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My Grandson's Mother Is a Screamer

QUESTION: My daughter-in-law and my seven-year-old grandson often scream at each other, saying unkind words. My grandson's mother says her grandmother and mother were both "screamers," and that is just the way she is. The seven-year-old and the mother clash over many minor matters, and tension fills the household. This makes us, as grandparents, very uncomfortable. I fear this will continue on into his teen years and be out of control. My son tries to "cool" the situation, but often he gets yelled at too. What can we, as grandparents, do or suggest?

ANSWER: You tried to give suggestions to your daughter-in-law and met with resistance. In essence, the reply you received was "What was good enough for me is good enough for my child!" But is it? Child abuse comes in many forms, and abuse is passed down as a generational pattern. Verbal abuse does harm children. This could especially be true in your case if the "screaming" includes name-calling or put-downs. And your observation that screaming will become less effective with a child's growth is also likely to be valid.

What can you do? Continue to challenge the idea that screaming is the answer. If it is possible to have a less-than-heated discussion with your daughter-in-law, ask her to consider the family atmosphere. When screaming occurs on a regular basis, it charges the atmosphere with tension. Children (and adults) either withdraw or shut down, which can push the screamer further. What comes next? Hitting? Threats you cannot follow through on?

Screaming is not an effective form of discipline. The following guidelines offer parents ways to establish effective discipline, rather than escalating threats that spiral out of control.

  1. Communicate expectations clearly. Some parents express what they want children to do by including children's feelings as a part of the communication. For example: "Let's get in the car. You want to go to grandma's, don't you?" Instead, parents should say, "I want you to get in your car seat now. We are going to grandma's house."

  2. Accept the child's feelings, but reinforce expectations. Some parents expect children to show enthusiasm or contentment about doing what's required. Instead, parents need to be willing to reflect children's negative feelings without negating the expectation that they will obey. For example: "Grandma is waiting for us. You must get in your car seat. I know you're sad about having to leave your friends right now. You'll be able to play again another day."

  3. Communicate and deliver consequences. Some parents resort to yelling instead of communicating and delivering consequences in a matter-of-fact tone. Or they do not follow through on the consequences they communicate because they threaten inappropriately in the heat of anger. Instead, parents should clarify what will happen if the child does not behave. For example: "If you do not get in your car seat by the count of three, I will put you in myself." Or, for an older child, "If you do not do your homework, you will not be able to watch TV." Consequences should be appropriate, and something that the parents are willing to deliver. (Yelling is not a viable consequence, and only leads to escalation!) Often, parents will need to follow through on those consequences before children learn to do what they're asked. It may take one, two, or more times for children to know that parents mean what they say, especially if the parents had a habit of resorting to whining or complaining instead of being authoritative (which we all do at one time or another).

  4. Separate children's behavior from their self-esteem. It's easy for parents to confuse behavior with character. For example, parents might say, "No hitting! Only bad boys hit." It's more effective to label a behavior "bad," without extending that to children's motives or character: "Hitting is a bad thing to do to others. You must learn to use your words." Or, to an older child when addressing a bad mistake, "You are not a thief. Why in the world did you steal that lipstick?" Separating behavior from action enables children to learn from their mistakes, rather than be defined by them.

It is our job as parents and grandparents to guide children. We must be willing to accept anger and other negative feelings when we set appropriate limits. As long as expectations are reasonable for a child's age, a responsible and caring adult may successfully adopt the role of benevolent dictator when necessary!

If it is not possible to discuss your ideas about effective discipline openly with your daughter-in-law without starting a war, then definitely consider talking with your son about your concerns. The nature of verbal abuse is damaging to the self-esteem of ALL family members. His unwillingness to approach his wife directly may indeed be a part of the problem. Encourage him to discuss this issue with his wife and help her find a better way. After all, this is his family, too! If he does not like the atmosphere that is being created, he is in a position to initiate change. As a parent, it is his job to make a difference. He must step up to the plate to insist that they work together to transform the tension-filled household they have created. If necessary, he can schedule an appointment to address this matter with a family counselor.

As a grandparent, you can support your son and his wife to follow through on whatever help is needed to bring about real change!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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