Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

How to talk about: Anything – for dads (but equally as helpful for mums)

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As our kids grow up, there are hundreds of little but significant conversations that we need to have. Like chats about which team we support, or why it’s okay for Dad to swear sometimes and the crucial conversation about keeping quiet about your age when we’re trying to sneak you in somewhere that’s free if you’re “under 12”.

When these discussions arise, a lot of dads default to the most tempting response which is “talk to your Mum”, but man-up dads – you can wade into the uncharted waters of these chats as well. It’s the sum total of all of these little conversations that prepare you for the more significant big conversations that you'll likely end up having as your kids become teenagers (things like relationships, sex, alcohol, self-harm, depression, technology or the fact that they think a gap year surfing in Bali really is the best thing for them). That’s why these little conversations matter – they lay a foundation for big conversations.

All you need to know are the rules. Here are the four steps to having a good conversation about important stuff with your kid.

Step one: Empathy

If your young person genuinely feels like you understand how they are feeling and where they are coming from, then they will feel safe to talk about what is going on.

DON'T:

  • Interrupt them and say “You shouldn’t feel like this” (also a good tip when talking with your wife).

  • Tell them “Do what I do when I feel feelings – numb them by watching Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon 3… again”.

  • Tell them it’s not that bad because when you were their age, you didn’t have stuff like phones and social media, instead you had corporal punishment and a long walk to school in bare feet.

Good listening is listening to understand, not just to respond.

DO:

  • Listen well to whatever your child is saying. Good listening is listening to understand, not just to respond.

  • Say empathetic things, like: “That sounds hard.” “I bet you felt/are feeling/would feel disappointed about that.” “I would feel really sad/happy/scared/overwhelmed/add-your-own-emotion-here if that was going on for me too.”

Now, the tricky thing about listening empathetically is that it does require you to engage with emotions. I think this is why some dads feel like they need to put the conversation in the “talk to your Mother” category. But it isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Step two: Curiosity

Emotions can seem irrational, but they do come from somewhere. If you are having a conversation about something important, it’s highly likely that your child will experience some strong emotions. So be curious about where those emotions come from.

DON'T:

  • Jump to conclusions like “You’re only sad because you have your period.”

  • Assume you know what’s going on, e.g. “Yeah, I know you’re sad because you’re not very good at table tennis. That’s mostly your mother’s fault, not mine.”

  • Walk backwards slowly towards your DVD collection, reach for Indiana Jones Raiders of The Lost Ark, then say “There is no mystery that Harrison Ford cannot shed light on, including your feelings.”

DO:

  • Ask them with curiosity why they are feeling the way that they are feeling.
    • “I wonder if you are feeling so sad about this because you feel like you are missing out?”
    • “I’m curious about why you feel so strongly about this?”
    • “Can you help me understand why this matters so much to you?”
    • “I’m wondering if something that happened at school today has influenced how you’re feeling?”

Wherever there is a big emotion like anger, there is usually pain or frustration. Anger isn’t the main problem – usually it’s just a symptom. Curiosity helps you to understand where the big emotion is coming from.

Step three: Acceptance

Acceptance is simply understanding that your child’s behaviour doesn’t come from nowhere. Once you’ve found out how they are feeling, usually their behaviour makes more sense. It doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address their behaviour, there are just a few more steps to go through before you get to that part of the conversation.

Remember – you always have to connect before you correct.

DON'T:

  • Tell them they should be grateful for what they have because when you were younger, you had bigger problems like blowing into game cartridges to make them work and disproportionately unfair video store late fees.

  • Lecture them about how that’s not how they should feel or behave.

  • Tell them that you just don’t understand.

DO:

  • Pause. Take a big breath and remember, if you were feeling the way they’re feeling, you would probably be doing the same thing that they're doing. We often forget that children are not adults. We forget that children’s brains are not like adults' brains. When you can remember what it was like to have a child’s brain, how that felt and how you behaved, then you are most of the way there to connecting with how your child is feeling.

If you want to have a good conversation about what is going on in their world, first you need to understand it.

Remember – you always have to connect before you correct.

Step four: Playfulness

Playfulness is your chance to shine

DON'T:

  • Say “You want a phone? Okay, here’s a phone!” and give them two cans and a long piece of string.

  • Challenge them to a cage fight.

  • Start mimicking them in a sarcastic tone.

DO:

  • Once you’ve empathised, explored their feelings with curiosity, accepted their current behaviour, then… then it’s time for playfulness.

  • Make up some sort of elaborate/silly thing that you would have done as a child if you were feeling the way that they are feeling. For example, “If I was feeling like you are right now, I would probably want to pretend I’m Mel Gibson from the 80s and shave my hair into a mullet, do a poor American accent and sleep in a caravan.”

Humour and playfulness can be great tools to de-escalate emotionally charged conversations. They can help to strengthen the connection between you and your children, and once that connection has been established, you‘ll be able to talk about how your child has been behaving.

Humour and playfulness can be great tools to de-escalate emotionally charged conversations.

When our kids are having big feelings and behaving poorly, most dads want to jump straight into fixing their kids behaviour. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you can connect with your child’s feelings, then you can talk to them about what is going on.

Lots of little conversations like this will set you up for those big conversations in the teenage years. Those don’t have to be “talk to your mum” conversations, they can be “talk to us” conversations.

With thanks to our principal partner Toyota for their support
Christian Gallen

Christian Gallen

Christian is a Senior Presenter and National Trainer for Attitude. He has spoken to over 100,000 young people nationwide during his long presenting career. Christian manages all the social media and online content for Attitude and is passionate about seeing young people make great choices online and offline.