Observe and Describe

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Effective Negative Consequences lesson link

Where to begin

Observe and Describe is a powerful technique used by parents to remain focused on what is happening and to remain calm during stressful situations. This technique is used in almost every lesson in Smarter Parenting.

Start by watching the video. Watch it a few times if you have any question.

It can be helpful to see the steps when you are first learning this skill. Print out the steps and place it somewhere you can see.

Practice the skill. Start by watching others and describing what they see. Once your comfortable, practice with your children.

Suggestions for parents when using this concept

  • Be aware of your child and their desire to shift focus on other things. Remain calm and continue to use Observe and Describe.
  • If you use this technique and your child becomes more defiant, you can continue to use this technique and describe the defiant behavior.
  • You can use this concept if you feel like you don’t know what to say to your child.
  • Observe and Describe can be used for positive and negative behaviors. Feel free to use it all the time with your child so it becomes second nature.

Observe and Describe is a simple technique and it is powerful. The ability to describe what is happening helps parents focus on behaviors and stay away from emotional outbursts. Using this technique will keep things calm. Assessing the situation in a calm manner helps children and parents prepare for a solution and avoids arguing. If a parent is angry, frustrated or upset and responds that way, the child will either submit to the parent out of fear, or begin to argue, making the situation worse. Parent’s who use this skill will notice their children beginning to use it.

All of the other parenting lessons on Smarter Parenting have a step where this concept is used. Become very familiar with this concept because it is used so much.

Help, Activities, and Testimonials

Observe and Describe is used professionally

Observe and Describe is a powerful technique used in many different therapeutic approaches including Mindfulness and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Mastering this basic concept will help you remain calm in every situation and keeps things focused on what can be corrected rather than arguing. It takes practice. Below we review two popular therapy techniques and how Observe and Describe is used in each approach.


Mindfulness is the practice of being aware internally and externally of what is happening in the present moment. This approach is being used to help people with depression and anxiety recognize their emotions and to deal with them in constructive, non harmful ways. Clinical studies and research support this method as a way to reduce the symptoms of mental illnesses related to stress. It is being adopted in hospitals, schools, prisons and veteran’s centers.

The technique in the Observe and Describe lesson is akin to Mindfulness practices. It requires the observance and reflection of what is happening at the present moment without labels or emotion. Once the behavior can be described it allows the individual to decide how to address it. Describing what you see from your child allows you the same space. You can describe the behavior, detached from the emotional response, and address it in any way necessary to correct it.

If you or your child choose to implement Mindfulness in your family you will be using Observe and Describe a lot.

Pocket Mindfulness provides 6 Mindfulness exercises you can do at home.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Developed in the late 1980’s by Dr. Marsha M. Linehan, DBT is considered the gold standard of treatment when dealing with suicidality and self-harm. It is also used for people struggling with substance abuse issues. The approach is modified form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) by making individuals aware of their emotional state and determining which coping skills work best to deal with those emotions. It the most used approach by professionals for people suffering from borderline personality disorder.

The technique in the Observe and Describe lesson is used by therapists and professionals and to assist in helping children recognize what they are doing. Sometimes children misbehave without recognizing they are acting out. Once a child and parent are aware of what is happening they can work towards correcting the behavior. Being able to articulate, in clear, concise words what is happening helps create a space to address behaviors effectively.

Observe and Describe should be used by parents AND children.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has produced this Factsheet on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

Here is a DBT skills sheet to walk you through how DBT works.

Smarter Parenting blog posts

5 parenting phrases you need to remove from your vocabulary immediately

5 games and activities to practice Observe and Describe

Observe and Describe activities

Why you need to use the skill of Observe and Describe

5 things to remember when using observe and describe

How to use the steps of Observe and Describe

Observe and Describe

Our goal as parents is to give messages our children understand

The following activities can help you and your child learn the steps to Observe and Describe in an engaging way.

Guess the Candy

Who doesn’t love candy? In this game, blindfold a family member of family and give them a piece of candy. Have them describe the candy by touch and make a guess as to what candy it is. Then they put the candy in their mouth and describe the flavor and texture and make another guess to what it is. Then reveal the candy. Continue until all family members have had a chance to describe different candies.

Because you can’t see the candy, it forces you to use descriptive words and not rely on cliches.


This coloring activity is a simple activity that works for the whole family. The activity itself is pretty easy, describe an object to your family and have them draw it trying to get as close to the original picture as possible. Because they don’t know what they are drawing, the tricky part becomes in making sure you’re giving descriptive enough descriptions.

  • Selection of candy
  • Blindfold

Describing Coloring Activity

This coloring activity is a simple activity that works for the whole family. The activity itself is pretty easy, describe an object to your family and have them draw it trying to get as close to the original picture as possible. Because they don’t know what they are drawing, the tricky part becomes in making sure you’re giving descriptive enough descriptions.

Here’s what you need to remember about this activity.

First, be specific. Instead of saying, “draw a red circle,” say, “daw a red circle that is about the size of a nickel. Fill in the red circle completely.”

Second, break the instructions into small pieces. Break down complex steps and don’t try to give all the instructions at once. “Now, I need you to draw another red circle around the circle leaving about a finger width’s space between that circle you are drawing and the circle you’ve already drawn.”

Third, it’s probably not going to go as smoothly as you expect. Don’t sweat it. There’s a good chance that the finished drawings will not look like what you describe. That’s ok. This exercise is to help you get in the habit of observing and describing behavior and will show you the where you need to improve when it comes to describing behavior.


What would you do?

Just because we’re looking at the same thing, doesn’t mean that we see the same thing. We’ve collected a bunch of pictures of different situations—both good and bad. Use this activity to get the whole family on the same page when it comes to using Observe and Describe. Have each member write down what they see, or, if they can’t write, have them describe the photos. Make sure they focus only on what they are seeing and don’t bring in any assumptions or emotions.

Natalie – Behavior Specialist

Natalie describes how Observe and Describe helped a family reduce their name calling.

Jared – Behavior Specialist

Jared tells how using Observe and Describe helps parents stick to the facts and not get caught up in emotions.

Annessa – Behavior Specialist

Annessa tells how Observe and Describe helps you get exactly what you want across with no room for inaccurate interpretation.

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