My son is six and we are moving to another country — which means we're under extra stress. Even on normal days, we both fall into the "spirited" category. We respond to frustration or irritation with aggressive or hostile language. My son feels that I "always talk grumpy to him" (getting aggravated when trying to get out the door on time for school, or when he's dawdling at bedtime, for example). He also uses the same exasperated tone of voice with me, and sometimes calls me names.
I am discouraged and saddened that I am the main source of the problem right now. What I've done so far is assure my son I don't want to hurt his feelings in the way I talk to him, and I encourage him to remind me by saying "gentle talking, please!"
I was thinking of making up some sort of game to help us both respond better when aggravated. Does anyone have an idea?
Before I share my thoughts, let me just say that this story really resonates. We all have those moments where our patience is gone, especially when sleep deprivation's involved. So before anything else, a little forgiveness is in order, both for your son and for yourself. We're talking about temperment plus exhaustion here, not moral character.
I asked Nina some followup questions, and here is her response:
I'm most concerned with balancing empathy for a child who is overstressed or exhausted with appropriate non-acceptance of bad language and name-calling. That seems important not just for saving face in front of other parents (Did you hear what she lets her kids say to her!?) but also for modelling how my son himself can respond to people who are venting their stress inappropriately by calling him names, and for teaching him age-appropriate ways of expressing frustration or exasperation other than taking it out on others.
My initial thought is that habit change is hard…remembering a game on top of that would be even harder. I think the first order of business is to set the stage for a new dynamic during a quiet, happy time. Sit down with your son and suggest that you both would feel happier if you both used "friendlier voices" when you're mad. Come up with one or two short responses each of you can use when you're feeling irritated, as well as cues each of you can use when the other person slips ("gentler voice, please!" is great). Suggest 2-3 deep breaths before responding in anger. Then practice a bit. You might even write out your responses and cues or draw some funny stick-figure cartoons. I find that writing stuff like that down always helps me fix it in my mind.
The next time a flare-up happens, try to remember your responses and your cues. It will be a long process, but at least each of you now has a way to talk about it, and a concious path to change. If no one remembers their "lines," once everyone calms down, apologize for the tone of voice and rephrase how you would have liked for it to come out initially. Walk your son through this process if he's the one to flare up. Celebrate the successes — both the ones that happen "on cue" and the ones that need a little more time to arrive.
Eventually, this new habit will begin to take hold, for both of you. You and your son will always be "spirited" — that's good! — but you can learn a new way to communicate.
This is what has (mostly) worked for me and my son. What about you, Parenthackers? How do you break the yelling habit?
Further reading if you're interested: Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool. I haven't read the book myself, but a friend did and got a lot out of it.