The other day, my kids and I were at a friend’s house. My daughter came to sit at the table and eat a snack while the other kids were playing. After a minute, a child who lives there came up behind her, furious, glaring over her unknowing shoulder. We adults saw the problem. She had sat in his special chair. Everybody knows that’s his chair. It always is.
Before he was able to convey his feelings to my daughter, I quickly reflected what I saw he was thinking, “She’s in your chair. You don’t like that”. My daughter says, “Oh!”, and moves over one seat. She forgot that the other child felt so strongly about the chair, and it was no big deal to her. The other child’s body language relaxes, and we all breathe a sigh of relief.
And then I said a phrase I have heard myself say over and over to children, “You know, it’s easier for people to understand what you need if you tell them with words“. It’s maybe the most important lesson we ever learn.
Other ways I often see children communicate their needs: swinging or throwing a shovel in order to say, “I need space”. Screaming in another child’s face to say, “That is annoying me”. Hitting, in order to say, “That hurt my feelings”. Running away, to tell us, “That scares me”. Dumping sand on someone, to say, “I want to play with you”. Really. These are not always super clear messages to the person on the receiving end.
Other ways I have found myself communicating my needs: Saying nothing, and going about my business, to indicate, “I’m really overwhelmed and I need help”. Not making plans I’m expected to make, to say, “This feels too hard for me but I don’t want to disappoint you”. Doing work I asked another adult to do, to indicate, “I can do everything by myself if I have to, but neither one of us is going to like my attitude about it”. Yeah. These are also not effective ways to get needs met.
What does usually work, unsurprisingly, is talking about it with actual words, to the person you need stuff from. So with kids, we practice the words for things like, “That’s my favorite chair. Could you please sit in a different one?”, or “I need space” (hand out in a stop sign, in case it takes you a minute to remember the words). And I really mean, practice. After everyone is calm, find a clear, concise way to say it. Do it a couple times if you can, and come back to it, like a catch phrase, next time a similar thing comes up. That way, when their fight-or-flight kicks in, they don’t have to struggle with nuance. They have it right in their pocket.
For us grownups, let’s start by remembering how hard it is to be vulnerable by telling people about how we feel and what we need. So super hard. We can stop ourselves from communicating via poorly transmitted psychic message. We can stop and think, and say it out loud to the person with whom we need to talk. I’m failing at it all the time. But I keep trying.