Life Coaching: Entering your child's subjective universe

No amount of adult logic will to console a child whose ice cream dropped; what the child needs is someone to acknowledge the pain.

ben goldfarb 88 (photo credit: )
ben goldfarb 88
(photo credit: )
All allusions to clients, case histories, or coaching scenarios in these columns have been altered so they no longer resemble any person, living, dead, or just hanging out at the mall.
Imagine watching two scenes on a split screen. On the left side, you see a man pulling out of a car dealership in his brand new Lamborghini. On the right side, you are witness to a 6-year-old girl, accompanied by her mother, coming out of Ben and Jerry's with an ice cream cone. In the next scene, the Lamborghini crashes into a street light, the driver totals his car and miraculously exits the car unscathed. Simultaneously on the right side of your field of vision, the girl's ice cream falls to the ground and is covered with dirt and her mother is unable to console her. The question at this juncture is as follows: who has experienced more pain over this loss: the adult or the child?
Intuitively, we probably think that adult has it much worse than the kid. While the rule of thumb in grief recovery is never to compare people's degrees of pain, suffice it to say that both the car owner and the child feel devastated at the moment of their loss. It doesn't matter that the car owner probably has insurance and his vehicle can be replaced. It is irrelevant that the kid's mom can go right back in and get another scoop of ice cream for her daughter. In the subjective universe of the two actors in these films, both of their worlds have fallen apart with similar intensity.
I don't know what they taught you in university, but where I studied as an undergraduate, we were told that the concept of subjectivity was a sign of faulty reasoning, and objectivity is a superior intellectual choice in most contexts. When it comes to communications skills, however, employing subjectivity is the key factor in our ability to transmit our message effectively.
As parents, we have to be able to enter the subjective world of our children while remaining adults. No amount of adult logic is going to console the child with the dirty ice cream that can no longer be consumed. What the child needs is someone to listen to and acknowledge the pain.
Before we can influence, educate, or act as role models for our children, we must perfect the art of creating deep rapport with them. Translated into the ice cream cone scenario, we must relate to the pain that she is currently going through without jumping to a "replacement" mentality, i.e., we will buy you more dessert, we will get you a new pet, we will buy you a new toy. As John James, author of "When Children Grieve" told me when he was in Israel two years ago, this replacement mentality won't work when your child loses a grandfather after a prolonged illness, because "we won't be picking up another grandfather at Wal-mart over the weekend."
Once our children feel that they are being heard, and when they can internalize, deep down, that we acknowledge their sorrow as real, we can slowly begin helping them heal at their own pace.
Alternatively, we need to share in our children's joy, even if in our eyes, the subject of their happiness seems trivial, or surprisingly enough, that they are getting excited about "childish" things. Getting excited about age-appropriate events and objects is part of every kid's job description. We should do ourselves and our children a favor and remind ourselves of the content of their job description from time to time.
Once rapport has been established, we can now begin to use a number of different tools to help our children recover from their grief and move on. One such tool that may be appropriate in this context is reframing. Reframing is a way of transforming the meaning of an event in a way that can empower us. Although reframing in one form or another has been used from time immemorial, this concept was popularized by Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP™) over the past several decades.
How should we go about reframing the girl's experience AFTER we have identified with and acknowledged her anguish and grief?
The conversation might sound something like this:
Mom: Still pretty sad about the ice cream, aren't you?Daughter: (between sobs) Yes.Mom: You know, you've made a lot of bugs very happy.Daughter: (catching her breath): What do you mean?Mom: Well, if you look where your ice cream fell, there are lot of happy bugs having a huge picnic, and they owe it all to you.Daughter: (smiling and looking at the scene of the accident): Yeah. I guess I did give them a treat.Mom: Now as for you, I think it's time to get you a banana split because it's much harder for three scoops of ice cream to fall down when they are swimming in whip cream.Daughter: Thanks, Mom.Mom: (getting down on her knees so that she can speak face to face with daughter). You see, if you hadn't dropped the ice cream, then you would have eaten only one scoop of ice cream, and the bugs wouldn't have had a feast. But since you did drop it, the bugs are happy, and you are going to get three times the amount of ice cream.Daughter: I think I understand.Mom: So, even though you were sad a few moments ago and I can understand why you were, you may want to remember that now both you and the bugs are going to end up with a lot more today than you all thought you would get.Daughter: Thanks Mommy.
Your daughter will think you are a genius, the ice cream store will get more money, and you are only out a few bucks. Now, what about the guy with the car?
I don't recommend using the same words that you used with the child, or you may end up getting a less-than-gentle massage with a muffler. However, the structure of your communication probably will be similar. Recognize his loss, allow him to express his pain, and if appropriate, try a reframe to help him see beyond his loss and get on with his life. But after the tow truck comes, you may want to avoid getting him some ice cream and offer him a cold beer instead.
In addition to his personal coaching practice, Ben Goldfarb has led corporate trainings at Philips Medical Systems, Israel Aircraft Industry, and Marvell Semiconductor. He is the founder and director of Paradigm Shift Communications. For more information, send an e-mail to, visit the PSC website at, or call 972-(0)2-641-6673 to arrange a complimentary phone consultation.

Previous columns:
All quiet on the domestic front
Life Coaching: Help wanted - Inquire within
Life Coaching: I Was Afraid of That
Life Coaching: Back to the future
Life Coaching: Whose life is it anyway?

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