communication | Kay Trotter

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Defusing Family Conflicts Before they Erupt

Recently I was interviewed by Dallas Ft. Worth North Texas Child magazine as their mental health expert for a special issue they are working on. Specifically, they wanted to know more about family conflict and sibling rivalry.

Here is my interview:

Question: ”My kids squabble over everything. How do I help moderate these family feuds so they’re learning to get along, not just with each other, but with everyone?”

Answer: Last week I had the pleasure of eating lunch with my daughter, a third grade teacher in a North Texas school district.  Because this was one of those rare dismal, cold and rainy days, the students couldn’t go outside for mid-day recess.  Instead many used the free time as a study hall.  As my daughter and I talked, occasionally a student would approach and ask Kelly a question about their work.

I felt a combination of motherly and professional pride as I watched her deftly guide the youngsters to discovering their own answers, helping them realize where they’d gone wrong along the way.  One little girl in particular was making the common mistake of misinterpreting the questions, and I was instantaneously brought back to when I would frequently make this same mistake as this child.

When lunch was over the whole class came back from recess and continued their school day. I hung around for a little while and what I saw and heard were 20+ students clamoring for attention, seeking answers to questions and desiring guidance. This quest for feedback was combined with them wanting to get their basic needs meet, such as going to the bathroom, checking insulin levels, etc.   Before I knew it, I had such a big impish smile on my face that Kelly asked, “What are you thinking?!”

“It’s amazing to see and hear how the 8 year-old brain works,” I answered.  “I’m reminded in a very concrete manner that these children do not process information anything like we adults do.”

Far too often, adults forget or just do not realize that their children are not “little grownups.” Their brains are not neurologically capable of processing information like our adult brains do. Children’s brains are still building new connections, changing, growing and moving towards a cognitive maturity they won’t reach for a number of years.

For example, the 8 year-old brain is in the process of developing logical and concrete thinking, but still has a very limited ability to extend logic to abstract concepts.  This shows up in the highly imaginative and illogical thinking of early childhood.

The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and is where the gray matter responsible for the “higher” functions of thinking and information processing resides.  This area, when fully developed at age 24 for women and 27 for men, and enables us to grasp abstract concepts.

That means the 8 year old boys in my daughters 3rd grand class are 19 years away from being able to completely understand the concepts their parents are trying to communicate.

As a parent this means you need to continually realize your children will process information differently than you do.  It’s not stubbornness or defiance – that blank look they give you may mean your child is simply unable to mentally grasp what you’re telling them.  I tell parents it’s like speaking in a different language — your child can physically hear your words, but they honestly do not comprehend you.

I’ve found positive family communication increases dramatically when parents learn to speak their child’s language.  When parents can “see the world through their child’s eyes,” they are better able to understand their youngsters, and effectively guide them.

After I shared this concept of “seeing the world through your child’s eyes” with one mother, she admitted that she thought her son was just being stubborn and wanting his way.  She attributed his yelling and screaming as a calculated means to achieve his goal, and his dramatic acting-out was making the whole family angry and miserable.

When the mother switched tactics and worked at seeing the world as he experienced it, she became awestruck at what she discovered.  She now realized that her son was not a bratty screaming child – but a very scared child.   Her heart ached when she saw her son was so fearful that all he knew how to do was scream to get her attention. Once she knew her child was simply scared, she was able to help him—and become a better parent in the process.  The boy’s behavior quickly changed for the positive.

The mother of an adolescent came to me seeking help to understand why her daughter continues to not read the social cues others give her, and constantly picks fights with her friends and family.  As I helped her “see the world through her daughter eyes,” she learned that in the developing adolescent brain the limbic system, which governs emotions and behavior, is closely linked to the still maturing prefrontal cortex.

The way this powerful connection shows up, an adult who observes a group of people looking in their direction and laughing might feel an emotional response in the limbic system, but probably won’t respond in any way because the prefrontal cortex (which acts as a sort of mental traffic cop) would say, “It’s okay.  It’s not about you.” An adolescent, on the other hand, might mistakenly make the unpleasant assumption that the people were laughing at her and become upset, angry, or defensive.

Adolescents just are not as good at interpreting facial expressions and nonverbal signals, in part because the prefrontal cortex is not yet lending the limbic system a hand.

My suggestions would be to continue to open your mind to the fact that your children aren’t intentionally trying to sabotage the family dynamic – they just need a little extra guidance in understanding and interpreting appropriate behavior.

If you would like Dr. Kay Trotter to come talk to your group or find out more about her counseling practice, you can contact her at: Kay@KayTrotter.com214-499-0396, or visit her web site http://www.KayTrotter.com.

Dr Trotter also post regularly in her FaceBook fan page http://www.facebook.com/DrKaySudekumTrotter.

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