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The Pediatric Group Blog

The Pediatric Group Blog

Dr. Helen Rose and her colleagues at the Pediatric Group offer sound advice and commentary on todays most pressing children's health issues.

Most recent posting below. See other blog postings in the column to the right.

Count to Ten by Susan Kassler-Taub

 

Counting to Ten: Parents and Anger

 by Susan Kassler-Taub, MSW, LCSW

 

Your two year old is flailing on the ground screaming because her brother finished her favorite cookies; your six year old quite loudly insists that he won’t quit the video game he is playing to come to dinner; your fourteen year old is declaring, at the top of his lungs, that they are the ONLY kid without a Facebook page. Your response: you want to calmly and quietly let your child know the limits, but instead, almost without realizing it, you notice that you are yelling, and, as if watching yourself on YouTube, wish you could somehow stop those awful words coming out of your mouth. 

Parents arrive in my office and will describe themselves as a “yeller” or a “screamer”. They don’t like their angry behavior, and realize that it isn’t helping their children or their family – and they are themselves exhausted by the yelling. These are good parents, they want to do the best they can, but the “screamer” in them seems to win out more often than they would like.  

Of course, the instinct to yell out if your child is in danger, or about to cause danger to another (no Billy, that truck is not supposed to be run along the top of the baby’s head) is natural and useful. If we can limit our yelling to those moments where safety is in jeopardy, our children will surely sit up and take notice quickly when we do need to yell. 

That being said, if yelling becomes a regular part of our daily discourse, then children quickly become “parent deaf” and less and less responsive to our voices.  

In order to prevent this obstruction in communication, it helps to look at a few factors that contribute to why we as parents yell when angry, and implement strategies to substitute more successful parenting tactics. 

Parenting style, unless we consciously choose otherwise, is often a “default” behavior. We parent with what we know, the skills we learned from consciously and unconsciously watching our own parents when we were children. If your mother and/or father were “yellers” in response to their own anger, then likely that will be your default response, unless you consciously choose otherwise. Or perhaps you had a sibling who was often angry and showing their anger, or we ourselves had trouble managing our anger as a child. All of these “lessons” were learned by us as children, and the need to “unlearn” them and replace them with new default behaviors in response to anger is necessary to a calmer style in our role as parents now.

What should we do when that “screamer” in our head tries to take over? First, separate out the adult from the child in the situation. A two year old in a tantrum, plus an adult in a tantrum, can escalate to a very loud and uncomfortable situation. When a child is acting out in an angry way, the best thing you can do for your child is to avoid escalating the situation. If you remain calm, it is much more likely that your child will be able to calm themselves.

 

Remind the “screamer” in your head, that you are the adult in the situation and that you have the capacity to control your own anger. Take a mental or physical “time out”. Try repeating these mantras to yourself:  “I am the adult and I can stay calm”; “If I remain calm, I will be able to help my child become calm” ;or very simply, “I can control my anger”. If the situation permits, physically step away from the child. Tell your child “I need a moment so I can be calm “ and go into another room and catch your breath.  

In previous postings I’ve talked about children who are “parent deaf”.  If our children only respond to us once we are yelling, it is possible that we have trained them to do so. Imagine this scene: the child is upstairs, the parent is in the kitchen. The parent calls the child to dinner, no response. The parent calls again, the child yells back “in a minute”. The parent calls again, no response or another delay. Finally the parent yells angrily that the child must appear immediately and the child eventually does. This child has been trained not to respond until they hear the angry yelling.

Instead of that scenario, in a quiet moment talk to your child about how they do and don’t respond to your requests. Explain that you may have taught them to wait until you yell, but that you are going to try something new. You aren’t going to yell, and you expect them to respond at the first request. Tell them you will give them a time warning – such as “Five minutes until dinner” -  and then the next time they hear from you they are expected to comply. The next time first give the warning, and then five minutes later (a real five minutes, not two or ten) call your child to dinner. If they don’t appear, go to where the child is, look them in the eyes, if necessary shut off whatever screen they are looking at, and repeat quietly, “dinner” and walk them to the table. This is a good time to try whispering – which can be a powerful change in voice tone. Sometimes, the mere change in your behavior, not yelling, and the direct eye contact will cause compliance. Sometimes your child will start yelling at you – but remember, you aren’t going to yell back.  

I’ve asked some families in my practice, where both the children and adults are yellers, to try a two week experiment. Everyone in the house signs a contract that for two weeks they will work very hard at eliminating yelling. That means not yelling in anger, and not even yelling from room to room to communicate. When the whole family agrees to try this, it becomes a shared goal, and increases the likelihood of success.  Another experiment I ask families to try is to “not be the person who yells first”.  I ask them to keep score of who yelled first, and the competition facet of this method often helps motivate both parents and children. Of course there will be backsliding, but families do tend to improve over the two-week period.  

The utilization of the concept of natural and logical consequences can give parents another route to solving their child’s non-compliance without anger. An example of logical consequences to use with a child who is at least school aged follows. Let’s say that your child leaves their things around the house and doesn’t tidy up after themselves. You’ve asked, cajoled, and yelled. None of that worked. Try the “droppings bag” instead. Explain calmly to your child that they need to be responsible for their belongings; for example, they can’t leave their shoes in the hall, their toys on the couch, or their backpack in the kitchen. Take your child on a “tour” of their “droppings” pointing out each object and showing them where it actually belongs. Then tell them that each night before you go to bed you will be collecting droppings and placing them in the “droppings bag”, which will be hidden away for twenty-four hours. Of course, absolute necessities such as schoolwork should be left for the child to tidy in the morning, but anything else (cell phone, iPod, DS, etc.) all go in the bag. Please remember, when your child yells about this, you stay calm. The lesson is learned from losing the objects for twenty-four hours, not from your yelling.

With teenagers, it can take very little for the yelling to begin. As parents we feel there is so much at stake with children this age, and for the teen, they may feel that the parent can do nothing right. Teens are great at escalating the fight, so it is even more important at this age for parents to get their message across calmly.

Parents ask me, “If I don’t yell, my child won’t know I am angry and then won’t change their behavior”.  This is a logical argument. Our children do need to know when they have behaved in a way that is outside the rules of our house, and to know if that makes us as parents feel frustrated, disappointed, or even angry. We can tell children that with our words, without raising our voices or using mean language.  Children learn from what we model to them with our own behavior. If we can model sharing our feelings without losing control, they will learn this as well. With the young child, short, simple sentences work best. “When you don’t shut the television when I ask you to it makes me frustrated and I feel disrespected.  I need you to shut the TV the first time I ask you”.  With the teen, a longer conversation, in which we as the adults listen as much as we talk, will truly teach our teen how to manage and communicate their feelings.

Finally, as parents, we need to work hard at controlling the stress in our lives, so that yelling doesn’t become a temporary source of stress reduction, while contributing to the increase in overall stress. Despite the intense busyness of our lives, it is important to take time for yourself. Exercise is a great stress reducer, as is being certain to take breaks in the day, even for just ten minutes, that are just for you, and assuring that you and your children are following a healthy and nutritious diet. If we take good care of ourselves as parents, it is much more likely that we will have the right frame of mind to keep that “yeller” in our head at a distance.

 

Susan Kassler-Taub, MSW, LCSW
Psychotherapy: Children, Adolescents, Adults; Individuals, Couples, Families
330 North Harrison StreetSuite 6
Princeton, NJ 08540
609-921-1994

 

 

Count to Ten by Susan Kassler-Taub

Sunscreen by Paula Zollner, MD

Choosing a Dentist by Dr. Richard Holstein

Fever by The Pediatric Group

Bullying


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