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What to Do When Your Child Comes to You With a Problem

Your instinct is to react. But resist! Respond instead.

By Molly Barker

Molly Barker, MSW and four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, founded Girls on the Run®, an innovative experiential program that combines training for a 5k event with life-changing, confidence building lessons that enhance the physical and mental health of 8 – 12 year old girls. In 1996, Girls on the Run began as a group of 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina. Today, it's offered in over 150 cities across North America and hundreds of thousands of girl's and women’s lives have been changed by the program. Molly is passionate about her work but is most inspired by her two children.

May 28, 2012

The Big Idea

We’ve all been there. Our kids come to us with a problem (or perhaps, more worryingly, they don’t), and our hurried responses or efforts to intervene only make the situation worse. Over the last 16 years, I’ve had the privilege to work with 3rd to 5th grade girls, and to be the mother of two children of my own. And I’ve found that the key to really understanding the root of the problem, and to creating the kind of environment where kids feel safe to be themselves, to express themselves, and to share their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths, begins with mindfulness, helping us as parents and educators to respond rather than react. The good news is that whether you’re working with a gaggle of 8-year-olds or with your own child, there are a few simple steps you can take toward a more mindful response. The result: kids feel listened to, and feel comfortable approaching you future conflicts and challenges before they get out of hand.

The Practice

Cultivating a safe and open environment requires a full-on awareness by the “environment creators” to practice emotionally safe and open-minded behaviors.  A method I have found incredibly helpful is one we call “SBLR” (and which the girls in Girls on the Run have affectionately named SLBURRRR).  We teach this method to both our facilitators and program participants, but it’s also something I frequently use in my own home.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Stop!  This means getting present.  When I am with my children and they are expressing themselves to me, I try to give them my full attention.  This means I turn away from (or off) all electronic devices and make it known to them that they have my undivided attention.  If I am NOT able to provide that for them in that moment, I let them know.  I then provide for them a time in the near future when I CAN be present.  “I’m sorry Hank.  I’ve got something here I’ve got to deal with, but in five minutes, I can give you my undivided attention.  What you have to share with me is that important.  Okay?”  Or if I am facilitating a group of girls, “Destiny, I really want to hear what you have to say.  It is extremely important.  Right now, I’m trying to lead the group in an activity.  Why don’t you remind me at the end of class and we will have that time together…just you and me, to talk.  Okay?” As the parent to two teenagers, I now often turn to them for guidance on various topics.  I have, since they were quite young, solicited them for help.  I believe that by sharing my vulnerabilities with my children (when appropriate), they have come to respect me for my “humanness,” and in doing so have felt safe to share their vulnerabilities with me.  Our home is one of open communication—even when we know that what we share may be “scary,” not only to the individual saying it, but to the person hearing it.
  2. Breathe. Taking three deep breaths brings us to presence with the other person.  It is during these three to five breaths where I establish eye contact with the other person.  I turn my body to them, I become focused on what they have to say and then we proceed.  “Alright Hank, I’m here for you buddy.  Talk to me.”
  3. Listen. As a parent or an educator, we naturally want to jump right in as “fixers.” So here I have to be very careful to keep my opinions to myself (at least for the time being.)  A great way to insure the other person has worked their way through ALL that they wanted to share is to say (over and over), “Tell me more about that” or, “how are you feeling about this?”  When there is a break in their flow of words, interject either of these simple questions: you will be surprised by what you hear.  When they are done sharing as much as they can about the situation, move to.
  4. Respond. One of the most powerful questions I ask at this point is “What can I do to help you with this?”  or, “What would you like me to do for you right now?” or,  “If you were me, what would you tell yourself to do?” As a parent, I have to analyze whether what my child has shared is potentially harmful and whether I may need to establish an immediate boundary by asserting consequences (with engagement from my child, hopefully).  Generally, however, I have found that children respond with, “Mom, I don’t know what to do next.  I think I just want you to listen to me on this” or “Mom, you’ve been through this.  What would you do?”

An environment that is drama-free, calm and less prone to reactivity is far more likely to cultivate the emotionally and physically safe environment needed to inspire an empathic mindset.