Empathic and effective dialogue with your child: example after food is binned in school

In the book I give you principles and examples of empathy and dialogue. Here is one more example you might relate to. The child has secretly been binning food in school and the parent is trying to connect, understand and find solutions.

Secretly binning food in school: what can the parent say to both connect and find solutions?

I find empathy invaluable not just for comfort and connection but also for dialogue, when I’m hoping for action or agreement. With empathy, all parties’ needs are more likely to be met, or at least acknowledged, and any agreements are more likely to stick.

First of all, check with yourself what your intention is. Do you want to connect, or do you want to let rip? Do you want to be right, do you want to have your way, or are you open to finding out what others are feeling and needing so that you can reach an outcome everyone accepts willingly? If you feel big tensions around this, you first need some empathic nourishment. Ideally, in a good conversation, each person can listen to the other with empathy. In reality, anyone who’s highly reactive, like your suffering child, isn’t in a position to do that for you. You will have to make do with self-compassion or fill your cup of empathy elsewhere before you have the conversation.

The rest ought to be straightforward – and I’m saying this with my tongue firmly in my cheek. Consider your needs (and as I’ve explained in the book, by ‘needs’ I mean values, wishes, longings, things that really matter), the other person’s needs, and keep expressing yourself and showing the other person you’ve heard them and checking you’ve ‘got’ them, until you’re both happy with the outcome.

Easier said than done, especially with someone who’s highly reactive. You’ll need to regularly ground yourself in self-compassion to keep the process going until the other person feels truly heard and is able to engage.

I’ll try and give you guidance through the following example.

Judgement escalates the conflict

Let’s start with what is less likely to work. I’ll make up a fictitious scenario. Let’s say that Mrs Smith, a teacher, phoned me to report that she saw my daughter binning the entire contents of her lunch today. As my daughter comes in from school, I immediately confront her.

‘Did you eat your lunch?’

‘Of course. It was yummy.’

‘Well I happen to know that you chucked it in the bin.’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Yes you did. Don’t lie. Mrs Smith saw you.’

My daughter gives me a defiant look. ‘So?’

She is furious that I have laid a trap for her: that seems like a slap in the face. If she could work herself up into a tantrum, she could avoid eating the snack she is due to have right now. She needs some calming and containment, in order to manage eating, but her rudeness has pushed all my buttons. I snap, ‘I need to be able to trust you!’

She pushes violently past me to run into her room, screaming, ‘Mrs Smith’s a bitch! I hate you! I hate my life!’

Problem-solving dialogue: principles and example

Using the same scenario, I now want to offer you the tools that generally help me. But please remember that there are as many ways of doing this as there are mothers and fathers and youngsters.

So my first job is to ground myself before my daughter comes back from school. Through the self-compassion process I’ve described earlier, I become aware of how scared and discouraged I am, how much I hoped that my daughter would be safe in school, and how I’d like her to have the right balance of autonomy and containment. I imagine that she’s not eaten anything since maybe 8 o’clock this morning, and instead of fighting the sorrow, I allow it in. I tune into my longer term vision of her recovery, which helps me to let go of some of my tensions around this particular hiccup. I become softer, and ready to find out what’s going on for her when she gets home. I trust that I can navigate the process well enough to do a good enough job.

As she comes in, I give her her snack. Crafty, eh? Well, she needs food. And discussions are very difficult when people are tired or their blood sugars are low.

Later on I say, ‘I have a question in my mind about how best to support you. I’d like to talk to you about how you manage food in school. It’s that OK?’

Hesitantly, she says, ‘Yeah…?’ If she’d refused, I’d have negotiated that we talk in ten minutes. If that proved difficult, another time I wouldn’t give her a choice. It’s maybe too stressful for her to contemplate a discussion, and easier for her if I take charge.

I’m going to use a framework from Compassionate (or Nonviolent) Communication (NVC). Its elements are: Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. I hope this helps those of you who like things tidy, but if it starts looking complicated, then it’s not a useful tool for you. The main thing is to keep your focus on feelings and needs.

I say, ‘OK, I’d really like for you to be able to eat well in school, so you can keep going and not have adults watching over you all the time [Need]. So I’d like to discuss what was going on for you this lunchtime [Request]. Mrs Smith phoned to say she saw you bin your food [Observation].’

The framework functions like this:

Observations (in this case, the facts: what Mrs Smith reported). You can also observe what the chatterbox is saying.

Feelings (I’m worried or discouraged or puzzled).

Needs (I’d like my daughter to be autonomous and to eat well).

Requests – or a search for a strategy to meet needs (I’d like to discuss it and find a solution).

Effective dialogues jump about between these elements, dictated by what comes as we’re present to ourselves and to the other person. What matters is my intention to connect.

In this case, I missed out my feelings because my daughter, in her ultra-sensitive state, tends to hear my feelings (‘I’m sad / worried / angry’) as judgements. Hearing about my feelings can also raise her anxiety as she wants me as her rock, not a vulnerable earthling. I started with my needs, because I sensed that it would show her I want to connect, not to blame.

My daughter recoils. ‘Mrs Smith said that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Bitch!’ She tightens her jaw. ‘I hate people watching me all the time! I’m not a baby!’

I wonder if she’s not just angry but ashamed, and frustrated [Feelings] because she’s striving for autonomy [Need]. And she wants to be like everyone else, normal [Need]. She could also be trying to brew up a fight because her anorexic voice tells her to push away whoever is helping her [Strategy]. All this could be making her very anxious and confused [Feelings]. I pick up on the chatterbox comment ‘I’m not a baby!’ and tune into her desire for autonomy [Need].

‘Sure. You’re eleven and I’m so impressed with everything you’ve achieved so far. You’d like to be able to have lunch without people watching over you, right?’ My intention is to check or reflect back her need for autonomy without using the word because with younger people, big ‘concept’ words don’t mean much.

She begins to cry. This may sound awful, but it’s a good sign. The fight has gone out of her and she seems to be more herself.

I wait a bit, letting silent empathy do its magic. I’m conscious about what a huge thing it is to have an eating disorder and to be struggling so much of the time. My daughter is fighting a heroic battle, hour after hour.

I say, ‘Can you tell me what was going on for you [Feelings or Needs] when you binned your lunch [Observation]?’

She sniffs. ‘It was too much. Why did you give me more grapes than usual?’

I resist the urge to say there were actually fewer grapes than yesterday. This is an example of a ‘Why’ question that is more an expression of distress than a question needing answered.

She continues, ‘You’re always giving me too much [Chatterbox]. And we never had gym in the morning because the teacher was sick [Observation].’

‘Ah, so when you saw your lunch, and when you thought that you hadn’t had the exercise you expected [Observations], you got worried [Feeling]? Because it’s important to you to know you’re having the right amount [Strategy to attempt to meet a need]? Is that right?’

I’m reflecting back what she said, so she knows I’ve heard her, and so she sees I’m still not judging her. Hearing her words back may also help her make sense of things in her own mind. I’m deliberately not engaging with the chatterbox exaggerations, with the anorexic talk. I added a guess about her needs (‘It’s important to you…’) because this is where we’ll find clarity about all this. I’m phrasing things as questions and checking (‘Is that right?’) because I’m not pretending to know everything about her, and I would love her to express more.

‘Yeah… I thought I could eat most of my lunch and leave a bit… But then I didn’t know how much less to have. [Observations]’

‘Right. So then you didn’t have any of it? [Observation]’

‘I couldn’t think. I was confused [Observations]. And my friends had already finished and I wanted to be with them.’

‘So you made a quick decision and binned the whole lot so you could join them and have some fun?’ Still no judgement. I’m also validating the need for friends and fun.

‘Yeah.’

‘So it sounds like you did some kind of calculation around exercise, and you didn’t trust that the food was right. Is there something else?’ When reflecting, it’s good to check for accuracy (‘Did I get that right?’) and to see if the other has any other burning issues before you move on (‘Is there something else?’).

‘No. I just didn’t want to eat too much. And my friends were calling me.’

‘So what can we do about this [Request/Strategy]? So that you can eat what you need and trust it’s the right amount, and continue to eat with your friends in school?’ I reckon she’s feeling well heard now, and I also understand where she’s coming from, so we’re ready to move on to possible strategies. And it will help if they come more from her than from me. I’m placing what matters to her (reassurance, friends) and what matters to me (eating) on the table, so that we can work towards a solution that meets all our needs, as much as possible.

‘I think you should give me less food for lunch. Like, half a slice of bread with some cheese. You can give me a bit more in the evening if I need it.’ Ouch! I can’t bear the thought of her having a tiny lunch. But I’m impressed she’s even mentioning the possibility of having a bigger dinner. The time for empathy isn’t over. It’s going to be needed until we reach a good solution.

‘Right, with half a slice of bread and a bit of cheese, you’d get peace of mind [Need] from knowing you’re not eating too much? It’s important to you to know you’re eating the right amounts?’ Reflecting needs, again.

‘Yeah.’ She looks like she’s feeling heard.

‘OK. I’d like to tell you what I’m thinking. Are you up for that?’ ‘Connection requests’ like this can be good if I’m about to muscle in with information and suggestions.

‘Yeah.’

‘I want you to eat the right amounts too. Every three hours or so, you need a certain amount of food. The lunch I give you is the right size for that time of day, and any less would not be good for you at all.’

‘I’ll still worry it’s too much if we’ve been sitting all morning when we should have had gym.’

‘Of course. You’ll be wanting to know it’s just right for you even if you’ve been sitting. So how would it work if you ate it all the same, knowing that later, when you come home, you can tell me about any worries you have? [Request]’

‘I could tell you if we’ve had gym or not. Like that you can give me the right amount for dinner.’

OK, she’s still caught up in anorexia, but she’s not going to be cured overnight. This is good enough. And at this stage of her journey, I’m glad she’s ready to rely on me and trust me about quantities.

I’m in two minds whether to tell her that 20mn of gym in school makes no significant difference to the food she needs. She’s been well heard, so she may be ready for information (remember, ‘Connect before you correct’). On the other hand, what’s the point? Logic makes no difference to this illness, and may just re-awaken her chatterbox. She’ll learn by experience that gym or no gym, she can eat what I give her.

I say, ‘I think your idea is great. You eat your lunch, and any worries, we’ll sort it out when you come home.’

‘OK. And then you can help me.’ She’s looking like herself and I think we can get on with our lives.

‘Absolutely. You want to play a game of snap?’

When agreements are broken

There are decent chances that my daughter will stick to our agreement if we did a good job of taking her needs into account. But I won’t be too surprised if she has another few hiccups and if she lies. The force of her eating disorder may be too strong for her at the precise moment she opens her lunch box. If that happens, I may feel disappointed and discouraged, and there’s a danger I will want to blame and shame her. As I dip into self- empathy and think of what may be going on for her, I will accept that our agreement wasn’t workable. It’s likely that she needs more containment to manage to eat consistently every lunch. We could have another conversation about it, or I might decide to make a unilateral decision: my challenge then will be to re-institute lunchtime support from the staff without my daughter hearing it as a punishment or as something she will be stuck with for ever.

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