It’s a safe bet that many, if not most, difficult youngsters expect just about everything coming out of an adult’s mouth to be critical of them. They expect it, and they’re prepared for it. (Well, with the kind of responses their behaviors generally bring, it could be true much of the time.) But if you’ve ever attempted to pay them a compliment directly, they might find a way to trash it, right?
A New Way to “Notice”
So how do we “notice” our children without it being turned into a problem? Try a strategy I call Noncritical Noticing.
In Noncritical Noticing a parent describes a slice of time with their child in it. It’s a clear example of how we must do our best work with our children when there is no conflict. Noncritical Noticing contains a lot of specifics, but no interpretation, judgment or criticism. As such, it requires no response.
Under to Radar
This intervention is intended to slip silently under a child’s “radar,” catching them off guard, but in a positive way. It suggests to the youngster that we are taking a moment to notice THEM, and nothing else. It can be a powerful way to shape behavior, soften defenses, and build on a relationship. (Isn’t this an improvement over a youngster acting out in order to be noticed?)
(One of the tricky parts to this intervention is that a parent MUST use it when there is no conflict. This means there must be a conscious effort to use it when things are going relatively smoothly. In other words, opportunities must be created.)
Here are a couple of examples. This first one would be appropriate for a young child:
I see you’re putting a lot of bright colors into your drawing. Yes; there’s yellow, green and orange … and a very bright red right there. Really bright colors!
Notice that there is no evaluation at all regarding what the colors mean to the adult other than they are bright. The child already knew what he wanted to do with the colors; he just appreciated being noticed for it.
Here’s an example of Noncritical Noticing with an adolescent:
Tammy, I see you are carefully folding your clothes so you can get them all into that one suitcase you’re taking to Grandma’s. Look, you even found a way to use that small space down there on the end.
It’s really a snapshot, isn’t it? In this comment the parent is recognizing Tammy’s skill and focus in packing the suitcase without over-interpreting it. To Tammy the message could be: You have the ability to figure things out for yourself, to have a plan and make it work. After all, Tammy’s interpretation is the one that matters, right? Actually, it would probably work best for the parent to leave the room after the comment, giving it some time and silence to soak in.
Warning: The first time you try Noncritical Noticing you’ll struggle with wanting to interpret or evaluate. It gets better with practice.
A nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters, and his skill for sharing it. He the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a popular internet radio program supporting young people and their families, and every month he publishes The Changing Behavior Digest, offering tips on managing difficult children and teens. Both resources (and others) are available at no cost through his website, http://www.DocSpeak.com.