How to communicate with kids more effectively: “I don’t speak whinese!” The importance of tone for productive communication

I used to often tell my kids when they were whining, “I don’t speak whinese…” that I couldn’t listen to them when they whined, but I would be happy to listen to them if they could speak normally.

Tone makes such a huge difference in whether or not we get our message across.

This is important for children and adults to be aware of.

I will discuss below how easy it is to not realize we as parents need to make a concerted effort to teach this to our children (for our own sakes as well as theirs).

How highly emotional states can disrupt communication and how to increase the effectiveness of our communications

Think about how much easier it is to take someone seriously when they are speaking calmly versus when they are ranting and raving.

When someone is yelling or in a highly charged emotional state, their right brain (the emotional side of the brain) often takes control and the more rational (left) side of the brain seems to take a back seat.

Since the language centers are largely in the left side of our brains, this often means we literally are not able to speak as fluently when we are upset as we can when we are calm.  This of course, means we are more likely to say things we don’t mean or not communicate well.

So it is no surprise, that as an audience to an upset person we often tend to assume someone is being somewhat irrational when they are in a highly emotional state, and we sometimes miss the merit in what they are saying.  We are more likely to dismiss their possibly legitimate points.

So there are at least two reasons to try to stay calm to increase the effectiveness of your communication: your brain allows you to communicate better when you are calm, and people have learned to tune out others more often when they appear to be highly emotional (of course both of these things are not always true).

Teaching and modeling good communication to our children

However a funny thing often happens when we are parenting our children, which contradicts this.

Because we love our children so much and tend to be more patient with them than we are with other adults, and because we have been conditioned to respond to their crying in their infancy, when they become verbal, we sometimes mistakenly reinforce whining, and our children’s emotional outbursts or tantrums.  In a sense, we have been conditioned to respond to crying and we condition them to continue.

Because whining is annoying and we want it to stop, we often do the opposite of what I am suggesting is generally true of communication, we pay attention to the whining and tantrums (remember even negative attention can be reinforcing).  If we give in when our children whine and throw fits, we reinforce it.  Whining, unnecessary crying and tantrums become the currency of our households.   Even if we get angry with them or punish them, it can reinforce the behavior in negative way (children sometimes like to see they can have such a powerful effect on their parents, even if it is negative-especially when they are feeling powerless).

This scenario develops initially out of necessity.  When our children are infants and/or cannot communicate through speech we have to respond to their crying, because that is the only way they can communicate.  When (and in some cases if) they learn to communicate through speech and as they mature and get more adept at it, we have to try to wean them from the earlier form of communication (now unnecessary crying and fits).  Sometimes parents get so caught up in that negative cycle they don’t realize it is continuing longer than it needs to (parents of multiples, parents whose children are very close in age are often caught in this cycle for longer than they need to be, because child crying gets the attention, initially out of necessity.  Because the parents and the children have mutually conditioning each other crying remains the currency even after there are better forms of communication available.

It is necessary for the parent to change the currency, disrupt the cycle and teach and  model more effective, adaptive and mature forms of communication.

If instead of giving in to whining or tantrums, we try to calmly teach our children (it may not be possible or advisable during a tantrum) by example and by our words, that they are much more likely to be listened to, taken seriously and possibly even get what they want if they can present themselves reasonably and calmly, we may be able to teach them a valuable lesson and decrease the whining and fits as well and change the currency of our households to a much more palatable one: calm and effective verbal communication of our needs, feelings or wishes.


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