“Mom, can I make a confession?”

I turned and looked my child in the eye. Wow, this was new. Was my kid actually about to talk about something, admit guilt to a wrongdoing, get it off her chest?

This was new territory for me and I was all ears. My attention was undivided. I was going to listen like no parent had ever listened before. This was going to be good.

“Sure, sweet, go ahead”.

“Well, I want to know why did my sister get to have a friend over? And why did they get to watch a movie? And why is she getting to see her friend again today?”

Hold it right there. This was no confession. This sounded awfully like a complaint dressed up as an investigation.

Yup. My child had confused the words confession and complaint. And complaints aren’t new in this household. They are an everyday occurrence.

Part of me was amused at the misuse of the word and the other part, the much larger part, felt annoyed. It was school break and I’d taken the week off. I’d organized activities and outings. And now this.

Disappointment and irritation began running through my veins. My mind started to shutter. Thoughts like “Nope, I’m not interested in more complaints, Here we go again, So tired of this stuff, These kids are so ungrateful, It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s never right.”

I’ve learned from past experience that voicing thoughts like this in these kinds of moments never leads to anything productive and is a certain path to a bad case of mom guilt. So instead, I said as neutrally as I could muster,“This sounds more like a complaint to me. A confession means you want to own up to something you’ve done.”

After we agreed on the meanings of confession and complaint, I allowed my child to discuss her concerns further. I listened to my failings, according to my kid, and instead of feeling hurt, I tried to hear the emotional need underneath. The message was I am feeling bored and lonely. I feel like I am missing out when my sister has time with friends. I sometimes think you love her more than me.

“Are you telling me you feel like you are missing out and want to play with a friend, too?”

The answer, of course, was yes, so we set out to find a solution. How could we solve this problem? Who could we message and arrange things with? What would she like to do? Instead of arguing about whether her complaint was valid, we worked together as a team.

I also wove in a bit about how it can be hard to make things exactly equal when you’re a mom, even when you want to. I told her I would never want to make her feel that she was less important to me than her sister. I explained that I had been trying to make school break fun for everyone, including myself.

It’s hard to be vulnerable with another person, even when that person is your parent and you know they love you. To admit that you are lonely and that you feel like you are missing out. It’s hard to say I think my sibling’s friends want to spend more time with them than my friends want to spend with me. It’s hard to say I think you might love my brother or sister more than you love me. So instead, kids use complaints and other behaviors to communicate these feelings and concerns.

When I can hear the meaning behind the complaint or behavior of my kids, instead of reacting to the way in which they deliver the message, I can get closer to them. I can soothe their difficult feelings and doubts. Every day, I try harder to hear the message. It’s often harder to do than I’d like to admit—but each time I do, I understand my kids better and I’m more like the mother I want to be.

Nadene van der Linden

Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice specialising in perinatal psychology, parenting and trauma. Join the Unshakeable Calm facebook group today. Science based tips for calm and confident living.