SAY WHAT YOU SEE® with Older Kids and Teens

SAY WHAT YOU SEE® with Older Kids and Teens

It’s actually not as different as you might think to SAY WHAT YOU SEE® (SWYS) with kids in upper elementary, middle school, high school and beyond. There is usually less of a focus on the details of what they are doing at any moment, and more on what they’re saying, feeling, and thinking about what they are doing.

That means taking them at their word and being on the same team.

For example, if a child says, “I can’t do that,” don’t say, “Yes, you can!” or a sarcastic, “You can’t, or you won’t?” Those put the child in a defensive position where they now have to prove to you that they can’t in order to feel validated, because children must continue to communicate until they feel heard and understood.

Instead, you can validate their communication right off the bat by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE them saying:

SWYS: “You don’t think you can do that.”
Child: “I know I can’t.”

At this point, either the child will tell you why he/she can’t, or you may notice that the child looks frustrated. If it’s the latter, you can say something like:

SWYS: “You’re sure you can’t. Something about that is really hard for you. Looks like that’s something you’d like to be able to do. Show me the hard part.”

There are plenty of other ways this conversation could go, but the same response would fit all of them: simply SAY WHAT YOU SEE the child saying, feeling, or thinking.

Even if “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to,” that will come out. Older teens do this less because they know we know their capabilities, but if your elementary or middle school child uses “I can’t” in this way, then you can simply say:

SWYS (with understanding): “Oh, you don’t want to clean your room. And you thought that wouldn’t be a good enough reason, so you thought if you couldn’t do it, that would work. It is hard to do things you don’t want to do…”
BOUNDARY/CAN DO: “…and, this needs to get done. There must be something you can do.”

This gives them permission to communicate more authentically with you next time, while presenting the boundary as firm. If the child has no ideas for what to do, you can suggest something like doing the hardest part with him/her to make the chore more connective, or introducing a playful element like a laundry basketball with dirty socks and a moving basket (yes, pre-teens and teens still like to play), and see what works for them.

Elementary kids are even more playful, so once they get the idea, be prepared for some goofy suggestions like, “I’ll be a dog and pick things up with my mouth.” You just need to be clear about your boundaries, and say, “That works for me. You can give it a try,” or “That doesn’t work for me, must be something else you can do,” until the child comes up with a solution that works for both of you.

While the words and concepts you use for teens may be different than with younger children, your responses are still based on the same three-part coaching model, as in these examples concerning homework and texting:

SWYS: “I noticed you always make sure to turn in your homework on the day it’s due.”
STRENGTH: “That shows responsibility.”
BOUNDARY/CAN DO: “AND you staying up past midnight every night to finish it is not okay with me. There must be some other way you can make sure your homework gets done on time.”


STRENGTH: “Your friends are important to you. You know how to maintain a very close-knit group.”
SWYS: “Texting each other is one of the ways you do that.”
BOUNDARY/CAN DO: “AND there are no cell phones allowed at the dinner table. There must be another way to stay connected to your friends.”

You might have noticed that in both of these examples, the STRENGTH was introduced before the boundary. This is especially important with teens, as it shows respect and meets their need for power. This puts you on their side and creates a space for them to listen and demonstrate that respect back to you.

Possible CAN DO suggestions for texting:

  • “You can let it charge while we eat and check it as soon as dinner’s over.” (Helps the child accomplish the goal of staying connected, and shows you respect what is important to him/her.)

  • “We can have ‘texting only night’ once a month where we all bring our phones to the table and text each other instead of talking.” (“Special occasion” type exceptions take the power out of taboos.)

  • “You can check your phone after we’re done eating, before you start on the dishes.” (Shortens the waiting period which lets the child know you understand the need to stay connected with friends.)


The point is to be very real with kids of all ages, not judgmental, so your dialog is based primarily on observations, objective problem-solving, and STRENGTHs. That plus taking them at their word creates an authentic connection where you can work together as a team for the benefit of all.


  1. cocochanel |

    Really enjoyed this, its very very helpful to see ‘say what you see’ in action.

  2. Betsy Blackard |

    cocochanel, glad to hear it! I always love giving examples from real-life situations if you have any to share.

  3. Great job, I love how you brought the teens into SWYS.

    • Betsy Blackard |

      Thanks! I’ll try to use more examples with older kids in the future.

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