August 26, 2014

How To Teach Children NVC. ~ Jacey Tramutt, MA, LPC


Photo: Tiffany Terry via Flickr

My son and I are on a walk with our dog when out of the blue he asks me, “What’s an army, Momma?”

Hmm…one of those  four-year-old trick questions.

“An army is a group of people that defend a country,” I answer, happy with my PC reply.

“Oh,” he says. Then he asks, “What would you do if an army was trying to hurt me?”

I pause, realizing that this is not a hypothetical question for many parents, and feel the impact of that as well as not knowing how to answer. Dang it! I thought I was out of the woods.

“What would you do?” he repeats.

Whenever I am struggling with how to respond to someone, Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is always my solid ground. It’s a foundation not only of communication, but also of a belief system that I rely on to help me stay as conscious and as non-judgmental as possible, which is difficult in a world obsessed with labeling everything as good or bad.

In this case, the belief system I draw from is that people, regardless of their behavior, are always trying to get their needs met.

I reply, “I would ask the leader of the army what exactly he needed, and see if I could help him get his needs met without hurting you, because keeping you safe would be my need.”

Seemingly satisfied, he runs ahead, pretending to be a dog chasing a stick.


Later that night, we are playing some version of the “good” guys and the “bad” guys, one of my least favorite games, as it reinforces the whole idea of judging people, the very thing I’m trying to teach him not to do. Nevertheless, I find my self in the midst of the game. We are the “good” guys. The “bad” guys approach.

“What are we going to do with them?” I ask him. “Put them in jail?”

He looks at me puzzled. “No, we are going to ask them what they need!”

I use this example to illustrate that small children can indeed be taught NVC. I hear often that it’s not possible, and I think that has more to do with parents losing their illusion of control than it does with the teach-ability of the skill.

So, how do you teach children NVC?

1) Learn it and use it yourself.

This is the most important one of course. You can’t teach what you don’t know. It has been my experience that with NVC there are layers of understanding. Every time I re-read the book or watch a video of Marshall Rosenberg teaching, I learn something new.

2) Teach the four parts (observation, feeling, need, request) separately, as well as put them all together.

With children, teaching the skills in context is always better than some formal lesson.

Observations:  Start with simple things. For example, on our walk we see a dog that races along the fence when we walk by. We talk about how saying, “That dog is hyper,” is a judgment, vs. stating, “The dog is running along the fence,” is an observation.  In my experience, this is the hardest skill to teach.  Rosenberg validates that by quoting Krishnamurti, “Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence,” in his book, Non-Violent Communication.

Feelings: When your child is upset ask him/her what she is feeling. Help your child build a feeling vocabulary. Express your own feelings and take responsibility for them by connecting them to your needs or values instead of the other person’s behavior.

Needs: Help your child connect his/her feelings to his/her needs. You can start with the basics: food, rest, play, fun, a hug, etc. Don’t get too hung up on the word need. It can be replaced with: values, what matters, what’s important.

Requests: As parents we get to pay attention to how many demands we make a day, and how that way of communicating is giving our children two choices: submit or rebel. Use language like, “Would you be willing to…” and “Would it be okay with you…” When you slip up and make a demand, admit it and then re-word it. My son calls me on it all the time!

3) Teach the belief systems it encompasses, not just the communication steps.

The other day my son and I were at the airport. He wanted to take the stairs, and I wanted to take the escalator, as I was the one hauling the bags. We were cutting it close to make our flight, so I begrudgingly said, “Okay, we’ll take the stairs,” to speed up the process of getting to the gate, rather than taking the time to discuss it. When we got to the bottom of the stairs he said, “I’m sorry I made you take the stairs.” To which I replied, “You can’t make me do anything. I chose to go down the stairs.”

One of the key components to NVC is the belief that you cannot make anyone do anything. You can of course manipulate people through punishment and reward, but that’s a different article. Some other belief systems that NVC embraces are:

• Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values.

• Other people are the stimulus, but not the cause of your feelings.

• Feelings are created by needs either getting met or not getting met.

• When we give others an opportunity to honor our request to get a need met, we are giving that person a gift, as we genuinely want to contribute to the well being of others. In other words, genuine giving feels good!

• When people hear a demand, they have two options: submit or rebel.

• Expressing ourselves vulnerably can help resolve conflicts.

• Both your feelings and needs, as well as the other person’s feelings and needs, matter.

4) Weave it all into play.

Use puppets, toys, stuffed animals, etc. and have them communicate using NVC. Create imaginary situations where the puppets are not getting their needs met. Create situations where they are. Have a judgmental/demanding puppet! Have a puppet that cannot figure out how he feels. Don’t be afraid to be dramatic.

5) Don’t Give Up!

Especially if this is a new skill you are learning and teaching, be patient. If your child is used to you communicating with him/her in a different way, it will seem strange at first. Once you have internalized the belief systems behind NVC, it will be easier to make it your own.

Have questions about using NVC with your child? I’d love to hear from you!


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Apprentice Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Tiffany Terry via Flickr

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Jacey Tramutt, MA, LPC