Q: It seems like all my spouse, Adam, and I ever do is argue with the kids. The kids are getting in on the act by talking back and debating with us. They question why they have to do something and then start arguing about why they shouldn’t have to do what we just told them to do.
Our kids span all different ages: we have Jonah, a five-year-old boy, Tasha, a ten-year-old girl, and Josh, a fourteen-year-old boy. As parents, we’ve really lost control of the whole family! How can we stop this insane arguing pattern?
A: How family members communicate with each other is based on a complex mix of elements, including first and foremost, how parents relate to each other.
The voice tones, facial expressions, gestures, and words you use when talking come together and present a “live demonstration” for your children of how to communicate. This fact means that it’s typically a good idea to consider how you and Adam communicate, especially in the children’s presence.
Pay particular attention to your styles of communication. Does one of you interrupt the other? Does one use a sarcastic tone of voice or appear uninterested in what the other is saying? Perhaps one of you (or both) takes on an argumentative tone.
All of these things impact not only your marital relationship, but also how your children learn to communicate. Think of you and your spouse as models of communication for your children.
Q: So, if Adam and I aren’t communicating as well as we could be, our children could be picking up our negative habits. Are you saying that all we have to do is change how we talk to each other and our kids will change their ways, too?
A: Ensuring you display healthy ways of relating will help. But, many other factors influence your kids’ communication styles. How you and Adam respond to your kids’ arguing is also relevant.
Maybe you’re resolved to never get involved in your kids’ squabbles, so you leave them to their own devices to figure things out. Or maybe you cut right in to the middle of their arguments, trying to stop them from debating with each other.
How you speak to your kids is also in the mix, along with your voice tone of voice, choice of words, and body language.
For example, your voice tone usually “telegraphs” to others how you’re feeling. So, if you’re irritated, annoyed, frustrated, or angry, the tone you’re using probably reflects those feelings. Your kids then pick up on those feelings and behave accordingly.
The words you choose can pack a punch. It’s wise to think about how you’ll say something to your children before speaking. For example, if you’re in the middle of fixing the sofa’s broken leg and your five-year-old comes up to you and wants you to play, you have a myriad of choices to make about what you’ll say and how you’ll react.
You might say, “Get the heck out of here! Can’t you see I’m busy?” in a loud, angry tone. Your five-year-old will likely think not understand what he did wrong and why he is being rejected. He may eventually believe that he cannot come to you to get his needs met.
But a more beneficial way to respond would be something like, “Jonah, I have to fix this sofa leg first. Then, I’ll get you a snack and we can play,” in a calm, quiet voice. He’ll learn that although he may have to wait a moment, his mom cares about his emotional needs.
Your body language also can be crucial in such situations. Think about a parent using their hands and gesturing as if they’re trying to “shoo” their child out of the room or leaning toward their child with an angry look on their face. Body language, including your facial expressions, also impact your communications with your kids, since body language makes up more than 50% of communication.
Q: Okay, I think I’m getting the picture. If I want my kids to stop arguing, then Adam and I should be more careful about how we’re talking with each other and to the kids. But where do I begin?
A: You and Adam can start by being more mindful in your joint communications, ensuring you’re using respectful voice tones, words, and body language that show effective methods of speaking. Next, you can begin using helpful encourage healthy communication methods with the kids.
Q: But they’re all different ages! Should how I talk to Jonah, who’s five, Tasha, who’s ten, and Josh, who’s fourteen?
A: It’s important to use language that each of your kids can understand. Therefore, for Jonah, you’ll find it necessary to scale down your language and use simple words so he can grasp your meaning.
For example, with a five-year-old, you can use supportive communication with a diversion tactic to encourage them to do as you ask. For example, warmly taking their hand and saying cheerfully, “Come on, let’s go into the kitchen to get a drink,” when Jonah’s getting upset with something his brother or sister is doing.
With Tasha, since she’s ten, you might use direct and simple language to communicate. “Hey, Tasha. I can see that you’re upset with Josh. Let’s work on your puzzle for a while to help you calm down. And if you want to talk about it, I’m all ears.”
Talking to Josh, since he’s fourteen, can be much like speaking to an adult. You could say something like, “Josh, if there’s something you want your sister to do for you, please ask her to do it nicely. But remember that she has the right to say ‘no’ to you.”
Q: Those are some great ways to deal with my kids, but what if they still argue with me when I use those techniques? Right now, it’s hard to imagine that they would simply stop yelling and calm down.
A: When you first begin working to change the communication patterns in your family, you’ll likely get some push back from your kids. They’ll test you by questioning what you’re doing or by ignoring you. They may even try to entice you into an argument, but as the parent, never take the bait. Getting into power struggles will only make things worse.
You can help them get ready for changes by having a family meeting to discuss your and Adam’s concerns about how they’re talking to one another.
In fact, having regularly scheduled family meetings is a great way to teach kids effective communication. It makes great sense to have meetings where all of you can say how you feel and then get input and feedback from “the leadership” of your family, you and Adam.
To set up a family meeting, you could say to the kids something like, “After dinner and meal clean-up, we’re going to all sit down together and have a meeting as a family to talk about how things are going around the house.”
Once you begin having family meetings, your kids will get used to them. It can be a good way to encourage expression of concerns to each other and create a stronger family.
Q: I wouldn’t know the first thing to do in a family meeting. What should I say?
A: This is a great question, especially if you are new to family meetings. Remember that you’re talking to your own family in the meeting and your purpose is to teach all of your kids to communicate more effectively, showing less negative reactions, and using more problem-solving skills, right?
So, as a parent and leader in the meeting, first and foremost, it’s necessary to speak without negativity and show a spirit of “we can solve any challenge together.”
Start the meeting by saying something like, “Dad and I noticed that the three of you have been arguing a lot lately. All the arguing makes us feel upset and unhappy. So, we decided to have this meeting to give you each a chance to say what’s bothering you so we can figure out together how to have a happier home. No interrupting or arguing is allowed. Each of you gets a turn to talk. Since we are new to this, it may take practice for us to get better at it, and that’s OK.”
Q: I like the way that sounds. Then what?
A: Address each child by name, asking them if there’s anything at all that has been “bugging” or bothering them. “What’s on your mind, Tasha? Is anything upsetting you that’s going on around the house?”
The most difficult part of these meetings tends to be sitting back and really listening to your kids. But this is your chance to model good listening skills. Your children might say that a brother or sister gets to “do more” or have more friends over than they do. Or they might mention that their tired of you and dad yelling so much. It is important not to react negatively to their concerns, even if you feel guilty or like a bad parent. Listening to your kids and validating their concern is one of the best ways to build trust and help them develop as future adults.
During the meeting, keep your mind open and your mouth closed, at least during the time your kids are sharing. Ensure that only one person talks at a time. Allowing a child to interrupt another child while they’re speaking is a big “no-no.”
The key is to acknowledge each child’s feelings as important while teaching better ways to communicate. There may be a time where your child will want or need to share something with you that is very important, and you don’t want to miss that because of a lack of trust.
After someone shares what they’re upset about, thank them for sharing. You could even say something about how “talking and listening to each other like this is a lot nicer than arguing with each other.” Show diplomacy and tact in your responses.
Help your kids build problem-solving skills. For example, you or Adam can ask your kids something like, “What are some ways that we could solve this issue so neither of you is upset?” Look at each kid who’s involved in the currently discussed situation and say, “Tasha, what’s your idea about how to solve this?”
Q: Wow, I get it! In the meetings, we’re actually teaching them how to problem-solve and communicate calmly with each other to reach a helpful conclusion. Still, I can’t imagine my kids not getting into an argument. What will we do if that happens?
A: Remember that you and Adam are responsible for setting the tone and boundaries for how family members will conduct themselves during the meeting.
When your kids observe you talking in calm tones using an appropriate voice and non-inflammatory words, over time, they’ll learn to follow suit.
If one child uses an argumentative tone of voice or says something to a sibling to possibly entice them into an argument, remind that child calmly that their tone sounds “angry” or “frustrated” and remind them to speak calmly and respectfully to each other in the meeting.
Ask how they can re-word what they said to begin the problem-solving process. Although, this may be less effective with a five-year-old who has yet to learn about solving issues, they will have the opportunity to observe how others are making changes in their behavior. And, since behaviors are learned, this will be valuable for them.
Using “feeling terms” will help your kids to internally begin to label their own feelings, so they can then more effectively communicate their feelings to others.
When your kids use appropriate words, voice, and body language, remember to avoid saying zingers to your kids such as, “There, now, was that really so difficult?” These kinds of comments remind them of their negative way of communication rather than reinforce the current, positive way they’re speaking.
Ensure you use your own body language and responses to reinforce positive words and actions in your kids (not only during family meetings, but at all times). Make eye contact with them. Smile at them. Lean toward them. Pat them on the back or give them a high five.
Show your kids that communicating appropriately will get them much further than arguing from now and throughout adulthood
Q: It all makes sense. How will I keep the kids on track to help them avoid reverting back to those argumentative behaviors?
A: Good question. Your best bet is to step in to one of their arguments just long enough to say, “Tasha, could you use a calm tone of voice and think about what you want from Josh, instead of yelling at him with an angry face?” Then, “Okay, that was better. What do you think, Josh? Can you help out your sister?” That helps to reinforce the boundary and encourage them back on track.
Always reinforce your kids when they communicate well and tone down negative feelings and words. Doing so is monumentally more effective to encourage positive communication than scolding them for negative talk. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment.
Furthermore, avoid giving attention for any arguing or negative behaviors, if possible.
Q: So, it’s best to stay on the positive side of things and avoid or ignore negative words and actions, unless I’m stepping in to help them problem-solve. Is that correct?
A: Yes, exactly. When you apply these suggestions consistently over time, you’ll see that discouraging your kids’ argumentative behaviors is helpful to everyone in your family. Stay focused on effective communication and everyone will begin to relate better with practice.
Q: What if I need more help?
A: Remember, you can always reach out to a licensed professional if you would benefit from more support in this area. Therapists are highly skilled in family communication and can help you figure what is and is not working or how to make more progress. Reach out today for an assessment of your family needs.