Short Phrases Parents Can Use
What are they and why do they work?
Parenting preschoolers can be pure joy and extremely hard. Their behavior can be mystifying, even bizarre at times. Their emotions are over the map. They appear allergic to reason and logic. What’s a parent to do?
First of all, it’s wise to accept that there is no one solution. If your child had come with a list of instructions, an item at the top of the list would be: “Develop an assortment of parenting strategies and be prepared to add/subtract strategies as your child changes and grows.” The next bullet point would read: “BTW, each child you have will require a different set of tools. No two children are alike so YOU must adjust strategies for each child. Have fun!”
Given this reality, we are going to use this space to focus on a magical parenting strategy: using short phrases.
What are short phrases?
Short phrases are simple verbal statements that clearly and effectively help your preschooler understand your expectations and what to do next. Early childhood expert, Amanda Morgan say short phrases are, “Words that have already been carefully selected before we (parents) have lost our minds.”
Why short phrases?
Short phrases are based on the science of brain development in preschoolers and an understanding of how they process information. Here are some highlights:
- Your child’s prefrontal cortex (the “thinking” brain that regulates behavior and impulsivity) is under construction and doesn’t fully mature until their mid-twenties. It is the most immature part of your child’s brain. A preschoolers ability to control impulsivity and process logic is present but limited. This is helpful to remember when you struggle with your child’s behavior and listening.
- Your child’s limbic system (the “emotional” brain that process memory, stress responses, nurturing, caring, separation anxiety, fear, rage, social bonding and hormone control) is “the front seat driver of the brain, and doesn’t care what anyone in the back seat has to say about it,” notes Rachel Norman and Lauren Tramm. This is the difference between adults (operate from the prefrontal cortex or thinking brain) and young children (operate from the limbic system or feeling/emotion brain). You are looking at situations from a logical place. Your child is viewing situations from an emotional perspective.
- Your child’s synapses (the web of communications between neurons in the brain that lay the foundation for things that become habitual or “automatic”) are in a period of rapid growth. Repeated use strengthens a synapse which means that a consistent approach to behavioral expectations is KEY. Consistent, calm repetition of a short phrase is a ninja parenting skill.
- Short phrases are easier for children to process than logical rationale or a paragraph of explanation. Getting lost in verbal back/forth can trap you in an unhelpful power struggle. Short phrases help you get to the heart of the matter and focus in on what you expect. Secretly, your child is craving the security of knowing that your expectations are and what needs to happen next.
Ready to try a short phrase?
“It’s time to…”
Sometimes we make our directions sound like options. “Would you like to take a bath?” “Ready for dinner?” “Pick up your shoes, OK?” If you are not giving your child a choice, then do not make your directions end with a question mark. Make your directions…well, direct. You can do this in a soft and kind way. Instead of the ambivalent examples above, try: “It’s time to take a bath.” “It’s time for dinner.” “It’s time to pick up your shoes.” Preschoolers often struggle with the transition from doing something enjoyable to something they might not enjoy as much. Give a five-minute warning to give them time to get ready for what is coming next. “In five minutes, it will be time to leave the playground.” Then set the timer on your phone and keep your deadline.
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”