Summer survival: Stop the kids from fighting over nothing

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    It’s summer and you should be enjoying it. What could be your summer lifesaver? Teaching your family to under-react.

    We love summer! No homework, no packed lunches, nowhere to go. Nowhere to go? Yes, because apparently your kids have nowhere they need to be except in each other’s hair and under each other’s skin.

    Welcome to the other side of summer: Bored, responsibility-deficient kids, hunkered down at home all the way till September—you do the math.

    Whether you live in an apartment or a palace, your kids will find a way to fight over nothing as big as going to the pool or what movie to see, but the infinitesimal—the wrong word, look, tone, breathing and chewing sounds, you name it. Infinitesimal contains the word infinite for a reason—there is no shortage of things children can say and do to irk each other—and you. They just need the long summer to prove it. The arguments escalate: Is the chewing too loud or are the ears too sensitive? The ears! The chewing! The ears! The chewing! Then someone calls someone stupid. It’s all downhill from there. Here comes your 19th nervous breakdown. Cue the music. And it’s only the beginning of July.

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    OK, but you don’t really need to wade further through this muck. After all, it’s summer and you should be enjoying it. What could be your summer lifesaver? Teaching your family to under-react.

    So much of what unravels your tight-knit, hard-won domestic peace boils down to one maneuver—overreaction. Of course kids do annoying things like bragging, name calling, and sometimes just those tiny missteps like taking the bigger slice of watermelon, innocently or sporting the “I dare you” face and doing it on purpose. How kids interpret—or choose to interpret—what’s really going on and decide to counter the original “offense” spirals the incident out of control.

    While you could snuff the feud by putting both the instigator and the responder “in trouble” or time out, why not do something different this year? Teach your kids how to slow down and under-react or respond differently to the perceived offense.

    Here are some simple ideas to teach your children to go from reacting with their primitive selves to responding with their better angels:

    Introduce the rewind button – When the wrong words come out, everybody knows. The clincher, though, is that somebody’s got to do something about it and it’s fair game for all. The speaker can say… “I think I’m going to rewind on that,” or, “I’d like a do-over.” Or, the recipient of the choice words can ask nicely, “Can you rewind on that?” or “Can I request a do-over here, please?” Or, generously: “What would be your take-two on this?”

    Teach tone –  When our daughter was three and she demanded her lunch, my husband, in an uncharacteristically 50’s response said, “Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice.” Our daughter, not to be outdone replied, “I’m not talking in a toney voice!” But alas, sometimes we all talk in a toney voice. Role play with your family by playing with tone. Ask, “What’s for dinner?” or “What time do we have to go to the pool?” in a demanding tone, a whining tone, a super cheerful tone, and finally, the tone of choice—a normal tone. They will then understand tone. Ask your kids for a signal or word that you can say when tone is the issue, e.g., bing! Or simply use the word “tone,” or gesturing, like in baseball (but less elaborate—who has time, and this isn’t being broadcast on national TV, it’s just your kitchen.)

    Explain the benefits of not taking the bait – Overreactions like yelling, criticizing or getting defensive are very powerful reinforcements of the wrong thing. The more you take the bait, the more your nemesis will go fishing. We know this. But do your kids? Rather than playing the usual broken record, “Just ignore him.” (and p.s. ignoring can be performed in such a way that it bears a close, snarky resemblance to yelling and counteracting), teach your kids to react small—let it pass, ask for a rewind, or even say something positive (that will be really confusing!) like “thanks for that commentary, that is most informative.”

    Soften the edges of a request –  Relationship psychologist, Dr. John Gottman, has found in his research that arguments, or even conversations, end the way they started. So, if you want things to end well, employ what he calls a “soft start-up.” What does this look like? I’ll show you below, but my shorthand is to think soft-serve—you know, like the ice cream.

    So what you have to do is find ways of soft-serving your request, because who can resist that? Find ways to start with “Yes” instead of “No.” Use “I” instead of “you,” and better yet, “we.” Keep complaints small and don’t use character assassination. You can model this for your kids when you’re tempted to say, “You are such a total slob! Look at this mess!” Instead you breathe, start over and say, “What I meant to say is, I am upset to see the room looking like this, and I’m thinking you might not like it this way either. I’d like you to please clean it up.”

    When I suggested this strategy to a 10 year-old boy struggling with backyard spats over rules, he came up with an impressive alternative to the caustic, “You’re lying! You’re cheating! You’re wrong!” He proposed, ” Let’s bring this one to the negotiation table.” Impressive indeed. Emotional intelligence when delivered with a little swagger and a little levity goes a long way.

    Why do these strategies work? Because no matter how bored your child may be, an argument is not really what they’re looking for to pass the time. Yes, you and your kids could spend the summer rehashing who was in the wrong, who should get the time out and for how long. But instead, by softening your tone and delivery with gusto and having the rewind button as a backup when a second try is needed, you can nip family arguments in the bud and be enjoying that easy living of summertime—together!

    Choose to make family harmony your mission this summer and see how these new traffic patterns in your household will take you far beyond the last wet pool towel left in a ball in the middle of the kitchen floor, or, more likely in a ball under the seat of your station wagon. Hanging up pool towels, now that is an issue for another day…

    Happy summer all!

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