Thursday, August 28, 2008

Save the Words for the Happy Times, Part I: Creating a Pause

By Nature We Tend to Talk Most When It Helps Least

When do we pour on the words with the most intensity as parents? With the most energy and flourish? Often it is when things are going the worst. When we're irritable. When we're frustrated. When the kids are acting up. That's when the words flow with no effort. Often our words take the form of lectures. We've touched before on how lectures are chock full of You're Not Capable Messages. Also you've likely noticed the way that our kids' eyes start to glaze over when we've moved into lecturing mode. Or they get snippy or comply, but so slowly they reel us into getting more upset. Part of the reason for this is explained by the Attention Principle: Any behavior we react to with energy, attention or emotion, we will see more of. The flood of words inevitably leads to the interaction spiraling downhill from there.

Creating a Pause
So what can we do instead? Lets look first at when we're in the moment, and in Part II we'll look at how to circle back when we're much more likely to be effective. In the moment though, take some slow deep breaths. There's no replacement for doing that as a parent. It serves much like having a biological dimmer switch that takes the edge off our frustration, and our sense that something must be done "right this second", which is almost never actually the case. In fact if there were only one skill that I could help my clients with, it would be simply learning how to create a pause before acting or talking when things are going poorly.

Second, take care of the issue at hand with brevity. Often enforceable statements can serve well in keeping our talk brief. The combination of things not going well, and lots of words from us rarely equals our kids doing better. So keep the words as brief and to the point as you can. This keeps us from inadvertently making things worse.

Third, avoid making decisions in the heat of the moment that could be made later. If our child has done something that warrants a consequence of some sort, and we're feeling really irritated or angry, it is far better for everyone concerned to say something like, "We're going to need to do something about this. I need to take a break right now though. I'll get back to you." It is when we make decisions in the heat of the moment that we often come up with consequences that are overblown. And doling out an excessive consequence only to reduce it, especially if it happens often, reduces your credibility. Letting your child know that something is going to happen, but that you need to give it some thought first often makes whatever the consequence turns out to be more effective. More on that in another post.

Emotional Flooding
Keep in mind that when we're frustrated or angry we lose 10 to 15 IQ points. Sometimes we're even aware in the moment that what we're doing isn't helping, but we just keep going. When we know though in the moment that we're going to circle back and do something later when it is more effective, that in itself can make it a lot easier to put the brakes on. Things don't feel so overwhelmingly urgent.

Allowing some time to pass gives the brain a chance to cool off a bit. Most of us have had the experience, often in a couples interaction, of trying to approach the problem too soon after the initial argument, thinking we're cooled off enough to come back to it. But then WHAM we pop right back down into angry mode. We come by this honestly. The brain often takes hours to cool off, to get out of it's chemical funk, rather than minutes. Giving the situation some time and distance will greatly increase the odds that we're going to be able to be effective with our kids.

In Part II we'll look at some of the options when we circle back to address the problem that help kids shift into problems solving mode. These options help kids to be able to view their behavior more objectively and gives them a much better chance to take responsibility for their behaviors.

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