keep your responses really short. You can’t really do a whole lot of rationalizing and reasoning with 10 words. So that’s a really helpful point number one.
Second thought is it’s very helpful to be brief and factual rather than try to get them to agree with you. What I mean by that when kids are frustrated, when they’re misbehaving, when they’re acting out having tantrums, there has been some kind of behavioral or emotional issue. We can try to explain to them lots and lots and lots of very helpful and truthful reasons why that should or shouldn’t have happened and what they should have done instead. And the big picture, broad, moral rule or lesson – whatever we’re trying to teach – the reality is, the more we say, the more our emotions and our own perspective cloud it. So if we keep it factual and neutral, it is easier for them to understand. Here might be what that would look like. I’ll tease apart the difference for you.
So the child is jumping on the couch. You’ve already set a limit that that is not safe, and the couch is not for jumping on. They continue to jump on the couch and then they fall and get hurt. That is often an opportunity where we take to try to impart a rule or a lesson. And a related aside, another rule of thumb from the parent coaching that I provide is ‘when a child is drowning, it’s not the time to teach them to swim.’ So if your child is hurt, if they are emotional, if they are overwhelmed, if it is a very difficult moment for them, that is never the time to try to help them understand what’s going on. Their emotions have overridden their brain so they can’t hear and receive anything that you say in that moment.
But we will often say to them, “See, this is why I told you not to jump on the couch and look, now you have a bump on your head and we’re gonna have to put ice on it, and I always try to make sure this this doesn’t happen. But when you do this, you’re not careful and…” We go and go and go – they checked out after four or five seconds. 4 or 5 words probably, and we’re being rational and we’re trying to reason with them but they are incapable of that, and they’re certainly not at a place emotionally to receive it.
However, if we were to say, “the couch is not for jumping on and you did and you got hurt” notice all of a sudden it’s factual. It’s calm. There’s no opinion involved. There’s no emotion involved. It short, it’s to the point. And a child can be in their emotional state and still receive that kind of message. “You chose to jump on the couch and it wasn’t safe and you got hurt.” So those are two of your go-to responses to get around those moments where we want to try to reason and rationalize.
Understanding that until 12 or 13 kids cannot do those things, it’s even more important to acknowledge what they’re feeling in any given moment. We talk a lot about reflecting feelings: foundational play therapy principle. We reflect their feelings for where they are in the moment because they are emotional beings. We are cognitive beings. They give you all kinds of feelings to work with, so acknowledge them, reflect their feeling to them. “You’re excited.” “You’re worried,” “you’re frustrated.” “You’re irritated.” “You’re proud.” That is helpful so that they can connect the emotion to the scenario long term. That helps them to develop an emotional vocabulary.
After we reflect the feeling, we state factual, calm, acknowledgements and we keep our messages short. Those are the two most helpful ways to avoid over explaining, over talking, over rationalizing, over reasoning. And I think it’s important to note: often the way that that comes out… because at this point you may be saying, “I don’t know that I really try to rationalize or reason. I’m not sure what that looks like.” Often what it looks like is one of two things. It’s negotiating.
So you’re saying one thing, the child saying something else and you’re trying to convince them of what you want, so it becomes a negotiation. That is one of the most common ways that we try to rationalize and reason. Another is trying to give them more information than they need in a back and forth power struggle. So “I don’t want to” “but you have to because then this is going to happen,” and after that, “then this and this and this” and so it’s a power struggle, but it’s too much dialogue. Both of those scenarios are the most common instances of parents reasoning and rationalizing with their kids.
So I hope that now that you’ve kind of made sense of all of that in your head, you understand more where kids are, how they function; they actually are very different than we are. They are here-and-now, in the moment with their feelings. We think and we analyze and we process and we’re logical. So trying to get them to come on board with what we think and help them be more logical and rational – It’s futile.
So I would encourage you to use the alternatives. Short responses. Calm, neutral, factual statements, coupled with feeling reflection. And I think you will find a very different response, very different reaction. It will be far less frustrating because they will not come back with one word answers. They will not tune you out. They will not shut the conversation down because you’re meeting them where they are in the moment, which is the most helpful and connective and restorative kind of relationship that you can have with kids. So I hope you find that helpful. I hope that encourages you.
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