Silent Treatment? Sarcasm? Why These Strategies Won’t Work On Your Kids

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You may be used to arguing with a spouse, partner or friend with behaviors that provide varying degrees of success. But using those same strategies with your kids won’t work.

You may be used to arguing with a spouse, partner or friend with behaviors that provide varying degrees of success. But using those same strategies with your kids won’t work. Why? “When two adults try to resolve a conflict, they are typically on a level playing field,” explains Ann Lagges, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-chief of the Riley Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Mood Disorders Clinic at Indiana University Health. “That’s not usually the case when you’re dealing with a parent-child relationship.”  Here, a few strategies that may sound familiar, and how to take a better approach.

Your strategy: Yelling

Shouting at your partner or peer doesn’t work well for adults, but for kids it can be even worse, says Lagges. “Nothing is ever resolved with yelling, it just comes across as noise.” Yelling not only signals that you are out of control—you’re teaching your child that yelling is an appropriate way to express anger, she adds. “Yelling also increases anger in both the parent and the child, which serves to escalate, rather than resolve the situation.”

Your strategy: Silent treatment

It’s fine to have some cool-down time, but giving your child the cold shoulder comes across as unproductive and immature, says Lagges. “Kids don’t think the same way adults do. They won’t get the ‘message’ that the parent is still angry about a previous incident.” Instead, your child might think you’re punishing her for something she’s doing right now, even if she’s behaving appropriately, she adds. “They’ll just think whatever they are currently doing is wrong.” And older kids who do understand what’s going on may try to imitate your behavior the next time they are angry with you.

Your strategy: Being passive-aggressive

This kind of behavior isn’t recommended at any age, but it can be especially damaging when your child is on the receiving end, warns Lagges. “Kids start to copy the relationships they see around them at a relatively young age. When you start dealing with passive-aggressive strategies, you’re ultimately teaching your children the wrong way to behave with others.” Say, for example, you decide to punish your child for speaking disrespectfully the night before by “forgetting” to pack his lunch the next day. “Your child won’t think ‘my mom’s mad at me because I was rude to her yesterday,’ he’ll think ‘Why doesn’t my mom care that I’m hungry?’” If this happens often enough, your child might start to engage in random mean behavior toward others. 

Your strategy: Sarcasm

You may be tempted to shift into sarcasm mode the moment your tween or teen starts to give you attitude, but hold off. Often that sets the precedent that if you speak that way to your child, she can fire it right back at you. And younger kids just won’t get it. “It’s just mean to be sarcastic to a little kid,” says Lagges. A better strategy is to talk to her like you would want to be spoken to.

3 Strategies for Better Communication

  1. Stay calm. It may help to go into another room or step away from your child until you feel more composed, provided she’s in a safe place, says Lagges. Calming down will help you gain some perspective and give you a better chance to stay in control and behave appropriately. If you can’t leave your child alone, take a few deep breaths to try and relax.   
  2. Offer choices. If there’s an issue that needs to be negotiated, try to model some problem-solving skills. “If your toddler is getting angry that she can’t have candy for breakfast, acknowledge that you know she’s angry and give her a couple of reasonable choices, such as cereal or yogurt, instead,” notes Lagges. Having appropriate options will give them the sense that they do have some say in their lives. “Even young kids push back when they feel like they have no choices—giving some options reduces the chances of battle.” The key, she adds, is to make sure the choices are age appropriate.
  3. Choose your battles. Is it really worth going crazy on your teen for leaving his socks on the floor? “If everything is emphasized with equal important, the most important things get lost,” says Lagges. “Constant nagging can lead to a relationship that’s filled with negatives.” For younger kids, a sticker chart can work as positive reinforcement for things like putting away toys. For an older child, figure out what issues are worth fighting. Towel not hung up? He can still use it if it’s dirty. Ignoring curfew? That’s worthy of a more substantial discussion.  

—By Alyssa Shaffer  

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