Want Less Yelling and Better Communication?? Me too!
Did you ever try that trick of staring at the same spot for so long that it went gray and you could see nothing? Apparently our brains have the ability to ignore or tune out stimuli with which they’re familiar. That’s what it seems my children can do with my voice – they’ve heard it for so long that they can’t hear it anymore! Chronic ignoring is extremely frustrating, and if you’re anything like me, you deal with it by turning up the volume. This is usually counterproductive; barking out orders like some deranged Doberman generally results in the kids doing anything BUT what I’ve told them to do. There is a general awareness these days among parents and teachers that yelling is not the best way to communicate with children, but what makes it so harmful? And, for those of us who have gotten into the habit, what do we do instead??
The problem with yelling:
- Yelling triggers a fear response in my child. The over-familiarity thing I mentioned at the beginning may certainly be a factor, but we can’t rule out the likelihood that our child is having a fear response. For those of us raising ‘children from hard places,’ we need to be especially mindful of our voice quality. Many of our children are emotionally fragile and extremely sensitive to the slightest changes in our voice tone and body language. Yelling may trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response in our child, leading to a meltdown that could have been easily avoided.
- Yelling doesn’t acknowledge my child’s developmental reality. When I yell at my kids, I’m usually frustrated because I think they should have obeyed me by now. In reality, their brains are under construction, and it might not be that straightforward. In Anatomy of the Soul*, Curt Thompson uses the example of a young boy about to put a leaf in his mouth and ignoring his dad’s instruction not to do it. “The boy may not respond,” Thompson writes, “not out of disobedience but at least in part because the exploding array of neural networks in his brain make the transition from picking the colorful green leaf off the plant to putting it into his mouth to taking it out and handing it to his father a somewhat bumpy ride.” (pp. 120, 121) It helps me to visualize fireworks in my child’s brain. An angry response in this situation is unfair; I need to recognize how tricky this is for my child and approach the situation with awareness and creativity.
- Yelling is poor modelling. None of us want to be yelled at, and we certainly don’t want our kids to yell at others, especially us! Our example, however, often speaks louder than our words. My children have no trouble calling me out on my hypocrisy, and I don’t want to be the type of parent who says “Do as I say, not as I do!” I want to be a good example, and teach through my actions.
So what do we do instead?
How do we go from an awareness that things need to change, to actually doing things differently?
- Proximity. In our Empowered to Connect training, we encourage parents to get within 3 feet of their children when they need to talk to them. Being that close should eliminate the urge to yell! It also gives us the opportunity for appropriate physical touch and for eye contact, both of which will increase the likelihood that they will hear and understand what we have said.
- Get eye contact, at or even below eye level. Lowering ourselves to their level communicates, at a very primal level, that we are not a threat. Since our goal is to avoid triggering a fear response, we must do everything we can to communicate that our children have nothing to be afraid of!
- Keep it playful, short and sweet! I try to view ignoring as a low-level ‘misbehaviour’ and respond as such. I don’t need to bring out the big guns! A playful approach is best in this situation. With younger children, I might try going on a hunt for their ears, or singing a silly song about listening. I could also try using a silly voice or an unusual accent – anything out of the ordinary that will catch their interest while maintaining a playful tone. Practice condensing what you need to say into no more than 12 words. If we use too many words, we increase the chances of not being heard – not because our children are being wilfully disobedient, but because their developing brains can’t process so many words.
- 5-second rule. Sometimes it just takes a little longer for our children’s brains to process what we have said than we think it should! We have found it extremely helpful to count to 5 SLOWLY before repeating ourselves. It’s been amazing – they usually respond before we have to repeat what we said! If they still don’t respond, I try to ask “Did you hear me or do I need to say it again?” If they honestly didn’t hear me, this gives us a chance to try again without getting frustrated with each other. (And if they were deliberately ignoring me, it gives me a moment to breathe and plan out my next move. Often I suggest that instead of ignoring me, they can always ask for a compromise if they didn’t like what I just said. They usually take me up on it and ask for a variation of what I wanted!
- Practice! There are no formulas or quick fixes. We need to be persistent and creative. What works with my child today may not work tomorrow. We can extend grace to ourselves and our children as we practice these skills. We also need to be quick to apologize when we have messed up and allowed our voices to get too big and scary. We want our kids to be able to own their mistakes, so it’s crucial that we own ours as well!
We’d love to hear from you? How do you handle the temptation to yell when you’re being ignored? What would you add to this list?
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