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Nonviolent Communication with small children

It’s not just the words

You might find this surprising – the idea that we can communicate consciously with no words. Then again, perhaps you’ve heard about this before. Using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is not dependent on your child being any particular age, or whether they are speaking yet. This is because the intention of NVC is stronger than the words. The intention of NVC is to meet on the level of needs, with the understanding that on this level there are no ‘adults’ and no ‘children’, just human beings. When we understand each other empathically on this level, we can look for ways (strategies) to meet everybody’s needs. ‘Adults’ and ‘children’ come in when we are looking for these specific strategies. ‘Adults’ might benefit from their longer experience of finding such strategies for themselves and others.

Empathising in silence

As we’ve mentioned in previous Juno columns, empathising means putting ourselves in our child’s shoes, in order to create connection. When a child is too young to understand the words being spoken to her/him, or too upset or excited to listen, we may choose to create that connection silently (without speaking), by focussing our attention on what our child is feeling and needing. As you may remember, we suggested that uncomfortable feelings are usually a sign of unmet needs and comfortable feelings a sign of met needs.

For example, if your child is crying and unlikely or unable to understand what you are saying, you could empathise silently in this way:

I’m guessing that Chloe is feeling sad at the moment, and that might be because she needs support… or perhaps attention.

We’ve been amazed at how empathising in this way can re-establish connection between parents and children.

Repeating what we’ve heard

When a child is old enough to understand our words, we’ve found that repeating what we’ve heard supports understanding and builds trust. Repeating means saying back what the child has said, without mixing it up with our own thoughts. It is a clear sign that we are giving our presence and listening attentively. This is something very precious that we can give to our children – to listen carefully to what’s important to them in their world. It’s this kind of experience that helps a child trust that what’s alive for them will be taken into account.

Repeating isn’t about finding an immediate solution – it’s about establishing common ground upon which a solution can be explored. In our experience, establishing common ground is what both parents and children are longing for.

To illustrate this, we’d like to tell you about an experience that Christa had for the first time a couple of years ago when she was leading an intermediate NVC training for the parents of a kindergarten in central Germany. On the second day the parents asked for their children to stay next door in the kindergarten’s garden, to create opportunities for them to practise using NVC with them. There was one thing that stood out on that day – a surprising and simple discovery. Here’s what happened. In the morning, Christa led the parents through an exercise, in pairs, repeating what they’d heard the other say. Afterwards, whenever a child came in to the room to talk to their parent(s), the circle went silent, and Christa supported the parent(s) to hear what the child said. Here’s what it sounded like…

Child: Mummy, I want to climb up in the tree. Mummy, Mummy!

Christa (to the parent): Just repeat what you heard her say, without mixing it up with your own thoughts. What did you hear her say?”

Parent (to her child): You want me to help you climb the tree?

Child: Yes!

In every case, the child then cuddled their parent for a few moments (in silence), then, to the surprise and disbelief of the other parents, ran out into the garden again. Christa explained her understanding of what was going on: once the child got the connection with their parent(s) again, they were free to find another solution that didn’t involve their parent’s immediate action.

Guessing feelings and needs verbally

This is the same as empathising silently, only spoken out loud, when we’re confident that our child will understand our words. Here’s an example from Christa’s family life:

One Sunday, Christa’s niece Jolanda was on a family visit to Christa’s house. As it started to get dark, the rest of Jolanda’s family got into the car to leave. Jolanda started crying and shouting, “No, I don’t want to get into the car!” When her parents finally forced her into the back seat, she held onto the front seat so that nobody could put her seatbelt on.

Christa heard the noise and came out. Seeing Jolanda crying and holding onto the front seat, she said in a voice louder than Jolanda’s crying, “Do you really enjoy being here and want to stay in our company?”

Jolanda (tearfully): “Yes, I like Mona (Christa’s younger daughter) a lot, and I don’t want to leave her.”

Christa: “Is it very painful to imagine not being close to her when you go home?”

Jolanda: “Yes, I really love sitting on her lap.”

When Christa had understood in this way what was important to Jolanda, she suggested a strategy: “Do you want me to call Mona so you can sit on her lap again?”

Jolanda said yes, so Mona came out and took her on her lap again in the front seat. While Jolanda was there, she made a plan to keep a sense of closeness – she arranged to call Mona when she got home.

This story reminds us of what we’ve seen again and again with both children and their parents: if a person is fully heard for what’s important to them, they easily find solutions for themselves.

Bringing our own needs in

Nonviolent Communication, as we understand it, is not just about getting children’s needs met at the expense of the adults around them. It is about including our own needs as parents as well.

If your son starts trying to grab and rip a book you are trying to read to his elder sister, we recommend getting clear about what you want from him, and what you want his reasons to be for doing it. Do you want him to do what you ask from guilt, shame, fear of punishment, or to get a reward? Or to contribute to his well-being and that of the family? Guilt, shame and punishment are likely to trigger anger and revenge. Rewards trigger continual demands for bigger rewards. Once you are clear, you could choose to express yourself like this:

I like this book and I want to look after it – please put your hands down now!

The protective use of force

If he starts ripping the book, by all means hold him until he calms down enough to talk together. Here we use force protectively, to protect something we value, not to punish a wrongdoer. We’ve found it to be most effective when we also empathise with our child, either silently or out loud:

Is it really painful for you when you’re not included? Do you want to do what your sister does?

If there is no blame in this message, your son will be more open to communicating what needs he was trying to meet by ripping the book, and more open to finding other strategies to meet those needs. If your intention is to inflict pain for the ‘wrong’ he has committed, he is likely to shut down or lash out in anger. You may never get to the reason why he did it in the first place. He may start to think about how he can get even with you, or carry on ripping up things in the future. Wouldn’t you prefer that your son stops what he is doing because he knows that people will listen, rather than being afraid of what will happen if he destroys things?

And when you understand his need more clearly, you can co-operate to find other strategies that would fulfil his need without hurting anything.

© Shantigarbha and Christa Gronow. This article originally appeared in natural parenting magazine Juno, and has been lightly edited for context.