Compassionate Communication

by Carla Atherton, Director of The Healthy Family Formula


So, we are parents. We know a lot and teach our kids how to be in this world. We instruct and convince. We mold and shape.


Well, this is what we are taught, anyway, what we are told to believe. But when we adopt this limiting view of what a good parent should be, we are missing the most important things that will contribute to raising healthy, happy kids with a strong sense of self and a zest for life that fuels their intrinsic desire to do good things in the world: listening, and compassionate communication.

I have learned the hard way that talking and teaching are not always effective, especially when you’re a parent of teenagers. I admit, I have talked way too much and trusted my kids not enough. I have learned that the parent/child relationship is not all about instruction, but about being with them, about living alongside them, about experiencing life with them. I have always loved to listen to my kids, to see what they would think and create and do, but when it came to times when I could see them making mistakes that could potentially harm them, well that was when my listening became judgment and my requests became demands. Fear took hold of the steering wheel.

It is frightening when your kids start doing things that worry you. You just want to jump into the driver’s seat. But is this always the best thing to do?

When we get caught up in directing our children and manipulating situations so that they live the lives we have scripted for them, we miss who they really are and who they can be when they are free of the limitations of our imaginations.

In fact, when we teach more than we listen, we can drive our children away, it can make them feel ignored or passed over, it can make them feel irritated, annoyed, angry, and resentful or just plain powerless. Just picture a 16-year-old girl with her fingers in her ears, and you will understand what I mean. The image makes me angry and frustrated at first, but when I quell my reaction and think compassionately about what she might be experiencing, it actually makes me feel sad and powerless, as well. We both lose.

None of us parents want this. And neither do our kids.

I can bet that most of you parents reading this don’t believe in ruling by the iron fist, anyway, but like me, in times of desperation and fueled by exhaustion, frustration, and fear, have sometimes resorted to coercion, manipulation, and plain old threats to get your kids to do what you think is best for them to do. Yet, even if those intentions are good, even if it is in your child’s best interest to do as you say, when those tactics are used, you only end up damaging your relationship with your child and losing their trust and respect.

When we come to our senses, we can come to this truth: if we are not connected to our children, if we don’t listen to them, if we don’t respect their boundaries and wishes, they will not follow us. They will not hear us, they will not want to do what we suggest or counsel them to do. We will not be able to help them with anything because they will not turn to us for our help.

Ouf, that hurts!

Now, try guiding your kids to better health or encouraging them to eat well when out with their friends or to make other good decisions when they are not under your watchful eye in any situation. It won’t happen unless:


Your children are motivated by their own beliefs or

They are simply scared of being caught.


I think I’ll pick option number 1.

The intrinsic desire to do what is beneficial for them, what makes them feel good and satiated and fulfilled is what I hope for my own kids and for yours because it is the only way that we can relax a little, let go a little, and trust that our kids will be ok when we are not around. It is how we can know that they will be well, not because we want them to be, but because they want this for themselves.

So, how do we have the best chance at being the most influential person in our children’s lives?

As of late, I have been reading about and trying to practice Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a method of communication coined by the late Marshall B. Rosenberg that can be used in relationships, political situations, institutions, you name it. I prefer to call it by its other name, Compassionate Communication, because we don’t really think about poor communication as violent, per se, and compassion seems to resonate with me better (makes me feel a little less guilty?). In any case, this kind of communication is put into perspective with the following statement:

“If ‘violent’ means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called ‘violent’ communication” (Nonviolent Communication, book cover).

Force, judgment, blame, shame, all things many of us do out of love for our children. But is there a better way?

There are four steps to active listening in Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC model: observations, where we observe what is going on; feelings, where we identify the feelings we are having; needs, where we identify what needs we have that are triggering those feelings; and requests, where, once clear on the first three items, we can then make a clear request (not a demand) of the other party without blame or judgment of that other person.

I have been so impressed by what I am learning that I have taken a weekend workshop, myself, and have invited my family to take part in a private session this coming Monday so they can learn these skills, as well. To say that it isn’t nice to call your siblings names or to try not to find blame for situations that are uncomfortable is often not enough to help our children to communicate in a healthy way – they need something more concrete, they need to know how to do this.

So, I am adding this one to my toolkit alongside the work of Gordon Neufeld, PhD, Bruce Lipton, and Naomi Aldort and highly recommend it to you, as well. These four wonderful souls, my parenting gurus, make me look at my “mothering” in a new light, where it is less about me and more about my kids, more pure and supportive and, well, compassionate, so I can be that soft place for my children to land.


Suggested Reading:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD

Hold on to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld, PhD

Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort

Nature, Nurture and the Power of Love by Bruce Lipton (DVD)

Find these books on our books and resources page here.


For an in-depth presentation about COMPASSIONATE COMMUNITACTION and actionable steps for COMPASSIONATE PARENTING as well as access to our encyclopedia of family health information, support, and guidance, check out the HFF Family Health Revolution Family Health Coaching Program!

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