THE BLOG
08/31/2011 12:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

Your Children Send Messages Too

Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.

Though my focus in Your Children are Listening is on how you can send healthy messages to your children, the message highway is not one way. Your children are constantly sending you messages that you may or may not be getting or interpreting correctly. Your ability to receive and understand those messages can help you send the best messages in the best way to them (and when to stop sending messages or change your messages).

Children are incredibly good at sending their parents messages about how they are doing at any given moment in time. If your children are anything like our girls, they are very good at sending the message that they are cranky, but parents often miss the message. For example, when one of our daughters throws a tantrum, it's easy to interpret that very loud message as they are being babies or brats. But the deeper message is, more often than not, is that they are feeling scared, unsupported, hungry, or tired. Clearly, how my wife and I interpret this very emotional message determines how we respond, for instance, with our own frustration and harsh tone or with empathy and kindness

Your children will also tell you how well your messages are getting through to them. You can judge the effectiveness of your "message transmission" by seeing whether their words, emotions, or behavior are consistent with your messages. For example, if they are saying please and thank you, are able to respond constructively to their frustration, or bringing their dishes to the sink after meals, then you are getting a pretty clear message that they are getting your messages about manners, emotional maturity, and family responsibility, respectively. If they aren't sending you such affirming messages and are, in fact, sending contradictory messages, that is another powerful message in itself, namely, that, for some reason, something is blocking the messages from getting through, they are not understanding the messages as intended, something is motivating them to act counter to the messages, or they just haven't gotten your message enough. You can use this information to figure out how to alter the message so it will get through and produce the desired change in them.

Your children will often send you a message that it is time to change your message. Think about it this way. The point of sending messages is to get in their head. But when you get in their heads too much with the same message, it can get crowded and that is really annoying for children. In fact, when I work with young people, I know they are getting my messages when they tell me that I'm really irritating them. The same with my girls. I have to admit that I can get pretty heavy-handed and preachy in my desire to get a message across to them. When I send a message one too many times, my eldest daughter will look at me with an exasperated look, give me the "talk to the hand" sign, and say "DAAAAD, I know!" So I get her message and back off or send a different message. Her message is one of irritation, but the larger message is that "I got the message, you don't need to keep sending it!"