The parenting struggle is real: We don’t want to yell at our kids, but sometimes we just can’t help it. We want them to turn off their video games, pick up their toys and get ready for bed. So what’s a stressed-out mom or dad to do?
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Good communication between parents and children starts with staying cool, as hard as that may be. “As parents or caregivers, we may not always recognize the effects that our emotions and actions have on kids,” says pediatrician Kimberly Churbock, MD. “Kids are like sponges – they pick up on our body language and verbal cues, so when we’re upset or anxious, they may pick up on that and get confused or scared or not know how to respond.”
That’s why techniques like yelling, bribing and threatening punishment likely aren’t the best ways to get kids to do what you ask of them. Instead, Dr. Churbock offers this advice for addressing the core causes of why kids don’t obey, and getting to get them to start.
Recognize barriers to good communication. Are your child’s most basic needs met? Even the most easy-going kids may feel challenged by your asks when they’re hungry or tired, for example.
Set a good example. Kids pick up on your tone and body language, and not just when you’re communicating with them. “We should be mindful of our words and also our body language, whether we’re directly interacting with kids or with other adults and caretakers,” Dr. Churbock advises. This can be especially tough in co-parenting or blended family situations, but remember that kids can perceive when tensions may be high.
Use simple words. It’s important to consider that children at different developmental levels have different understandings of the adult words we use. For example, asking a young child to “take turns” may be easier to comprehend than asking them to “share.”
Offer choices whenever you can. Dr. Churbock suggests this as a way to give kids a sense of confidence and control, even if you’re asking them to do an undesirable task. If your child struggles with bath time, for example, give them the choice of which toy they want to bring into the tub, or whether they want bubbles.
Praise them. “In my experience, positive reinforcement and praise of desired behaviors is much more effective than negative, disciplinary communication,” Dr. Churbock says.
Identify and recognize their feelings. Even if they might not understand the names of complex emotions like frustration, saying to a child, “You seem frustrated,” can help put a name to their feelings. Over time, as they develop their own voices and vocabulary to verbalize their wants and needs, they can learn to use these expressive words rather than act out.
Most importantly, Dr. Churbock reiterates, is that it’s always OK to step away from a situation if you feel your own emotions starting to bubble over.