Finding your Voice, Losing your Holler

Cathi Cohen, LCSW

When all else fails: Holler. Who can blame you? It’s exasperating being ignored after repeating a request umpteen times without response. Frustration mounts when your child dilly dallies before school, making you late for work, AGAIN. It’s terribly trying managing yourself and your child when you are being treated with disrespect and brashness. You’ve tried bargaining, threatening, negotiating, begging, cajoling, nagging. None of them work. Only screaming does the trick. When you yell, your child complies. So who’s to say that yelling isn’t the solution?

Well, for starters, most of us would like our children to behave without resorting to yelling. No parent enjoys the feelings that precede yelling. Helplessness, rage, and frustration are generally not the trifecta of feelings we, as parents, are shooting for in raising a family. And, while it is true that yelling in the short term may result in behavioral change, it is useless in the long term. As a matter of fact, the cycle of…

request…ignore…nag…ignore…beg…ignore…demand….ignore …. scream…movement

is not a feedback loop you want any part of. After all, by ignoring all of your commands without any consequence from you, your child learns that you don’t really mean what you say until you finally start yelling. And, your child is training you too. You learn from him/her that no other method besides screaming results in behavior change. In other words, you and your child are stuck in a holding pattern. One of you has to break that mutually reinforcing scream/behavior change cycle. And, because you are the parent, you get that job.

Here are some tips for finding your voice without finding your holler:

Step One: Use Effective Commands

Make sure when you give your child a directive that you mean it. Say the command clearly and firmly. Your child knows when you are distracted. If you tell him/her to do something, and you have no intention of making sure that the direction is followed, the direction will not be followed.

Step Two: Tell your child what you want him/her TO DO, not just what you don’t want him/her to do

The clearer you can be up front with your behavioral expectations, the easier it is for your child to make appropriate choices.

Try Saying This: “Tell me about the problem you are having using a calm voice. I know you can do it.” Or “I treat you with respect. I expect you to treat me with respect, too.”

Step Three: Think about your requests from your child’s vantage point

You can be understanding and empathetic and at the same time expect your child to follow your directions. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. Some parents think if they understand how their child feels; they are “caving” to their child’s wishes. Not so. Expressing empathy will help you achieve cooperation without resulting in a power struggle.

Step Four: Put responsibilities before rewards

Work first. Play later. As tempting as it is to make an agreement with your child like this: “So you promise to clean your room after we come back from shopping.” Resist. Reverse that. “I will take you shopping after you finish cleaning your room”.

Step Five: Know yourself

Before you ask your child to do something, check in with yourself. “How am I feeling right now? Am I up for the task of enforcing the consequence if my child doesn’t do what I’m asking? Your answer to these questions might be. “I’ve had a long, rough day and I just don’t want to deal with a power struggle right now. I can wait until after I’ve had a few minutes alone before I ask him/her to do it”. Trust your instincts. You know yourself better than anyone else.

Step Six: Whenever possible, give your child choices

Give your child choices without resorting to negotiating with him/her or breaking the rules you’ve established. Kids of all ages enjoy choices.

Try Saying This

“Your room needs to be cleaned before you go to the movies. Do you want to do it now? Or after you’ve eaten lunch?”

Step Seven: Maintain consistency and follow through

What’s that expression? “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.” There really is no way for a child to understand this concept unless you are unwavering in enforcing rules and consequences. Holding kids accountable for their actions is really no different from what we do with our work colleagues every day. It’s easy to establish office rules and expectations, but it’s harder to make sure they are being followed.

Learning how to encourage cooperation up front instead of demanding and yelling to get compliance on the back end takes effort, thoughtfulness, and practice. Once your child trusts that you mean what you say, he/she will begin to cooperate. And then you will feel a whole lot less like hollering.