I don't believe in spanking my children, but I do find that I yell at them a lot when I get frustrated. The result is that now my children yell, too -- at me, at each other, at the dog. I don't like this pattern, but I don't know how to stop it. Any suggestions?
-- T.L., Phoenix, Ariz.
When you discipline your children, do you sound like the kind of person you really want to be?
Is this discipline more likely to help your kids grow to be responsible teen-agers, or is it more apt to get them to stop what they're doing now only to repeat it tomorrow?
Yelling is a signal that your current discipline system isn't working. Getting a new system that does work will take a lot of effort.
As we have discussed in previous columns, many parents are working on this struggle, one that has plagued family life for generations. Strategies such as humor, incentive charts and a family reminder system are helping parents change their ways.
Another strategy that may help is a new way of looking at your relationship with your children, based on a counseling technique called Reality Therapy.
"Parents need to realize they have a choice in how they behave," says (Ms.) E. Perry Good, author of "Helping Kids Help Themselves" (New View Publications).
"If your long-term goal is to have self-disciplined kids, yelling is not going to get you there," says Good, an educator from Chapel Hill, N.C., who trains teachers, social workers and parents in Reality Therapy techniques.
Setting the ground rules
Before starting anything new, lots of parents who called Child Life suggest calling a family meeting to talk it over.
"Everyone needs to understand you need to treat people the way you want to be treated," says Pamela Hildebrand, a mother from Hoffman Estates, Ill.
This is exactly the point at which Good's method begins.
"Pick a calm time and ask your children if they like it when you yell," Good says. "Ask them if they want to have a happy family, and then talk about what a happy family would look like."
You need a basic agreement in place about the way people should be treated before a problem occurs, Good says.
Putting plan in action
Then, when a yelling match starts, parents can follow a basic script that goes like this:
Ask the children in a calm voice: "What are you doing, right now?"
"Usually, they're so surprised by the question, they'll stop and answer," Good says.
Then: "Is that helping us be the happy family we want to be?"
Children will often answer no. Here's your next line: "Would you be willing to sit down with me and make a plan so this sort of thing doesn't happen again?"
At this early stage, anything the child comes up with that's remotely appropriate is acceptable. They may apologize, agree to take turns or decide to put a disputed toy out of reach.
If the child won't take part, your line is: "Well, I'm not happy with this behavior, and if you can't control yourself, I have to step in."
Then use a timeout or take away privileges. Over time, Good says, the child will figure out that "making a plan" is the more desirable option.
"This method is not as easy as it sounds," Good says. "But in the past, we've had so much belief in discipline being a quick-fix or a reward rather than thinking about the relationships we want to have with each other and the kind of people we want to be."
This is how Reality Therapy goes a step beyond the discipline many parents are used to, such as utilizing timeouts, sticker charts and logical consequences. These methods react to inappropriate behavior in the traditional stimulus-response mode of psychology.
"A lot of parents understand consequences, but without tying it to how we believe we should treat each other, it's rote and hollow," Good says. "The goal of Reality Therapy is to establish an environment where children are not afraid to evaluate their own behavior."
Over time, Reality Therapy techniques, developed by William Glasser, a psychiatrist who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, teach children an internal system for self-control.
"If you start it early, by the time they're teen-agers, you won't have the problems that a lot of parents do," says Good, who has adapted Glasser's ideas for use with children. "When they're teens, they won't allow you to evaluate their behavior. They just won't listen."
For more information on this method, two books may be of help: Good's book, "Helping Kids Help Themselves" ($12), and "Teach Them To Be Happy" ($12) by Robert Sullo. These books can be found in many major bookstores or can be ordered from the publisher by calling 800-441-3604.
Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at 800-827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to bevmillol.com
Pub Date: 1/11/98