Enjoy today’s guest post. It’s fascinating! 🙂
Adapted with permission from THE DANISH WAY OF PARENTING: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by Jessica Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl. © 2014, 2016 by Jessica Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
The Danish Way of Reframing and How It Works with Children
Reframing with children is about the adult helping the child to shift focus from what they think they can’t do to what they can do. The adult helps the child see situations from different angles and gets them to focus on the less negative outcomes or conclusions. With practice, this can become a default setting—for both parent and child.
When you or your children use limiting language like “I hate this,” “I can’t do it,” “I am not good at that,” and so on, you create a negative storyline. The plot may have us convinced that we aren’t good at anything or we are doing everything wrong. The more a child is told limiting stories about “how he is” or how he should do or feel things in various situations, they begin to build coping strategies based on a distrust of their own abilities in the face of new challenges. “She isn’t very good at sports” “He is so messy”; “She is too sensitive.” These are all very defining. The more of these children get, the more negative conclusions about themselves they get.
To reduce the problem, it helps to find and create a different narrative for your children. Leading them to a new, broader or more ambiguous picture about themselves and the world around them helps them to reframe. And this skill will transfer over into how they learn to see and interpret life and others as well.
In Iben’s practice as a narrative psychotherapist, she focuses a lot on reframing and, even more in-depth, on “reauthoring.” She helps people look at the beliefs they have about themselves and the beliefs they put onto their kids without realizing it. Saying things like “He is antisocial,” “She isn’t very academic,” “He is terrible at math,” or “She is so selfish,” are all statements that become behavior your children try to make sense of and identify with. Children can hear you say these things much more often than parents realize they can. Soon, they believe that it must be how they are. When new behavior doesn’t fit into this label, they don’t even try to make sense of it because they have already identified themselves as being uncoordinated, shy, or terrible at math.
The language we use is extremely powerful. It is the frame through which we perceive and describe ourselves and our picture of the world. Allan Holmgren, a well-known Danish psychologist, believes that our reality is created in the language we use. All change involves a change in language. A problem is only a problem if it is referred to as a problem.
The Danish way of reframing
Danes, on the whole, use less limiting language and don’t tell children how they are or what they think they should do or feel in different situations. You don’t hear a lot of adult opinions being placed on children. “You shouldn’t be like that.” “Don’t cry.” “You should be happy!” “He is mean!” “He shouldn’t be like that.” “You should tell him next time!”
They tend to focus more on using supporting language, which leads children to understand the reasons for their emotions and actions. If they are upset or angry, for example, they try to help a child become aware of why they feel that way rather than saying how they should or shouldn’t be feeling.
“You look like something is wrong—is there?”
“What’s going on?”
“I don´t know.”
“Are you sad? Angry? Happy?”
“I am sad.”
“Why do you feel sad?”
“I am sad because Gary took my doll at playtime.”
“He took your doll. Why do you think he took your doll?”
“Because he is mean.”
“You think he is mean? Is Gary always mean?”
“But last week you said you played a lot with Gary, right?”
“Was he mean then?”
“Ok, so sometimes Gary is nice?”
“Yes. Sometimes he is nice.”
They are good at helping their children conceptualize their emotions and then guiding them into finding something more constructive, instead of a disparaging or limited belief. This is the heart of reframing.
“So what happened when he took your doll?”
“So you were sad he took your doll. I can understand that. What do you think you could do differently next time if Gary takes your doll so you won’t be sad?”
“I can tell him to give it back. Or I can tell the teacher.”
“I think telling him to give it back sounds like a good solution. Does Gary like to play with dolls?”
“Is there anything else you could do other than ask for it back?”
“Maybe we could play together with the dolls.”
“That sounds like a great solution. We know Gary is actually a sweet boy so next time you can ask if he wants to play dolls too.”
Finding the brighter side of things can be done with all kinds of situations, not only with people. With practice it becomes much easier to scan a scene and find the hidden details that reframe a situation into something more constructive. It can even be fun to do.
Once a child finds a better alternative storyline, try to repeat it so it sticks. But the solution should ultimately come from the child herself. This builds real self-esteem because they become the master of their own emotional responses. They aren’t told how to feel and act.
If we hold on to the good in people, to separate actions from the person, we teach our children that we forgive them when they themselves misbehave. Imagine if we had said that what Gary did was
ridiculous and mean. Children will remember that. When it’s our own child who is doing something similar next time, they know that we judge. If we trust other people and know how to forgive, we teach our children that we also forgive them when they misbehave. If we maintain that it is human to fail, and that we can see other positive things despite that truth, our children will also be gentler on themselves when they fail.
About the Authors: Jessica Joelle Alexander is an American mom living in Rome, with her Danish husband and kids. Iben Dissing Sandahl is a licensed therapist in private practice outside Copenhagen. They are the authors of THE DANISH WAY OF PARENTING: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids (TarcherPerigee). Learn more at www.thedanishway.com