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Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice

May 9, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

Proven strategies that reduce the need for discipline.

Based on the just-published book, Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice

Never Yell Again!

Is that really possible? No! When our toddler runs into the road, we'll be yelling for sure. And we might also yell when our teenager upstairs can't hear us over the blast of his music. But what we can realistically hope to accomplish is the eradication of everyday yelling -- the kind of noise we make when our kids don't listen.

Why Bother?

Many people don't think yelling is such a terrible thing. They say it is just an honest expression of feelings and it's even good for you because it releases unhealthy tension.

Boy, are they wrong. Research shows that yellers are at greater risk for heart disease than non-yellers.(1) Judaism teaches that yelling is not "an honest expression of feelings" but rather a form of verbal abuse. Spouses and children who are regularly yelled at know just how damaging this form of communication can be. Therapists fill their days helping people overcome the effects of routine parental yelling: low self-esteem, insecurity, depression, anger-management problems, relationship problems, parenting problems, addictions and more.

Sure, some people come out unscathed -- but don't count on it. Many otherwise loving parents have completely lost their relationships with their kids because they yelled too much for too many years.

The Benefits

When yelling is very much the exception rather than the rule of daily family life, a host of benefits accrue:

  • Your home becomes an oasis in a really stressful world -- even you will enjoy being there.
  • You increase your parenting power by strengthening your relationship
  • Your kids will enjoy more physical health, mental health and emotional health and have better social skills and academic performance.
  • You'll be teaching your children a communication style that can help them enjoy positive and loving relationships throughout their lives -- especially with their own spouses and children.
  • You increase the likelihood of enjoying a warm, life-long relationship with your children and grandchildren

Feelings and Behaviors are Different

It's perfectly normal for everyone -- adults, teenagers and children -- to feel irritable, tense, frazzled, annoyed, and even furious. These are just feelings triggered by the conditions of everyday life (i.e. work, school, family and so on). All feelings are acceptable -- in fact, accepting them is the quickest way to help them dissipate.

Behaviors, on the other hand, are a whole different story. They can be acceptable or unacceptable. Unacceptable behaviors, like yelling, are those that hurt other individuals or society as a whole.

How to Stop Yelling

People don't tend to yell when they're not upset (unless they're at a sports event). So the ideal situation is to prevent or cure any feeling of distress. Until that is accomplished, upset feelings must be managed. Just in case you haven't prevented or cured all of your upset, we'll start by looking at a few techniques that can help manage angry feelings when they occur.

  1. Sit down.
  2. Say out loud, "I'm going to calm down and think about what I need to do now."
  3. Close your eyes and breathe slowly for a few moments until you can start thinking of what positive action you can take.
  4. Take appropriate action (such as speaking or disciplining).

Preventing Anger

Since the ideal situation is to feel calm in the throes of daily parenting challenges, we'll now look at how we can achieve this state. If we're calm to begin with -- no matter what is going on with the kids -- then there's no anger to manage. Believe it or not, intensive psychotherapy is not a prerequisite for achieving this state! But you must be prepared to follow these steps:

  1. Create and maintain a positive atmosphere in your home at all times by following the 80-20 Rule. This rule states that you must offer four pleasant-feeling words or actions for every one unpleasant word or action. For teenagers and spouses, raise that ratio to 5:1.

    Examples of pleasant-feeling interventions are: compliments, treats, affectionate touch, joking, attentive listening, words of love, gifts and so on. Examples of unpleasant-feeling interventions are: criticisms, instructions, threats or actual punishments, saying "no," corrections, looking or sounding moody, demonstrating irritation or displeasure and so on.

    Notice that "instructions" is part of this second list so that every request a parent makes to a child ("time to brush your teeth," "time for homework," "please take your plate off the table," etc. etc. etc. must be counted as an unpleasant-feeling intervention.)

  2. Whenever your child is demonstrating any sort of feeling (i.e. every moment of the day), name the feeling before saying anything else. For example, if your child is complaining that she doesn't like dinner, your first statement might be "Oh, that's frustrating -- you want something else to eat and this is what we're having." Then you can decide your next step -- whether it's offering substitutes, insisting that this is the menu or whatever. This technique of naming feelings leads to children becoming much more cooperative (and mentally healthier) over the course of time, even if a child does not cheer up immediately when you name his or her feelings.

  3. Use pleasant-feeling interventions to change your child's behavior instead of unpleasant or angry ones. For example, if you're trying to teach a child to refrain from interrupting your phone calls, use the totally good-feeling CLeaR Method: C= Comment, L=Label and R=Reward.

    It works like this: Make a very short phone call when the child is nearby. Quickly hang up and Comment: "You waited so quietly while Mommy was on the phone." Now, Label: "That was very patient of you." Now, Reward: "I think that deserves a story (hug & kiss, treat, privilege)." The Reward step is used only when you want to teach a specific behavior. Use the Comment and Label steps to maintain desirable behaviors. Always use the CleaR Method before using any unpleasant-feeling discipline interventions.

  4. Keep calm with the 2X-Rule. Never make a request more than two times. In fact, only say something a second time if you are prepared to carry through with negative consequences should the need arise.

    Here's how to do it: Ask once and, if the child doesn't respond, decide how important the matter is at this time. For instance, ask the child to hang up his jacket. If he doesn't do it, decide whether this is a good time for you to pursue the matter based on your location in the 80-20 Rule (if you've given too many unpleasant-feeling communications, maybe you need to wait until your ratio has improved before tackling the coat issue). Or, perhaps you're not feeling well enough right now to carry through. Or, perhaps you want to save your unpleasant-feeling intervention for a more pressing matter with this child. Or, maybe you're just tired. Whatever the reason, after asking only once, you can just drop the request and pretend it never happened.

    If you decide to ask again, give the child a choice of complying or facing a (named) negative consequence. For example, if you ask the child a second time to hang up his coat, your instruction might sound like this, "Sweetie I asked you to hang up your coat and if you don't do it in the next couple of minutes, I'll hang it up and you'll lose computer tonight." If the child then fails to comply, briefly and quietly give the consequence. "I'm sorry. Your time is up. You've lost computer."

    This process is a powerful alternative to the "10X-Rule" that permits a parent to ask and ask and ask -- 10 times -- until red in the face and screaming! The 2X-Rule keeps parents calm and helps kids to develop the habit of responding to a normal tone of voice. The loss of privileges or other mildly annoying consequences never harms a child's development when used in moderation, unlike the show of parental anger which invariably leaves its mark -- sometimes for decades forward.

Using the Skills

Parents frequently learn skills but then fail to use them in the heat of the moment. It is crucial for peace in the home and parental peace of mind that parents stop raising their voices. You can help yourself succeed by using a reward or punishment system. This may seem a bit childish at first, but it works!

You can start with rewards. For every day that you refrain from raising your voice (or every hour, if you use a raised voice frequently throughout the parenting day), give yourself a point. Work toward the number of points that you can reasonably earn in about a week. Once you achieve those points -- off you go to Hawaii for a well-earned vacation! Okay, not quite, but you get the idea.

Some people prefer to use "negative consequences" to change their brain habits. If you are in this group, or if a reward system has not yielded fast enough results, give yourself some sort of "punishment" every single time you raise your voice. Choose from any of the following sorts of activities: doing push-ups (enjoy the weight-loss benefits of this one), cleaning drawers (enjoy the organizational bonus!), giving money to charity or any other slightly difficult task. If no progress is being made, increase the difficulty of the task (i.e. do more push-ups!). Eventually, the yelling won't be worth it. Your brain will find a different way to handle parenting stress.

Happy Peaceful Parenting

We can all enjoy peaceful home lives built around respectful, caring relationships. We just need the tools and the will to use them. Children grow strong and healthy when nursed by the energy of love -- an energy too sensitive to co-exist with the harsh vibrations of anger. Fortunately, parents have so much love to give; when they stop yelling, that love pours out and fills the hearts of their kids.

1. American Journal of Epidemiology August 1, 2001;154:230-235

Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice is a complete manual for the first 20 years of childrearing. Based on Torah principles regarding respect for self and others, it gives parents simple and practical strategies for negotiating every parenting issue in an anger-free, stress-free way. Written by a clinician with 30 years experience in guiding families and individuals, this book offers parents invaluable support for the most important and challenging task of a lifetime: raising children. Click here to order.

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