by Melodie Davis
for release March 24, 2000
Getting Beyond Threats and Yelling
"You do that to me one more time, and you're glue," said five-year-old Chris to his little cousin.
When a five year old uses a witty line like that, you know they could only have learned it from Mom, Dad, an older sibling or relative, or TV.
Children pick up not only positive skills such as sharing, manners, and trust from their parents and others around them, but put downs, four letter words, and conflict patterns.
The other problem in communicating with children is frequently as they get older, the daughter who rattled on and on at dinner about her school day becomes a stone-faced 14-year-old. She either doesn't really want to tell us anything or thinks anything we say is hopelessly out of it.
One book attempting to give parents guidelines on effective communication is Zip Your Lips, (Element Books, 1999) by Dale and Renee Jacobs, child psychiatrist and clinical social worker, respectively. They say instead of making empty threats and constant demands, talk less. "Be brief, direct, positive. Make every word count. Say the message in a way that invites the little darling or jaded teenager to listen and consider." For instance, the mother of a 15-year-old son with attention deficit disorder promised to take him to get the bicycle parts he wanted if he did his chores first. He frittered his time all day, then started to complain that the store was going to close. Mom reminded him of his need to finish his chores. Peter got mad, screaming that he hated her, swept some dishes off the counter, and kicked a wall. The mother simply said, "This behavior is unacceptable." She grabbed her keys and went for a drive to calm down. When she got back, the kitchen was cleaned up, the chores were finished, and there was a note of apology on the counter.
Another tip the authors offer is don't string out a long list of commands like, "Put on your shoes, then pack you backpack, and don't forget to give your permission slip to your teacher." Especially with younger children, expecting them to remember and respond to more than one or two requests at time is difficult.
It is also important to stick to the issue. Don't say, "You are always conveniently forgetting your homework. How do you expect to get into college? You'll never make anything of yourself." Instead, comment only on the immediate problem. "Since you forgot, you will have to get up early in the morning to finish it" (or whatever the rule is).
The authors also suggest zipping your lips entirely when kids have insisted on doing something and they end up getting hurt or disappointed. Rather than lecturing, you might try a simple look or shrug that says "Oh well" and allow your child to deal with his or her own thoughts and feelings.
This approach kind of reminds me of the time-tested advice in the Bible, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no" (Matthew 5:37).
Another book that came out last year is Tired Of Yelling: Teaching Our Children To Resolve Conflict (by Lyndon D. Waugh, child psychiatrist, with writer Letitia Swietzer, Longstreet, 1999). Waugh points out that "preschoolers learn reading skills, elementary schoolchildren spend hours each week on math and English, teens are encouraged to play soccer and piano; yet in many cases, no one teaches our kids one of the most valuable lessons of life-how to get along with other people."
Waugh outlines 15 steps for getting along, including recognizing feelings of anger, figuring out what the real problem is, and learning to think about the problem from the others' point of view. Other steps include setting or choosing the right time and place to deal with a conflict, expressing the problem in a reasonable tone and manner, listening back and forth, and then admitting fault if necessary. Finally, finding a solution can include brainstorming possible solutions, thinking of the pros and cons of each solution, deciding what to do, and then going ahead with the decision.
After counseling parents and children for over 22 years, Waugh admits his steps aren't easy but are "doable." He says we have to sometimes try behaviors over and over until we learn new patterns. One of his suggestions I especially like is pointing out to your children examples of when someone handles a conflict well, such as on TV or among their friends or siblings. We model conflict-handling techniques to our children all the time.
Do you have an example of children solving a conflict? Send it to Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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