Be patient during difficult developmental stages, such as the toddler and teen years. We never want to give up or stop showing unconditional love for our children, even when we cannot condone their behavior. Our future relationship is often riding on how we handle these difficult periods.


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Young children can understand what we are saying long before they can actually speak themselves. They especially pick up on our tone of voice, attitude, and body language. If we express our feelings and needs assertively, young children learn the value of respecting others’ feelings and rights. This helps prevent rude speaking habits.

Young children may have a harder time thinking of ideas during problem solving, but don’t jump in and tell them what to do. Be patient and encouraging. Focus on the bottom line and allow any ideas that fit within that limit. Offer simple suggestions and teach skills for carrying them out. If we use problem solving when children are young, they better resolve problems as they grow older.



Teens are often quite opinionated, outspoken, and question values and rules. (Remember the backpack analogy in Chapter 6, “Independence Toolset”?) These are all positive signs that our teens are maturing. Nevertheless, it can be surprising and difficult when once-quiet, compliant children suddenly speak out strongly and emotionally. We need to work extra hard not to take what they say personally and not to get hooked into arguing over differences of opinions or values. It is vital that we keep the lines of communication open during the teen years. We want to talk less and use F-A-X Listening more.

Many parents worry about teens abandoning family values. Usually, teens only temporarily test values and rules they have not learned firsthand or observed in action. If parents aren’t trying to control their teens, teens won’t feel such strong needs to push away from their parents’ values. When teens are testing and acting out, we want to be careful not to blow things out of proportion. Teens usually need to experience temporary imbalances before they settle into their own unique values and opinions. We need to keep long-term goals (ours and theirs) in mind for teens to become well-balanced independent adults. 

The way our teens act, think, and feel on a bad day is not usually what they will be like as adults. If we observe them on a good day, when everyone is in the No problem zone, we can predict more accurately what they will be like as adults.

At times, we need to accept what we cannot change. If our teens have not given us valid reasons to distrust them, we need to demonstrate our trust and have faith—faith in our teens’ ability to make responsible decisions and learn from their mistakes, faith in our long-term parenting plan, and faith in a higher power who can protect them when we aren’t around. Parent/child conflicts often increase during the teen years, because of all the above reasons. There are also dangerous safety issues facing our teens and we are no longer with them constantly to protect and guide them. It’s tempting to lecture or restrict their independence, but both tactics only result in greater rebellion. If our teens haven’t yet learned responsible decision-making skills, we need to use problem solving to teach these skills. We also need to understand teens’ points-of-view and be willing to negotiate win/win solutions to problems. When discussion and negotiation have no impact, consider whether the teen’s behavior will harm anyone. If so, we can listen first to the teen’s perspective and hold firm to our bottom line. We can allow teens to have as much choice or control as the situation allows. If this doesn’t work, we can reveal the positive and negative effects of their choices. Our goal is to be a “consultant,” listening, offering advice when they ask, or making it clear something is our opinion and letting teens choose and experience the lessons. It’s more important that we are assertive about our concerns and “keep the ball in their court” as much as possible. They may be testing us or planning to change their behavior later, when we aren’t pressing the issue, to “save face.”


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Most of these suggestions for communicating with teens apply to teens who are not severely troubled or into extremely dangerous behavior. When these factors apply, parents need to access community resources to protect and redirect teens until they can learn better decision-making skills and work through the real issues causing their behavior.



Many parents keep trying to get through to their children until they tire of nagging and then blow up. If we follow the Universal Blueprint, we usually only need to make our point once or twice, before moving to the next step. We always start at the lowest step and intensity as possible (using prevention tools, for example). We only move to the next step to make firmer statements if children ignore or resist our first attempts. We want to make sure we and our children understand the problem and each other’s feelings. It is important to remain assertive, even if we get firmer, and not resort to passive or aggressive tactics.

A Personal Story. On vacation, we went grocery shopping for two weeks of supplies. In the first aisle, my kids asked me to buy an extra item. I calmly said, “We are only buying what we’ll use while we are here, the items on this list. Maybe when we get home we can get that.”

The next time they asked, I moved up a level, saying, “I know you really want that. I’d like it, too, if we had enough room in the cooler to bring home the leftovers. Besides, whatever extra money we spend on groceries cuts into our fun money.”

I was sure that last point would curb their demands, but they asked again! I decided to make it short but clear. I said, “Today, we are only getting what’s on the list—period!” I couldn’t believe they asked yet again! This was very unusual for them and I was getting angry.

I knew I needed to be firm enough to prevent things from getting worse. I said, “I’ve heard three requests for extras that are not on this list. I’m getting annoyed and feel like I’m being nagged. I don’t want to hear that question again, is that clear?” I even revealed my intentions, “I will ignore any further requests for extras.” We were all quiet for a few minutes, which gave me time to cool down.

We finished our shopping without any further requests. Although my tone of voice and body language increased in intensity, I had to try very hard not to become aggressive.

It is difficult for everyone, at first, to filter their words. As we practice assertive communication, we do a quick double check before we speak. We ask ourselves, “If someone said this to me, how would I take it?” Soon, it only takes a couple of seconds to think about our response and remove the judging, blaming, and criticism. We want our communication to open doors, not put up walls and close doors.

A Graduate’s Story. I was tired of blaming and criticizing my young son so often. My negative comments reminded me of the fairy tale “Toads and Diamonds.” In this tale, two sisters, one kind and generous and one selfish and critical, are put under an enchanted spell. The kind daughter drops diamonds and other jewels from her lips whenever she speaks. The critical daughter spews toads and snakes whenever she speaks.

I thought my comments sounded more like toads than jewels—and I couldn’t stand listening to myself any longer. I told myself, “If I can’t say something respectfully, I won’t say anything at all.” Still, I found little “digs” slipping from my lips. I read the story to my son and explained how I felt. I told him I had decided to tape my mouth shut for a day, to enforce my commitment to myself. And I did!

As silly as it sounds, this was a profound learning experience. I learned that I talked more than I needed to and was capable of thinking about what I wanted to say. I also found new ways to communicate, without words. When my day was over, I was less talkative and more thoughtful about what I said. My son learned much, too. When he is having a bad day and I comment on it,


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he sometimes replies, “Maybe I could put tape on my mouth.” (Author’s note: I don’t think it’s necessary to tape our mouths shut, although I had a similar learning experience when my jaw was reconstructed and wired shut for seven weeks.)

A woman listening to one of my presentations leaned over to a friend and whispered, loud enough for me to hear, “Right. Like I have the time to plan all my words!” If you share her sentiments, add up the time you spend repeating yourself, yelling, or saying “no” and “don’t.” Also think about the long-term messages your present communication style might be teaching. I admit, the language of effective parenting seems awkward and initially takes more time to think of and say. However, in the long run, we find our children become more cooperative and self-disciplined, instead of relying on our constant reminders.

Interestingly, children often learn effective communication skills even quicker than adults. We can get caught off guard when our children give us “I-messages.” If we assume children are being defiant, just because they are speaking out, we’ve missed the point! These are the emotional paychecks that let us know we are on the right track. If children are verbal enough to express themselves assertively, we can definitely use problem solving to reach win/win solutions.


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Childhood  is  Like  a  Long  Car  Ride

The car trip starts when we become adults. When children are born, our new passengers go everywhere with us. They depend on us and need to be with us constantly. They need to be protected from the dangers of even short car rides, so we make them ride in car seats. They build trust and security in knowing they are safe and we are trustworthy drivers. We experience irritating behaviors that are natural when traveling with infants. They usually spit up or fill their diaper when we’re running late.

As our passengers become toddlers we become aware of their individual personalities. They don’t understand the limits of a car ride. They want to explore everything! They try to eat the dried french fries that fell into their car seat. They get cranky while we try to find a restaurant. They want to play at rest stops and resist getting back into their restrictive car seat. They seem to fall asleep the last five minutes, after screaming and crying the first hour. They have no sense of time and every five minutes they ask “When will we get there?” They constantly ask “Why,” and point to objects we can’t see and ask, “What’s that?”

As children enter the early school years, they are more used to structured activities and are developing their intellectual and social skills. They better understand the rules of riding in a car and how to behave. They watch how we drive, the decisions we make, how we find directions, and whether we obey the speed limit. They see how we handle conflicts with others, such as rude drivers that cut us off. From the back seat, they have a special vantage point. We aren’t always aware of what we are doing, but they surely are! While they can better tolerate close spaces with others, this becomes a challenge if the other person is their sibling. Children still haven’t learned how to live with someone who thinks and acts differently than them and often don’t use good problem-solving skills when they have conflicts.

By the time our passengers reach their teens, they’ve seen and done it all. (Or so they think!) They would rather stay home with their friends than be stuck in a car with grownups and siblings. If they have to ride along, they want more say about where we go, who goes, and when we go. They want to take their own side trips, before they are legally old enough to drive. In preparation for that day, they need to build the skills that will be necessary for their solo trips: how to plan ahead for a trip, make a budget and stick to it, read a map, keep the gas tank full, handle unexpected delays and detours, and make split-second decisions that could affect their lives. We know the day is coming when they will begin their own car trip—and we can’t always control what exit ramp they get off to explore. The most we can do, is help them learn the skills they need to survive in the car, with other people, and on the road. Then we need to trust, and let go.

Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.


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Take out the word you. Use sometimes and someone.
Own your feelings. Avoid shaming.
State the bottom line. Don’t assume people know your rules.
Use nonverbal signals, one word, flash codes, or notes.
a. Define the problem.
i. Introduce the problem topic.
ii. Invite the other person to share his/her perspective.
ii. Ask if the other person is willing to listen to your concerns.
iv. Share your perspective.
v. Summarize the problem for each person.

b. Brainstorm ideas.
c. Evaluate the options.
d. Choose, define, and commit to the solution.
e. Follow-up. 

Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.
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A. Identifying Communication Styles. Each of the following statements is an example of one of the four communication styles: Passive (P), Aggressive (Ag), Passive-Aggressive (P/A), or Assertive (As). Match each statement with the type of communication style it represents (P, Ag, P/A, As). If the sentence is not an assertive statement, rewrite it, using the Clear Communication Toolset (or any other appropriate tools you’ve learned.)

P = Passive Ag = Aggressive P/A = Passive-aggressive As = Assertive


The parent says, “You kids just go ahead and watch TV while I break my back cleaning up your messes.” Rewrite, if not assertive:


Your child is cracking her gum loudly. Parent says aloud  to self, “Gee, I wish I could concentrate on my reading.” Rewrite, if not assertive:


“I’m willing to share the chips, but I’m not willing to let someone eat the whole bag!” Rewrite, if not assertive:


“Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking to you! You said your piece, so you will listen to mine!” Rewrite, if not assertive:

B . Use the Clear Communication Toolset. Plan an assertive response to the following situations, using the suggested tool. 

    1. You just mopped the kitchen floor and see muddy shoe prints on it. (Describe what you see.)
    2. You were ready to leave on time for a wedding, but your children took so long that now you will all be late. (Describe how you  feel.)
    3. Tony, 10, voluntarily did a load of laundry. When you take the laundry out of the washer to put into the dryer, you find one of your white dress shirts has black dye stains on it because one tiny black sock got mixed in with the whites. (Describe the negative effect of the behavior.)
    4. You walk out of the kitchen into the living room and almost trip over a coat and backpack left on the floor in the doorway. (Describe what you want, expect, or what needs to be done.)
    5. You start to sit at the family computer. You find diskettes, empty pop cans and chip bags strewn around the area. (State the rules or limits.)
    6. Tammy, 7, left her training-wheel bike on the sidewalk while she was playing next door. It was stolen in broad daylight. She wants another bike. (Get an agreement.)
    7. It is Kevin’s, 9, responsibility to take out the trash. It’s trash night, he’s about to go to bed, and still hasn’t taken the cans to the street. (Use a quick reminder: a nonverbal signal, one word, or flash code.)

C. Mix and match tools. Use any combination of the Clear Communication Tools or any of the other skills you have already learned to respond to these situations.

  1. Jack, 9, says he’s finished cleaning the bathroom. The next time you go in, it doesn’t look like he cleaned it at all! There’s soap scum and water spots all over the faucet and there’s still a ring in the toilet. You’ve already taught him the proper way to clean the bathroom.
  2. Chrissy, 6, and his mother are shopping for a birthday present for another child. Chrissy keeps pointing out toys he wants you to buy her. (Offer three responses you could give, assuming Chrissy persists after your first and second response.) 

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  1. Emily, 14, wants to sit with her friends during her younger brother’s choir performance at a festival and then walk around the festival with them. Your parents have traveled from out-of-town for this event and you want Emily to spend time with the family.

D. Teach Values. How would you teach values (without preaching) and use problem solving in these situations? 

  1. John, 4, received from relatives a hat and scarf set he didn’t like. He said it was “ugly” in front them. You tried to smooth things over with both him and your relatives, but John just keeps getting louder and ruder.
  2. Charlie, 6, read several stories to you last night, to practice his new reading skills. The next day, as he cleans out his backpack before school, you find a book and note from the teacher. It says he was supposed to read a certain story to you last night. You are to sign a paper verifying that he read it to you. Charlie suggests you sign the paper since he did read to you, although it wasn’t the exact story he was supposed to read.
  3. Bridgette, 13, says she doesn’t want to go to church anymore. She says she isn’t sure if she believes in God anymore, because science hasn’t proven God exists.

Possible  Answers

A.  Identifying Communication Styles.

  1. Passive-aggressive. Possible rewrite: “How can we work together to get this house clean?”
  2. Passive. Possible rewrite: “I have a hard time concentrating when I hear gum cracking.”
  3. Assertive. No rewrite needed.
  4. Aggressive. Possible rewrite: “I try to listen to others without interrupting and want to be treated with the same courtesy.”

B .  Use the Clear Communication Toolset. (These  are  just  possible  responses.)

  1. “I just finished mopping the floor and now I see muddy shoe prints on it.”
  2. “I feel frustrated when I’m ready to leave on time but we end up being late anyway. This is a special wedding to me and I want to see all of it.
  3. “Tony, thanks for taking the initiative to do a load of laundry.” (Remember to notice the positive and offer encouragement.) “A black sock accidentally got in with the whites and left black stains on my white dress shirt. Since the shirt is still wet, let me show you how to get the stain out. (Teach skills.) In the future, what can you do as you are putting clothes in the washer to prevent this from happening again?”
  4. “I expect coats and backpacks to be put away as soon as people come home.”
  5. “People who use the computer are responsible for cleaning up the area when they are done.” Or “Food and drinks belong in the kitchen, away from the computer.”
  6. “You really didn’t do anything wrong to cause your bike to get stolen. But I am worried about getting another bike if it can get stolen that easily. If we buy another one, we need to have an agreement for where you will park it. Where will you keep it when you are home? Where will you park it when you visit a friend’s house?”
  7. “Trash!” or sit a trash bag outside his bedroom door or by the outside door as a nonverbal reminder.

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C.  Mix and  Match Tools.

  1. In a friendly tone of voice, “Jack, come here. Can you show me exactly what you cleaned?” (Wait.) “I know it’s tough to get off soap scum and toilet rings, but they need to be gone before the bathroom is ‘finished.’”
  2. “It’s hard to shop for gifts and not get a toy for yourself, isn’t it?” If it happens again, “Today, we are shopping for Susan’s gift. If you want to make a list for gifts you want, here are a paper and pen.”
  3. “I’m sure it would be fun for you to explore the festival with your friends. Grandma and Grandpa can only stay for the festival and I want them to spend some time with you. If you sit with us during the choir performance, I’d be willing to let you walk around the festival with your friends for an hour.”

D.  Teach  Values.

  1. Excuse yourself from the relatives. In private say, “I know you’re disappointed, but it hurts people’s feelings when others criticize their gifts. It’s important for us to say “thank you,” even if we don’t like the gift. Later, you can tell me, in private, that you don’t like it. We’ll figure out what to do then.” (Give opportunities to share feelings and listen.) “I want you to apologize to them for saying it’s ugly and thank them for picking out something they thought you would like.”
  2. “I wish I had known about this assignment last night when you read to me. This paper says you read this book to me. If I sign it, I’d be lying. I can either write a note telling the teacher what you did read or you can bring the book home again tonight and I’ll sign the paper tomorrow. What do you think?”
  3. “I’m glad you are thinking seriously about your religious beliefs. That’s an important part of being an adult. Having faith in something without proof is a hard thing to do.” (Wait for response and listen.) “We don’t have to agree about all our religious beliefs, but it means a lot to me to attend church as a family. Can we find a way to meet both of our spiritual needs? Is there something in particular about our church you don’t like?” (Wait.) “Would you like to try a different church?” (Wait.) “What about finding information about scientific proof of God?” 


Whether we use no words, one word, or several sentences, we want to practice assertive, clear communication daily—in all areas of our lives. Once others know there is a problem, they may voluntarily take action to change or resolve the problem. If not, we can use two-party problem-solving, alternating between the listening, problem solving, and communication skills.

If the problem continues, despite these efforts, and problem behavior is involved, we are ready to use the behavior management tools. The next chapter, Chapter 11: “PU Toolset (Unintentional misbehavior)” describes in more detail how to tell the difference between PU and PO behavior. If the behavior is unintentional, this chapter reviews the tools we’ve already learned that can redirect misbehavior and offers a few new options we can choose.



  1. Listening for Heaven’s Sake, by Dr. Gary Sweeten, Dave Ping, and Anne Clippard (Teleios Publishing, 1993) p. 84.