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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

Tell Don't Yell

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In a recent email exchange with a San Francisco colleague, she told me she observed a mother, obviously at her wit's end, on a MUNI bus yelling at her young child, Just do what I say!. In all fairness, the mom was probably doing the best she could within her life situation or circumstances. But hearing about this episode, I am reminded of the value of modulation in exchanges with our children -- no matter what their age.

When I was a single working mother of two small children (twins), I was trying to get their hair brushed in order to rush out the door one morning. The typical struggle was occurring, and in my frustration I threw the hairbrush into the sink and cracked the porcelain.

Another memorable incident occurred when I made the very questionable decision to take them shopping for new shoes after work. I knew better. What was generally a pleasant and fun experience for us, turned into a fiasco -- all three of us tired at the end of the day, and me barking at the children if they didn't cooperate.

I can put all of these experiences in the category of being human, but I am also reminded that those of us who know better can slip in the way we manage our children -- even in public.

I turned to another colleague, Elyse Jacobs, an early childhood education expert and art therapist, asking her to weigh in on the topic. To my surprise she told her own personal story as a single mother. She said she too had been a yeller. She told me the first years of her daughter's life where punctuated by her persistent yelling. So much so, her daughter said the following in a poem:

My mother yells too much
she yells in the kitchen
she yells in the hall
I'd be on my way to school right now
if her words weren't blocking the door.

Her daughter further added: Mom,Tell don't yell. When you yell, I feel like you don't love me anymore.

The good judgment of children can often be disregarded by parents who think their maturity and life experience trump intuitive wisdom. This exchange between Elyse and her daughter stimulated them to write a book together for children titled Tell Don't Yell. The book also includes helpful hints for parents on how to conduct themselves without yelling.

These anecdotes are timely as parents and children begin the annual fall preparation for school. The expenses, the scheduled activities, transportation deadlines -- everything related to managing increased commitments amps up the potential for heightened family conflict. Make no mistake, it is up to the parents to manage the atmosphere and thereby teach their children how to deal with increased stress.

Here are some typical scenarios and tips on how to manage them:

1) The power struggle. If you feel tension in your gut, you are in a power struggle. My hairbrush throwing incident is a perfect example of a power struggle. The only way to stop a power struggle is for one participant to decline to participate. Step away and give yourself physical space. Wait a few minutes before re-engaging with your child(ren).

2) Forced Choices. Many power struggles evolve over choices children are determined to make. At any age, children can be directed to make forced choices. For example, a 2nd grade girl who wants to wear a summer dress in the winter could be directed to choose from two other, more appropriate dresses. Or, if the summer dress is her favorite, she can choose the dress but must include a sweater with it. Teenagers who are selecting movies can be given choices that are age appropriate. Argumentative teenagers who push for other options can be told firmly, that is NOT a choice. It's up to the parents to set the boundaries. This is great preparation for when they are older. As adults, we make forced choices every day.

3) Yelling. Children are inclined to tune out parents when they yell. If you find yourself raising your voice to make a point, check yourself and try just the opposite. The quieter you speak, the more your child(ren) will have to work to hear you.

The first step is awareness. Parents need to be aware that stressful situations breed conflict. Managing the conflict to a peaceful, quiet resolution is challenging. But as Elyse Jacobs so artfully communicated: We all thrive on loving connection. If there is a disconnect between ourselves and our children, we are very capable of initiating a reconnection. While we often feel uncomfortable, ashamed or embarrassed at momentarily 'losing it,' we need to forgive ourselves for not being the perfect parents we'd like to be and move forward.

This blog was first posted here.