Red Flag Words – How to understand what your child really needs

As the end of the school year neared, both of my sons struggled with final projects. It was exhausting to have evenings filled with arguments about why they couldn't possible get their work done. This was particularly bad one evening last week with one boy morosely sitting at the table not working and the other sitting in my office ranting out ALL the reasons it was completely impossible to get his report done.

It's easy, in these moments of heightened emotion to dive into trying to solve or placate, and that's what I was doing.

Does it help? No, not usually, and it didn't this evening either. Instead my frustrated kids kept up their barrage of this-will-never-work type reactions.

It was my husband who put an end to the chaos.

Listen for the feelings behind your child's words. ~Alissa Marquess
100 Ways to Be Kind to Your Child #58

My husband declared: It's time for everyone to stop. We are eating dinner and then you are both going to bed.

The boys weren't hot on this plan (But my homework isn't done! But! But!)

However, their dad pointed out (rightly) that they were both too tired, hungry and upset to get work done. They could get up early, but it was time to stop.

In the end this is exactly what happened, and yes, everything was easier in the morning.

Hearing the need under the words

What he did in this example was to notice the true need under the kids' words. I'd been getting caught up in what the boys were saying, taking them quite literally and getting frustrated that we couldn't solve their problem. My husband, on the other hand, heard what I call ‘red flag' words and assessed the situation from a different perspective. He looked at what the kids actually needed.

Red Flag Words

We're not always good at exressing what we feel and what we need. Sometimes our feelings come out in jagged and unfortunate words that hurt.

One important skill we can work on as parents (and as people who want to learn to communicate better with anyone) is to notice words that indicate inflamed emotions, then start listening for what might be going on under those words.

You know someone is probably upset or triggered when they use words like:

  • Always
  • Never
  • No fair

Certain speaking styles also tell you someone is expressing emotions and might not be ready to calmly discuss a situation:

  • Cussing
  • Yelling or screaming
  • Crying
  • Sarcasm or passive aggressive statements

You don't have to be ok with hurtful words!

This is not to say you excuse these kinds of potentially hurtful words, but instead to say – use them as a warning light for yourself. If someone you're talking to, be it adult or child, is speaking in one of the above ways, they're probably not ready to sit and have a calm conversation. When you listen for the feelings underneath their words you may be able to find compassion for them and also keep yourself from tipping into a heightened emotional state.

When I notice “red flag” words, I try to think, ‘I wonder what they're feeling or experiencing that's making them talk this way?'

As we back up a little and become observers, it is easier to take things less personally and respond more calmly. That step, of getting curious, is often a pathway to empathy, and once I feel empathy it's easier to be there with the tough emotions instead of trying to shut them down.

Or, in the case of my husband and the reluctant homeworkers, to get everyone to stop and take care of basic needs.