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Family life can be a lot of work.

Although I admit that’s not a super helpful thought – I wrote about that kind of thinking in “Marriage as Serious Play” it sure feels true sometimes. I have peeled a lot of carrots, washed thousands of dishes, paired up countless freshly laundered socks, and remembered a million of the little details that keep it all together. I have also listened to quite a few problems, considered them seriously, and offered good advice – which I’m kind of a professional at, but they get it for free.

Of course, I do it for love. It makes me happy… until it’s pointed out that there’s something I forgot to do, or my way of helping is criticized, or my excellent practical solutions are resisted. Then I think, “To heck with ‘doing it for love.’ Here’s the bill.”

Can you relate? Do you ever feel taken for granted? If so, read on for the small investments I’ve discovered that pay big returns in love and appreciation.

Notice and Acknowledge What They Do

“I notice you brought your glass to the sink.”  

“You made the bed!”

“Wow, you really know how to keep on top of your schoolwork.”

 If you want to hear your family acknowledge the things you do for them each day, give it to them first. 

I got this concept from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. It’s a classic of parent-child communication, but I’ve found it is genius for every relationship.

Catch your partner and children doing the things you want to see more of, instead of mostly noticing when they do something wrong. Criticism doesn’t help people to do better. It makes them feel bad, and then they associate that thing with feeling bad. When accomplishments are noticed, on the other hand, a positive feedback loop is created.

Something does not have to be done perfectly or consistently in order to be noticed. This is important to remember when you’re trying to build habits and skills in children. Relationships are a long game. Everybody wins when you put your energy into building the children up and letting the mistakes go mostly unnoticed.

Also, noticing is distinct from praise, which has the word “good” in it, as in “Good job.” To notice keeps the focus on them; praise puts the focus on your judgment. 

Allow and Acknowledge What They Feel

“All you have to do is…”

But it won’t work!

“If you would just…”

But I can’t!

When your sage and reasonable advice only makes your loved one more upset, immediately stop trying to problem solve. Their behavior is telling you that they aren’t ready for problem solving yet. They need their emotions to be acknowledged first. 

Acknowledging emotions sounds like this:

“Wow, you’re really upset.”

“That sounds frustrating.”

When we’re met with resistance to advice, we often think we haven’t explained ourselves adequately, so we keep trying to present our solutions using different words. This is maddening to everyone. 

Acknowledging, like noticing, is simple, undramatic, and keeps the focus on person who is upset. 

It is not pity, as in, “You poor thing!” Nor anger at the bad guys, as in, “I could kill that so-and-so” or “I never liked that kid.” Nor second-guessing your loved one’s behavior, as in, “Why did you say that?” or “What were you doing there in the first place?”

What hinders my ability to remember in the moment to acknowledge emotions is my need for my loved ones to be happy all the time. Although I know that isn’t how life works, when I’m face to face with their suffering, I feel a powerful, visceral urge to make it go away. 

But because it’s hopeless, I have learned to think of that urge as a wave – no different, in fact, from the wave of emotion my loved one is experiencing. And together we can let those waves come, without trying to fight or dam them, and go.

Give It to Them First

In her book A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson says, whatever you notice is missing from a situation is your responsibility to provide.

These techniques are the practical application of that philosophy. If you’re feeling taken for granted, acknowledge. When you’re upset, isn’t it soothing to be listened to by someone who believes in your resourcefulness?

What you want, you put in circulation, and watch it pay dividends.

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