Yell-proofing Your Home. Helping Your Child Behave for His or Her Own Reasons

Posted: December 6, 2019

As most parent realize, children have a great deal of inner drive.  In many kids, this inner drive overrides the drive of "doing what mom or dad says to do."  When these two worlds collide, we yell.  We don't want to, but it's what seems so natural.  All we want is cooperation, not a big scene over everyday life events.  

What if we could work with both?  What if that strong inner drive in your child is not "defiance" but a powerful tool for her or his development that should be nourished?  When it comes right down to it, we actually want our kids to have this inner drive.  Our problems arise when their inner drive to be in charge comes in conflict with the needs of daily routine. 

So how can we tap and channel that inner imperative that comes with child development: "I gotta be me!"  "I need to call the shots!"  "I don't want to do what you say!"  "I know what I want and I'm not changing my mind!"  

Many of you who have had parent coaching from me realize that I use "Ask a question" as a tool for effectively gaining the child's cooperation.  The channeling of the child's deep desire for self-direction is the reason for using this tool.  In this scenario, the child's developmental stage is honored, the child herself feels seen and heard, and cooperation is much more easily won. 

"Get your jacket! It's time to go!" 
"Stop that video game.  You've been on it too long!" 
"Set the table.  I've got dinner all ready."
"Where's your homework?  It needs to go in your backpack!"
"Why are you still on that phone at this time of night?"

These typical statements from parents are well-intentioned.  They aim to help family life move forward with children's cooperation.  As a busy parent, you don't feel you have the time to coddle your children into doing what needs to be done.  But what if it's not actually coddling?  What if being gentler with your child is simply taking his developmental age into account?  Herein lies the answer: Kids are not adults.  Each of them has a developmental stage where some things come easily and some don't.  It's important to consider this when dealing with your child.  And to avoid an emotional storm, here are better things to say, so the child will act from his or her own inner drive, rather than oppose your directive:

"What else to you need to wear when it's only 20 degrees outside?"  (Child now thinks, "What do I need?)
"What's our family decision about screen time?"  (Child now thinks, "Oh, two hours per evening! I've gone over that.")
"Notice the stove top?  Smell that wonderful aroma?  What do we need now to eat this great food?" (Child now thinks, "I'm hungry - better set the table.")
"Is your backpack all set with everything you need?" (Child now thinks, "Where's my homework assignment?")
"What time did we decide on for lights out?" (Child now thinks, "Oh, 9:30!")

Asking these questions allows the inner drive of the child to take control of the situation, rather than you.  It includes the child in your thoughts, and ushers him or her to the level of responsibility we all want to encourage.  It honors the child rather than implying she's "less than" (who wants to feel "less than?") 

When parents ask the questions above, the child may not have all the "correct" answers.  As kids, they need time to learn this skill.  Sometimes they may under-dress for the ride to school.  They may act as if they don't know that setting table comes next after cooking.  That's OK.  Here's where your patience really pays off.  Staying with them, kindly asking the question a little differently and giving heartfelt appreciation for their small successes puts you all on a path of growth, rather than conflict.  

For help with this or any other parenting issue, click here.  

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter