Listening in to those hidden messages

Every day we are sending out (sometimes throwing out) messages to one another in different forms. Some of these messages are loud and clear while others are still, small and quiet. Some and important and deep, others are fleeting, unrelated babble.
How do we decode these messages and understand the meaning behind them especially for children?


As adults we are able to distinguish more easily between each other what the important meaning behind a message is.

“Does this dress make me look fat?” Is a throw out message of- “Am I acceptable?” Or, “Does my weight define my beauty?” Or literally, “Am I too fat for this dress?”
Knowing who is asking the question and their thoughts prior to a question like this helps us to better know the message behind. Still though, this can be difficult. Woman are usually looking for love and acceptance while men are often looking for admiration and respect- “I was able to fix the window after loads of others had tried and failed” is a message of, “I feel really proud of myself, are you proud of me too?”
Our responses to these are of utmost important for sealing and developing close connections together. We can respond in three ways according to John Gottman*.

  1. Ignore – we can ignore these messages and just take the face value of what is said, change the subject or just totally ignore it altogether
  2. Go Against – we can go against their messages- “You are way too fat for that dress”, “Well so you should be able to fix the window, that’s your job isn’t it?”
  3. Go towards – validating their messages, affirming what is said and adding to their central message.

We are sending hundreds of hidden messages every day to one another and it is so easy to ignore or brush over in the busyness of life especially when we have little ones trotting after us.
These little ones also have hundreds of messages they are throwing out in a bid for connections through their actions and words. These are much harder to decipher and decode.

Thankfully I have a little three step process that I learnt from Faber and Mazlish**. It has helped me to validate my kids feelings, figure out what it is that they are really trying to convey in their message and help empower them.

As I have been writing this, all three of my daughters have come to me with some important messages and I have used this three step process which has become my default setting because it works so well. As I share these with you, you may recognise the same three steps that I use for each.

Bambi's Message...

Three year old Bambi came running to me first with tears in her eyes and a raised voice saying through her angry sobs, “Annie gave Pippa da ladybug cause she fwound it in Pippa’s wroom and gave it to Pippa and not me and now I hwave none ladybug!” I repeated back to her with sympathy, “Oh Annie gave Pippa the ladybug even though you really wanted it”. This immediately calmed Bambi down as she was being listened to and heard. I carried on, “It makes you feel left out because you didn’t get it and Pippa did” she agreed and with passion said, “I hate my sisters”. I repeated but changed it slightly, “You feel that you hate your sisters right now”. She nodded as I asked her, “What can we do about this?” Suddenly ideas came flooding to her mind as she excitedly said, “What about if you fwind me anfer ladybug?!” I opened my eyes wide and celebrated her idea. I said, “Yes great idea! You can find another ladybug!!” she excitedly ran outside and sure enough found another one hiding amongst the mandarin tree.
Her message to me was clear- she needed someone on her side when she felt her sisters were being unfair and leaving her out. She needed someone to listen to her story, someone just to be there for her without any judgment.


Annie's Message...

Five year old Annie not too long after came to me with her head tilted to the side, face completely forlorn, shoulders slumped and slowly slunk into the chair next to me. Using the same formula I exclaimed, “Oh Annie you look so sad. What has happened?”
“Pippa told me, GET OUT!” I repeated, “Oh Pippa told you to get out when you wanted to stay and play with her. That is so sad. That must have made you feel so upset. I’m sorry for you.” She nodded sadly as Bambi who was in the room pipped up, “You should give her a big smack Annie on her toptim (bottom)”
This changed Annie’s expression as she laughed and said, “I know! I will tickle her!” as she was running off I called after her, “And another idea is to tell her that you feel upset when she tells you to get out” but it was a little late as she had already tailgated out to excitedly give Pippa a ‘tickle’. As you can imagine this did not go down too well with Pippa who did not appreciate being tickled not only by Annie but Bambi too that had decided to join in. Again, Annie’s message is that she wants some comfort as she felt hurt and upset. Unlike Bambi, she isn’t able to articulate her pain in words as easily. As I put the words into her mouth as suggestions, she is able to learn how to articulate how she is feeling. She was able to completely change her emotions around.

Pippa's Message...

Now it was my seven year old Pippa’s turn to come out with her message of complaint. Again I used the same formula as she angrily told me, “Annie was banging my door and trying to tickle me and I did not like it!” I repeated back and she agreed. I asked her what she might be able to do about it and she replied that she had already told her, “Stop it I don’t like it” and she had still done it. After congratulating her on coming to tell me, I then said to her, “I have some inside knowledge would you like to hear it?” with a nod of agreement and some interest I explained how Annie had come to me quite upset that Pippa had told her to get out. I explained that this was Annie’s way of solving the situation.
Pippa then told me her ‘inside knowledge’, “Well I told her to get out because I was singing and Annie blocked her ears.” I repeated this back to her adding some emotions she may have been feeling, “Oh that’s not nice, so you were singing and then Annie blocked her ears, I bet that made you feel embarrassed like she didn’t like hearing you sing. I would feel stink too.” This made Pippa feel a lot better as she could now see a broader picture and being that much older was able to process it.
Pippa’s message was loud and clear- she felt embarrassed and needed validating that she was okay even if her sister didn’t like her singing. I never would have known this if I hadn’t been able to talk to her in a way she could open up to me.

Each child of mine is completely different in their personalities and ages. The three step formula can be adapted to any age (yes even adults) and any personality type. It is as simple as Repeat, Empathise and Ask.

  1. Repeat – saying back what they have said or summarising what was said, allows the other person to hear what they are saying and what has happened. Not only are they feeling completely listened to but it gives them a chance to hear what is happening and actually give themselves empathy which is an important skill. As we are empathetic towards ourselves, the more we can sympathise for others.
  2. Empathise – this is where you name the emotion or feeling that they are expressing. This gives good emotion skills and understanding as well as feeling cared for and loved. It makes us feel like someone is on our side. For a child this is much more important coming from a trusted adult. It makes them feel like they are okay and there isn’t anything wrong with them.
  3. Ask – this is a very important step and one that takes the problem off us as adults and back onto the child so that they learn how to deal with and be in charge of their lives. Asking what they might like to do about a situation helps them to get out of the ‘victim’ and into the ‘problem-solver’ mentality.

As you can gather from my personal examples of my own children, I was able to adapt the three steps for each of them and it didn’t take up too much of my thinking space. I knew exactly how to respond and I didn’t have to solve their problems for them. While it doesn’t take up my thinking space, it does take a lot of time and patience.

Often as parents there are so many hats we wear and pages of lists in our heads that need to be accomplished throughout the day. The key to any of this right responding takes purposeful dedication to focusing on our kids and seeing their messages and emotions as important.

When I was first practicing this three step process I found that my natural first reaction was to jump in and try to fix their problems or get them to stop having big emotions thinking that somehow that would solve the problem and I could get back to whatever task was at hand. I’ve now found that the complete opposite is true. As children feel heard and understood there really isn’t any reason to stay in that sad, bad mood for long and are able to move on. We have these emotions for a reason, each emotion helps us in some way and to dismiss these is wrong. Staying in these emotions is also wrong and we often can’t move on until we feel heard and validated no matter our age or stage in life.


*John Gottman, 2001, ‘The relationship cure’.

**Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 1980, ‘How to talk so kids will listen and how to listen so kids will talk’.