Using declarative language to reduce conflict and support social skills

Jillian Enright

The Benefits of Wondering Out Loud

Why didn’t you get the kind of granola bars I like?!” our son demands incredulously as he helps put away the groceries.

“I wonder if you could ask me that in a different way”, I muse.

He pauses, considers, and rephrases: “Mommy, can you please get my favourite kind of granola bars next time you’re at the grocery store?”

“I’ll put it on my list, bud. They were out of stock when I was there today, but I’ll try to pick some up next time.”

Okay, thank you,” he answers, as he continues to place food in the pantry.

Conversations like this used to go very differently.

It would start with a rude-sounding demand from my son, followed by an equally rude-sounding criticism or correction from me — usually something along the lines of “don’t speak to me like that!” — ending with my son stomping out of the kitchen citing hurt feelings, and me simmering while putting away groceries by myself.

So what changed?

First of all, I stopped attributing intention to my son’s words and behaviours, and I stopped making assumptions about why he said or did something.

Or, at least I’m working on stopping. (I still frequently mess up).

As I’ve said before: too often, we adults view children’s behaviour through an adult lens, and jump to conclusions about their motive and intent based on adult life experiences and adult-sized cynicism.

It’s important to first try to hear and understand the message behind the word-choice, tone, or body language. Only when we actually understand what children are trying to communicate can we support and guide them to communicate in a more effective way.

Another thing I’ve done is I’ve incorporated a heck-tonne of declarative language into my vernacular.

What is Declarative Language?

Declarative language is, in short, a comment or a statement.

When we’re reframing how we communicate with children, we juxtapose declarative language with imperativestatements. An imperative is a question or sentence that demands a response (Murphy, 2020).

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Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB(image created by author)

Declarative vs. Imperative Statements

My son is a risk-taker. He is adventurous and loves to climb. He often climbs up the outside of his play structure, as well as climbing as high as he can possibly get in trees. We live in the country with lots of tall trees, so that can be pretty high.

As a parent, that makes me nervous, and I do worry about him falling and getting hurt. Yet I love the joy he gets out of these adventures and it is good for him, both psychologically and physically, to have some autonomy — and fun! — and to be active.

In this situation, an imperative statement might be something like:

Don’t climb any higher or you’ll fall!”

or

Get down from there before you break your neck!”

Although I’ve definitely had thoughts resembling these remarks, they’re not very confidence-inspiring, and they don’t allow my son to develop the skill of evaluating his own risk (within reason, of course).

A declarative sentence might be something regarding safety:

I notice that one branch looks pretty weak.”

I wonder what your plan is once you get to that big branch there.”

Or conversation-starters while cheering him on:

I wonder how you’re feeling being that high up!” (for non-anxious climbers)

I remember how much I loved climbing trees when I was a kid.”

The Benefits of Declarative Language

Aside from encouraging children to develop their own skills in risk assessment, there are many other benefits to this approach.

For example, my son struggles with low self-concept — some might call it Rejection Sensitivity — and he can sometimes become defensive or upset if we point out a mistake he has made.

He’s not alone.

“Many kids are hard on themselves when it comes to making mistakes. They fear being wrong, and feel awful when they realize they have made a mistake of some sort.”— Linda K. Murphy

When, instead of criticizing or correcting, we simply notice something, we give children space to discover their mistake on their own.

In my first example, instead of directing my son in how to address his concern about the missing granola bars, I gave him an opportunity. I gave him time to self-reflect and come up with his own solution by asking me in a more respectful manner.

Correcting and demanding take these learning opportunities away from children. Depending on the situation, criticizing may negatively impact the child’s self-concept, by shaming or blaming them for their behaviour.

We can also give them time and room to problem-solve on their own, while letting them know we’re available for help if needed.

“We, as their teachers in life, must be okay with them making mistakes. It is our responsibility to allow mistakes to happen in a safe context so that kids can develop skill and confidence in fixing mistakes.”— Linda K. Murphy

Declarative language can also be a form of validating a child’s experience and feelings. Instead of “you should be grateful for the snacks we did buy,” I could acknowledge and validate my son’s disappointment while still expecting a kinder approach.

For example: “I hear you’re disappointed about the granola bars, buddy. It can be frustrating when we’re really looking forward to a certain snack and then we can’t have it. I wonder if you could try asking me in a different way, though.”

It’s important to remember that using fewer words is usually better, especially when a child or adult are feeling upset. It may be more effective to address the respectful communication at a later time, once the emotions have settled a bit.

“Words mean very little when attempting discipline from a place of dysregulation and agitation.” — Lori Desautels

“To Err is Human”

-Alexander Pope

In addition to being okay with our children making mistakes, we need to be okay with making mistakes ourselves.

“Demystify making mistakes by commenting on them in the presence of your child while also talking about how you felt at the time, how you handled the situation, and how you fixed things… It is powerful when we can model an observation of our own mistake and then model how we take responsibility for it” — Linda K. Murphy

If we only hold our children accountable, but never ourselves, then it’s much more difficult for them to learn the important life skills of accepting responsibility and making amends.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote the story entitled, I’m okay with my son calling me out.

We All Do Well When We Can

The philosophy embraced with declarative language also meshes very well with Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach.

Declarative Language is about guiding and teaching rather than correcting, blaming, and shaming.

It’s about getting out of the way of our children’s learning. We do this by giving them time and space to identify their own problems and to try to solve them without us jumping in.

The CPS model emphasizes skills over shame and Dr. Greene’s philosophy is that maladaptive behaviour is an important signal that a child is lacking necessary skills.

The CPS model focuses on support and solutions rather than punishment, and invites children to be part of the problem-solving process (Greene, 2021).

Dr. Greene also uses declarative language in the examples and guides for implementing the CPS model.

Declarative language can be used when identifying an unsolved problem, expressing adult concerns, and when inviting children to be part of the problem-solving process.

Step 1

Identifying an unsolved problem: “I notice you had a hard time when we couldn’t get the granola bars you wanted.”

Step 2

Defining an adult concern: “My concern is that when you express yourself in a way that feels unkind to me, it’s harder to hear the message behind your words.”

Step 3

The invitation: “I wonder if there’s a way you can express your disappointment without my feelings being hurt by your words.”

This process aligns very well with the philosophy behind using declarative language.

“We want to create an environment where kids can lower their guard and feel safe to be curious about the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others.”— Linda K. Murphy

If I jump directly to blaming or criticizing, then my son is likely to become defensive or think he’s in trouble, rather than being open to considering other perspectives.

Along those lines, Dr. Greene also emphasizes that the concerns of both parties — the adult and the child — are of exactly equal legitimacy (Greene, 2021).

The goals of declarative language and CPS are not to convince children to see things our way, we need to role-model respecting and validating other peoples’ feelings, considering their experiences, and working collaboratively.

“Truly model being open. Give kids experience disagreeing with you while observing that all is okay. Show how you won’t have a big emotional response when they think differently about something.” — Linda K. Murphy

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1V10xo_0d3wVQPz00
Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB(image created by author)

Wondering out loud, engaging collaboratively, and communicating using declarative language can have so many benefits. The most important is strengthening the relationship between parent and child.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Tips for Constructing Declarative Statements

  1. Make simple comments that observe and invite the child to observe too.
    I notice your laundry didn’t quite make it to the hamper.”
  2. Use cognitive verbs — those are verbs that model our thinking. 
    I wonder what your friend was feeling when that happened.”
  3. Use words that acknowledge what you don’t know. 
    That’s a great question, let’s find the answer together.
  4. Use words related to your feelings or senses, and words that help kids observe their environment. 
    It looks like your coach is ready to start practice, bud.”
  5. Use inviting first person plural pronouns to help kids engage and join you. 
    Let’s tidy up the table so we can play that board game together.”

(Adapted from Murphy, 2020).

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Related Stories

Why I’m Actually Okay With My Son Calling Me Out

The Power of Validation

Why Rejection is More Painful With ADHD

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References

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Murphy, L. K. (2020). Declarative Language Handbook: Using a thoughtful language style to help kids with social learning challenges feel competent, connected, and understood.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of ADHD 2e MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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