Scientific Strategies To Improve Communication with Your Child

Dr. William Stixrud

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Nov 24, 2021

Finding the right words to use at the right time when communicating with kids, can confound even the most conscientious parent.

It was this precise feedback from parents themselves that led in large part to the latest book by Dr. William Stixrud, co-authored with Ned Johnson, entitled, What Do You Say: How To Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home.

“We wanted to write a book that shares a lot of what Ned and I have learned, communicating with kids between the two of us for 65 years — talking one-on-one with kids and teenagers,” Dr. Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist, lecturer and best-selling author, told Lianne Castelino in an interview for Where Parents Talk.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a father of two, a clinical neuropsychologist lecture and best selling author. He is the founder of the sticks route group and has been in private practice for over 35 years. Dr. William Stixrud’s latest book co authored with Ned Johnson is called What do you say? How to talk with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance, and happy home? Dr. William sticks root joins us from Maryland. Thank you so much for being here.

Thanks for having me. It’s nice. Nice to be here. And call me, Bill.

So Bill, could you tell me what was the motivation to write this book.

What happened is our first book the self driven child, was about got a thesis, which is that having a sense of control is hugely beneficial for children and teenagers. And everybody really this having meaning not feeling helpless, not feeling hopeless, not feeling passive, or not feeling overwhelmed, or obsessively driven. Having a healthy sense of control that I can manage my life is really beneficial. And so in our book, the first book has a lot of practical suggestions. And in our our editor, our agent actually said, write a second book, it just makes it easier to do this stuff that gives people the language that helps communicate in a way that can build this kind of sense of control the self driven child. So it’s really, it’s really his idea. We really like the idea that there’s a classic book about communicating with kids called how to listen. So kids will talk and talk, some kids will listen. But it’s four years old, 40 years old. So we wanted to write a book that shares a lot of what Ned and I have learned and communicating with kids between the two of us for 65 years talking one on one with kids and teenagers.

And on that note, we noted that you’ve been in private practice for over 35 years, you’ve seen all kinds of things in that time. And all the various roles that you have and responsibilities. How did you go about distilling the most salient points into a book like this one?

Well, you know, we think that what it was, is that it’s this idea, I’ve had this idea for 30. years, since 1986, which is parents, as kids get older, we should think of ourselves more as consultants to our kids than as their manager or theirs, their boss with the idea that ideally, kids are able to run their own life before they go off to college. And so that might that’s my focus, because I see so many kids who go off to college, and they bought their home by November, because they simply haven’t had enough experience, really running their own life. And I want parents to be helping kids figure out who do I want to be, as opposed to thinking, here’s where you, here’s who you need to be. And so in this book, we have a chapter on how you build connection, because really, ideally, what we want is you want to feel connected to our kids and they to us, because we’re going to net then said, there were ideally, we’re going to have more time with our kids as adults than we do as kids. And so we have a chapter on how do you build that close connection, how to communicate in a way that kids trust you and will come to you when they have difficulties. And we thought about here’s the language of this idea of appearance consultant. Here’s how a consultant talks. And here’s how a consultant listens. And we also have this idea in both books, that ideally, parents can serve as none as a non anxious presence in their family, meaning somebody who can handle stuff without flipping out to the kids, when kids have a problem. The parents don’t get more upset than the kid does. Yeah. And so we just thought we just thought about how do we communicate that how do we communicate a nice native presence? What’s the language of apparent console? And then we thought about what’s what what are the issues that people are dealing with? So talking about motivation, communicating with kids about technology and sleep, we just thought about the stuff that comes up all the time, in our personal lives, and also in our clinical lives.

It is such an important point because in many families, the stumbling block and you know this from from your practice, I’m sure the main stumbling block is I know there’s a problem but I don’t know how to communicate or convey or explicitly express myself to fix it. So how would you go about suggesting the some effective strategies generally, in how parents can be better communicators and better listeners with their kids with their children.

So the first thing, the first chapter we talk about, probably the key to feeling close to your kids is practicing empathy. And we’re as mammals, we’re wired to protect them from an end with from from difficulty, and when they’re upset to sue them. So we tend to when kids bring us a problem, we oftentimes say, what’s not that? Don’t worry about it’s not that big a deal. I don’t know why you’re upset. And what makes kids really feel close to parents. Is it parents listen respectfully without judging, and don’t tell him what to do. In fact, we interviewed dozens of kids, Lianne, in writing the book, we simply asked them, Who do you feel closest to? And sometimes it was mom or dad, but oftentimes it was an uncle or a cousin or older friend, somebody and we said, what is it about them that makes you feel close. And invariably, they listen to me without judging, and they don’t tell me what to do. So I think the first thing is that is this practice of reflective listening so that if you if you tell me, I had a really bad day, I was really, I made a presentation, I kind of screwed it up. And I might say that it sounds like you, it was really frustrating, you felt really embarrassed, I tried to let you know, I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. I’m not judging. And also I that we validate feelings, meaning, you know, if you say I was really embarrassed, I feel that way, too, you know, that kind of idea that it’s normal to feel that that empathy and validation are the keys really, for helping kids when they’re upset. And it’s not that we necessarily condone everything that they’re doing, it’s just simply that the feeling itself, we understand, we try to understand it rather than judge it. And we validate that a lot of people would feel like that. So that that’s, that’s really one of the keys. And that’s, that’s why our first chapter is about that, that that use of empathy and validation to to build closeness. And we have, there’s other stuff in there too. And in terms of, for example, just spending one on one time with kids, a lot of families just don’t think they have a lot of family time. But the way you really get to know somebody and spend time with them one on one. And so we encourage parents to spend individual time every week with each kit, just that that’s the way you really feel. So that’s one thing, they said a second thing I’ll say, the second thing is this language of consultant, we offer our help, we offer our advice, but we don’t try to force it. So we want a family says prepared says, I’ve told him a million times I keep trying to get him to see, well, we recommend, don’t do that. Don’t tell him don’t try to change the energy. And just basically offer say, you know, I’ve got an idea about that, want to hear it, you know, I got whatever my take, I got some advice. It’s all yours if you want it, or there or for whatever it’s worth. Or I’m wondering what would happen if you did it this way, where it’s just it’s tentative, it’s respectful, it’s offering, but it’s not trying to change kids. We have a chapter in the book Lianne, about about change. And it’s simply the science of change says you can’t change somebody, unless they’re asking you to help them change, you know, and we as parents spend a lot of time trying to change kids, without realizing that the more we try to change them, the more they hang on to whatever it is,

I have to tell you, Dr. Strixrud, it sounds so simple, how you when you explain it, and you clarify it, and you provide the language. But you know, when you’re a parent, as you may, you know, have experienced yourself, and you’re in the moment, and there’s deadlines and things you got to get done. And your patience is running thin. And all of those things are happening, to step back and say, You know what, I’m going to take a deep breath, I’m going to be empathetic, I’m going to listen, and all the things that you just said, is a real challenge. So what what what could you offer on that front for parents on how to basically practice that, so that they become more effective at it?

Yeah, so and I mean, basically, we do the best we can. And luckily, kids don’t need perfect parents, you know, but and if we’re if we move in this direction, we use that language quite a bit, moving the direction of becoming a non anxious presence in your families. This is somebody that is not highly anxious and emotionally reactive. So that when, because it’s just so much easier to help our kids solve their problems, if we can stay calm. So moving that right doesn’t have to be perfect. And the same thing with this kind of communication. There are times where you say, I can’t take I don’t have time for this right now. Go figure it out. And then later, you apologize. mean we apologize. energizing the kids is a really powerful thing. I’m, I’m 71 years old, and I don’t remember the exact times anymore. But I remember when I was in my 40s, I can still remember times my father came up and said, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I got I really had a hard day at school I’m so I’m sorry, that went off on you, the hard day at work like that, that it meant so much to me to be retreated. So respectfully. So I’m saying, yeah, that changing these patterns could could take her. But also, you can see results immediately. In many cases, we gave a lecture in Palo Alto a couple of years ago, this story is actually in the book. And we about offer help, the offer advice, don’t try to force it on kids, if they bring your problem to good listeners better to let you know, you’re trying to understand and say, you know, maybe if there’s a way that I can help, let me know, as opposed to watching into solving. And so this woman emails us the next day, and says, I got home from from from your lecture last night. This is before COVID your election night last night, and my seventh grade son was in tears. And he said, I’m the weakest kid in seventh grade. Just ordinarily, I would have tried to talk him out of it. I said, like, I can’t be right, like you’re strong, or whatever. So well, let’s call the PE teacher, they will get you some exercises to get stronger. And I didn’t. He said, I just said that. I said that sounds like that that would suck. You know, if you want to be strong, and you feel like the weakest kids that that sounds kind of hard. But we’ll talk in the morning, let me know if there’s any way I can help. In the next morning, that kid brings a written plan for how we can get stronger in ways that mom and his mom been supportive to take because they got a chin up bar, at the park up the street, we do that. And the kid kid figured out himself. And one of the things we emphasize in the book is is how important it is for kids to have experience solving their own problems. Because it’s that experience is something stressful happens, you’re upset, and you kind of figure out what to do. That changes the brain in a way that the next time we’re upset, rather than than freaking out or just getting really upset. You go into coping mode. And we want kid we want kids to have a lot of practice with our support and our help when necessary. But going into coping mode, because that’s what trains the brain to be coping, develop what we call high stress tolerance, as opposed to avoiding hard things, or freaking out or getting really anxious.

So building and strengthening your coping muscles, what you’re talking about.

Well, yeah, and the same thing for kids. But also for us. I mean, just just practicing a little bit to just this, this is one of the first times she she she’d zipped her lip. But she didn’t try to tell the kid what to do or solve the problem. She just listened, and said, if there’s a way that can help, let me know, if she said it was just it was transformative, that this one does one ship, and what we’re what we’re saying, what we’re recommending, it’s not really hard, it’s not hard to understand. It’s pretty simple stuff. But emotionally, it’s hard, in some ways. Because Because if we aren’t offering help, if we aren’t trying to control our kid, we feel a low sense of control. And a low sense of control is the most stressful thing in the universe. So we have to kind of work on our own emotions. But it’s a it’s a, it becomes a practice becomes a practice of communicating with my kid in a way that’s respectful. Try and try to not fight about the same thing over and over again, which is always toxic. Taking this attitude of a consultant where my job is not to tell my kid here’s, here’s, here’s what you need to do, here’s who you need to be is to help them figure out what what do you want to be? What kind of life do you want? How can I help you get there?

It is such a subtle change that you are really talking about here. But it’s so powerful as you describe it. I’m curious, in the course of all the interviews that you did for the book, you know, and looking at the science and the research in this space. Did anything surprise you personally?

You know, I tend to that’s a really good question, Lianne. And I think that I think the thing maybe that’s most surprising was was it this every place I look to try to understand how do we help kids manage virtually anything? I what I came across is this idea that you really that you really can’t make. You can’t really make another person do something that every place I looked understand. How do you help kids change in a positive way? Every approach says you can’t if it feels if it feels to the kid like you’re trying to change him or change her. You’re gonna get resistance. And we talked in the book, about about that. idea that most of us are ambivalent about changing. And the more we argue you should do this. The it’s not free against Apple, you got an underachieving kid. It’s not like the kids aren’t aware that maybe it’d be a good thing if I did better. But also the kids aware that I’ve tried in the past and haven’t been able to do it, if I really try it, I can’t do it, that’ll be a real double failure for me. So they’re ambivalent. And if we argue more than how important it is to change, they dig in their heels. And I thought every place I looked land to try to understand how do we help kids change, it started with, we work on ourselves, we work on changing our own steps. Now procure help our kids change.

This topic is particularly fascinating. And the timing of your book, I think is so interesting, given the age we live in now, where, you know, communication platforms, and vehicles are absolutely all over the place with respect to you know, social media, technology devices, all the things that you and I know about. And you have been in practice for all that time, and prior to that, as well. So you have such an interesting perspective, presumably about communication and effective communication. Given all these other platforms available at our disposal. Are they helping or hindering, in your opinion?
Well, I think ultimately, they’re hindering. And I say that in part because mean, what certainly one of the most surprising things that ultimately they might think about it, maybe it’s not that surprising. But in some ways, it’s shocking. That one of the things, we’ve seen this, this significant increase in anxiety and depression in young people that’s been going on for some time, and certainly long before the pandemic. But the other thing that’s been increasing dramatically in teenagers and young adults is loneliness. And we see teenagers who want to be connected 24/7. But it’s not face to face. And we invoke we have what we have we evolved to feel close and feel connected face to face. And so I think so I do think these technological changes have contributed to this increase in anxiety and depression, in part because they undermine kids sense of control. That is, it’s interesting that a couple years ago, 200, psychologists signed a letter addressed to the president of the American Psychological Association, asking that the psycho Psychological Association to censure psychologists who are working in Silicon Valley, using behavioral and motivational techniques, knowingly creating products are as addictive as possible. And I think so that these products that they’re so hard to stop, they get hard to stop thinking about them. That lowers our sense of control. And certainly, the social media Instagram, we put posted school girls will spend two hours photoshopping things into presenting something that that look like them, and then being judged on. So I think that ultimately that these changes in technology have probably not been positive, from a social and emotional point of view. And I think they’re Terry, Sherry Turkle wrote a great book in 2016, I think called reclaiming conversation about just how important that face to face conversation face to face interaction is for us to feel safe for us to feel connected to each other.

What would you say that you are most proud of with this book?

I would say that. That boss, I’ll say it this way that the self driving child is really very successful. And people all over the world really got a lot out of it. And you know that back in the day when I buy rock and roll album, so often I buy the band’s second album, and it’d be a disappointment because they use all their best material in the first album. So I was a little concerned about about are we going to have enough I had a ton of material because I’ve been researching stuff for years who the first book, but I really kind of started from scratch on this one. And I the thing that surprised me the most is we got a lot of really good stuff. I just was able to able to explore some things that that I knew something about, but not very much about for example, we have a chapter about expectations about kind of positive versus toxic expectations. And we talked about materialism and it’s interesting because I’ve known that there’s a lot of research suggests that our whole culture in particularly for young people is becoming increasingly materialistic, you know, focus on, on, on on obsession. On possessions on looks on, on fame, things, external things. It’s not that any of these things are bad. It’s just that if you intentionally pursue them, it’s associated with misery. And so I was happy that we were able to explore stuff pulled together a bunch of new stories. And as we were writing the book, there was, nothing would happen. There was just illustrate these points. And so I, I, frankly, I was surprised that we were able to pull together so much new kind of information, some some great examples, we just kind of made ourselves think about the the language we use, communicating with our own kids, and that has teenagers, I have young adult kids, I have grandchildren, the language I use to communicate with them. The language I use to communicate with my with my child, my children, clients and my adolescent young adult clients, and pulling that stuff together. Surprised that came out so well.

That’s a wonderful thing to say for sure. Let me ask you, Dr. Stixrud You know, we always like to end everything that we do on on this website, on a positive and optimistic note. Certainly, this topic can be very, you know, heavy in a lot of families and can be, in some ways depressing. If you’re not if you don’t know what you’re doing. And you can feel alone and isolated as a parent. So what gives you hope, you’ve got this book out now, you’re really happy with how it turned out. But what gives you hope, in terms of moving forward around the subject of communication, and parents and their kids?

Well, in the book, we talk about three kinds of errors and the errors we make in our thinking that create the misery. Yeah, is that these are things that have been identified through cognitive behavioral therapy, as there’s three that kind of thinking errors, or the distortions and thinking that can make us miserable. And one is simply catastrophize. And I think, and, and one is, we are the idea that, well, things should be this, this, things are supposed to be different than they are, or you’re supposed to be different, or I should be better than I am. But people should treat me differently. And really, where’s the evidence that that’s true? Where is it written, that things are supposed to be different than they are? Which leads me to think that, that I assume that the world is as it should be that right now, we want to make it better, but But ideally, we start off by making peace with where it is. And the other error is what they call the fortune telling here, which is that I can see how the future is going to be. So there’s there’s certain there’s trends that are negatively there, oh, my god of climate change? Well, but you think that people, people in biblical times, were saying how could things possibly get any worse, you know, the end of the world must be near, you know, going back several 1000 years here, that people have always had that tendency to think that that some people that these things are just getting worse, and it’s just going to get worse and worse. And it turned out well, that wasn’t true. And people every every new innovation, whether the radio or TV or the waltz, people, some people say oh my god, this is the end of civilization. And and I am optimistic that that our planet wants to heal itself and will guide us to heal it. So I just think that, that if we if we if we have the idea, well, I know things are going to be terrible. And there’s going to well challenge that thinking talk back to that thinking because nobody really knows. I mean, I think I think about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nobody saw that coming. Nobody saw that coming. It just It happened in a way that that was larger than any of us who really think about that. That’s what gives me hope is the idea that we’re that evolution progresses and we’re evolving. The planet is evolving in ways that we can understand. If we do the best we can to be the best human beings we can treat our kids the best we can. I pretty I’m pretty sure things are gonna work out.

Dr. William Stixrud, clinical neuropsychologist and co author of What do you say?

It’s been a pleasure, thank you so Lianne. Be well,

thank you

The duo previously teamed up to write the national bestseller, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.

“As kids get older, we should think of ourselves more as consultants to our kids than as their manager or their boss with the idea that ideally, kids are able to run their own life before they go off to college,” he says.

“I see so many kids who go off to college, and they ‘re home by November because they simply haven’t had enough experience, really running their own life,” continues Dr. Stixrud, who is assistant professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. “I want parents to be helping kids figure out who do I want to be, as opposed to thinking, here’s where you, here’s who you need to be.”

And that’s where effective communication enters the conversation. The book dispenses strategies and scenarios, based on research and interviews conducted by the authors.

“Ideally, we want to feel connected to our kids and they to us, ” says Dr. William Stixrud, “because we’re going to have more time with our kids as adults than we do as kids.”What DO You Say book

Using a combination of research, interviews and scenarios, the authors provide evidenced-based strategies, advice and approaches on engaging in respectful conversation with your child at any age, addressing difficult topics with tact, providing constructive feedback, using language in situations that prevent confrontation or standoffs, and more.

During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. William Stixrud also discusses:

• Language for the parent-consultant
• The importance of listening
• Empathy in communication
• Regulating emotions
• Common communication errors and pitfalls
• Proven strategies to foster effective communication between parent and child


Related stories:

Dr. Mark Tremblay: Study about screentime, mental health and physical activity | Ned Johnson: Communicating with Kids

Related links:

What Do You Say: How To Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home.

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

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