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The Power of Conflict: Building Relationships with Families Through Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent communication is “a language of compassion.” While we don’t often think of our words, or anyone else’s, as violent, the emotional harm that we do to others and have done to us is real.  Once we can accept that all behavior from children is communication, we are ready to take on a bigger challenge: learning and internalizing that behavior in the form of spoken, written, and body language from adults is communication too.

Because of the close personal nature of our work, it’s almost inevitable that at some point we will have a disagreement with a family member. But these disagreements don’t have to cause long-term damage to relationships. When we are skilled in nonviolent communication, we can strengthen our relationships with families through compassionate and thoughtful conversations, even when the conversations themselves are uncomfortable.

Consider a common source of tension between families and providers: when a child is too ill to attend child care, or becomes ill during the day.

From the provider’s perspective, one ill child will lead to more ill children, and when the care is provided in your home, it can impact your whole family. That might mean your children are sick, or you have to spend even more time cleaning and sanitizing than usual. It makes group care difficult: a sick child won’t want to play, won’t be in a cooperative mood, and may throw off the group routine with heightened need for sleep.

From the family’s perspective, a sick child may mean missing work when they are out of paid leave or in a probationary period. It can be harder to see that a child is ill when they are at home; it’s easier to meet the child’s needs individually rather than in a group setting, and the child is more comfortable at home and may just be happier with their family then they were at child care. Families who are stressed financially might be upset that they are paying for time they can’t use.

Making the call can be anxiety-inducing. Some providers might prefer to avoid the conflict altogether, and not say anything, or passively suggest that the family “keep an eye on” the child for symptoms. Other providers might start on the attack “Why did you send your child here when they’re clearly sick?!” Using non-violent communication urges a different path: First, try to anticipate the other person’s needs. While you can’t make a difference in how the person’s employer will respond to them needing to leave early to pick up a sick child, you can start with empathy. Then state your own need clearly.

“Hi Johanna; I’m sorry to interrupt you at work, I know you just started your new job. I’m calling to let you know that Jamari is running a fever and will need to be picked up before nap time. After he’s been fever-free for 24 hours, we’ll be excited to welcome him back!”

When you begin by acknowledging the other party’s needs, it tells them that you’re aware of what you’re asking. Following by phrasing your own needs clearly and in a positive way (i.e. with a direction, not just “don’t bring him back until he’s better) allows the other person to understand what is expected of them and plan accordingly. Finishing with a personal message also helps to convey that this isn’t a decision you made because you don’t want the child there, but because he’s uncomfortable and you have the responsibility of reducing the risk of contagious illness for all children in your care.

Using the framework of nonviolent communication reduces the room for misunderstandings and for professional boundaries to become personal. You can even use these practices when writing policies– another way to proactively anticipate conflict with families and clarify each party’s responsibilities in the child care setting.

Rosenberg, M. (June 1, 2012) Living Nonviolent Communcation: Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation Sounds True

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