The Five Words Every Parent and Teacher Need to Know

It happens every day in every way. Maybe it’s a dress code issue with a thirteen year old, or attempting to get a first grader to explain why they got the color red on that day’s behavior report. Sometimes it’s the seventh grader you pull out of class to stand in the hallway because they just would not stop talking, or the sixteen year old who called her mother a nasty name. The faces and events change, but the stress level of the child does not. Any young person who finds themselves confronted by an adult will always react defensively. The first instinct of most children is fight or flight.


But in my 25 years of experience as a social worker, than a teacher, and then a parent, I learned one very important lesson.

When trying to discuss a problem or sensitive issue with a child, your tone and body language matter. I’ve learned to soften my eyes when looking them in the face, not harden them with the “teacher glare”. I’ve learned to smile a little bit to demonstrate that I am an open door, not a closed one, and to speak in a gentle, even tone. When possible I try to get all involved parties seated, as this significantly reduces tension. Be direct, but don’t sugar coat the problem. Ask for the child’s input – let them know that this is a learning experience, and that most problems have more than one solution.

But before I do any of that – I say the five magic words that will make even the angriest teenager’s shoulder muscles relax.

“I’m not angry with you.”

It sounds too simple, right? But it works. Over and over, it works. On the days when I have to broach why a student just won’t stop tapping a desk and humming, or why an eight-year old refuses to share their toys, I always use those words to ease into the conversation. They works for tougher stuff, too, like a special ed student who might tell me to F*** off in class, or a hostile female student who never liked me anyway and now must have a conversation with me about having her cell phone out in school.

“I’m not mad at you.”

On those days when the skirts are too short, the ADHD medicine wears off, the homework gets forgotten for the umpteenth time or they can’t keep their hands to themselves, when they spit in the hallway or throw food in the cafeteria… and it’s up to me to pull the child aside for the inevitable conversation? The 5 words that will calm everyone down remain the same.

“I’m not angry with you.”

Because they think that you are. They think that they are immortal/invalidated/held hostage by rules and regulations. They believe that you hate them, and that you are out to get them. They think that you are singling them out, that you are ‘the enemy’ and that you want to get them in trouble. But mostly, no matter how gentle your tone or how strong your working relationship is with them, they truly believe that you are mad at them. Really, really mad at them. And that is what triggers that fight or flight response, because more than anything in the world they don’t want you to be mad at them.

“I’m not angry at you.”

As soon as I say those five magic words, the change in the kid’s face is visible. Some sigh ever-so-slightly, some start to tear up, some hang their heads in relief while others will just slouch – but the response will be immediate and obvious. Once they hear me say the words that I am not mad, that I will not yell at them or pull rank or in any way belittle them, they are way more open to having a discussion.

“I’m not angry at you.”

The truth is, the words calm me down just as much as they calm the kids down. By voicing the sentiment, I am opening the door, not slamming it shut. Let’s be honest – sometimes I am so pissed at them that I could just explode, but that is my problem, not theirs. Sometimes I just want to throw my hands in the air and yell “I am done with you! Why do you have to argue with me every time I ask you to do something?” Sometimes I want to just tell them that they are lazy, rude, acting ignorant, or being a real jerk – but that is my problem, not theirs.

“I’m not mad at you.”

By putting their deepest fear at rest, I can take the role of teacher/parent/role model and try to address the issue, not the anger. I can make the moment a teachable moment instead of an argument or an ugly situation. I can keep the conversation private, just you and me, without involving other students or administration or escalation. Most of all, I can keep a small problem from snowballing into a huge problem. The last thing anybody wants is frightened, panicked students who go home and get their parents involved, thus creating a cycle of he-said, she-said with administration having to mediate. Been there, done that. There is a better way.

“I’m not angry at you. I just wanted to talk to you without all the other kids hearing your business. OK? Can you tell me why you…?… Well, here’s the problem the way I see it… If you were the teacher, what would you do in my shoes?… I think that’s a reasonable solution. So we’re in agreement that you are going to… repeat back to me what we decided… Let’s go back in the room and try again…”

These five little words can make a huge difference in the lives of the ones you care about, no matter if you are at home or at school. Try using them the next time you need to have a difficult or tense conversation with a student or child. You may be pleasantly surprised at the reaction you get, and how it will reduce the fight or flight mentality which can derail so many conversations with kids.

About S.L. Schmitz

S.L. Schmitz lives in Indian Trail, NC with her husband and son. There is an ever-changing menagerie of cats who graciously allow the family to share the house with them. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys scrapbooking, drinking martinis, and making snarky comments about a variety of topics. Feel free to email her at thedeadgirl25(at)yahoo(dot)com

Posted on July 6, 2013, in About Me. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is magic. Now that I think about it, I do this with my own children from time to time. Usually when I’ve sent them to Time Out, not because they’ve been misbehaving necessarily, but because they’re getting overwhelmed with whatever is going on around them and just need a little breathing space. And you’re right – their shoulders drop, their faces relax and you can see 90% of the tension draining away. Can’t wait to try it out at work, though!

    • I used to be all “teacher voice” when talking to kids, but after I became a parent my whole attitude towards children changed. It really is a powerful love, to be a parent, and it fundamentally changed my viewpoint on young people. I am still a work in a process – so when I find something worth sharing, I share!

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