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Author Biography: DON FLEMING, Ph.D., is a child psychotherapist and the author of How to Stop the Battle with Your Child and How to Stop the Battle with Your Teenager. He practices in Beverly Hills and lives in Los Angeles, California. MARK RITTS has a varied background as a writer, producer, director, and performer and has worked on numerous programs for children.
What Is Provocative Communication? Your seven-year-old, hands on hips, declares defiantly, “You can’t make me!” Your four-year-old tugs insistently on your sleeve, loudly whining “Mooooommmmm!” while you’re trying to chat with the important client you just bumped into at the supermarket. Your nine-year-old tries out the four-letter words he’s learned at school on his three-year-old sister.
Before you conclude that your children have been sent to you as punishment for sins committed in a previous life, take heart. Such behavior, no matter how annoying or embar- rassing, is completely normal. It’s called “provocative communication,” and it’s a natural and (like it or not!) necessary part of growing up.
Provocative communication is any statement or nonverbal gesture from a child that appears rude, inappropriate, hurtful, or disrespectful. Some common examples are:
“Mom, I hate you!”
“I wish I never had a brother/sister!”
“I don’t love you anymore!”
“You don’t love me anymore!”
“I wish I/you were dead!”
“You can’t make me!”
“You never do anything for me!”
In the following pages you’ll learn how to decode provocative statements like these to reveal their underlying meanings and the important functions they perform in children’s lives. You’ll learn a variety of effective responses to provocative communication, keyed to specific situations and behavior patterns; responses that setappropriate limits on such behavior. You’ll learn how to teach your children more effective ways to express themselves, ways that will give voice to their true feelings without causing conflict. And you’ll learn the parameters of “normal” provocative communication and the threshold at which aggressive behavior enters the danger zone.
A Look Back
In past generations, children were to be seen and not heard. They were expected to speak only when spoken to. Even mildly disrespectful behavior was considered intolerable and usually punished swiftly and severely—with a slap on the face, a spanking, or at the very least a harsh verbal lashing aimed at eliciting feelings of shame. There was a widespread double-standard in child-rearing practice. Parents could talk any way they wanted to their kids, but children had no such latitude. This do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do form of parenting is called “authoritarian discipline.”
In such an atmosphere, children grew up without any sense of how to safely express their feelings. They thus tended to be less assertive, as well as less spontaneous and joyful. They also ceased to experience any comfort from the expression of emotion, squelching their strongest feelings just as their parents had squelched their impulses to express them.
Meanwhile, disciplinarian fathers and mothers felt they were doing a fine job of teaching their children self-control and good manners. Indeed, boys and girls were extraordinarily well-behaved by present-day standards, but it was at considerable cost to their emotional development and welfare.
Many of today’s parents retain these disciplinarian attitudes, but there is also a widespread desire to understand what children are really trying to say when they express them- selves provocatively. More parents than ever before are beginning to understand the importance of allowing children to give voice to their emotions, to let them out rather than bottle them up.
How, then, to exercise judicious control over children’s provocative communication without squelching their emotional freedom and spontaneity? That is what this book is about. Preverbal Communication
How and when does provocative communication start? It begins with that first whack on the behind from the obstetrician! In translation, a newborn infant’s cry means, “Ow! What’d you do that for? Cut it out! I’m cold! Put me back where you found me right now!”
Infants are expert at expressing displeasure. A baby’s cry is preverbal communication at its most compelling. And it certainly provokes action on the part of adults—the immediate presentation of the mother’s breast, for example— as well as a variety of strong emotions in the parent, from protectiveness to anxiety, frustration, and anger.
Crying is just the beginning, of course. Preverbal toddlers quickly expand their vocabulary of provocative communication to include physical acts like hitting, scratching, biting, and pulling hair. They have strong emotions, and they demonstrate them in the only ways they know how.
When small children begin to acquire language skills, their provocative vocabulary starts expanding by leaps and bounds. “No!” is often the first verbal provocative communication mothers and fathers receive from their kids. The little boy or girl who exclaims “No!” for the first time has recognized the remarkable power of words and is experimenting with that power. Who better to experiment on than Mommy and Daddy?
Preschoolers also learn to imitate the verbalizations they hear around them. Some make monster sounds when they’re angry (thanks to TV), or they repeat words and phrases other family members use. This imitative behavior often leads to eyebrow-raising expletives issuing from the mouths of three-year-olds. They don’t really understand it as foul language, but only as “the thing Daddy says when he gets mad.” Then, of course, there’s whining, and the ulti- mate meltdown, the tantrum. This is the closest preschoolers come to all-out war, especially when it happens in a public place. Nonverbal provocative communication is still there at this age, too—and not just hitting and hair pulling, but more sophisticated gambits like going rigid and the dreaded “spaghetti legs.”
By around the age of six, children’s provocative communication can start to feel very personal—the severe look, the evil stare, hands on hips or folded in disgust. Parents sometimes find such dismissive gestures genuinely hurtful. By the age of eight, many children have added the “eye roll” to their provocative vocabularies, along with deep sighs—especially common when parents are attempting to teach children moral lessons. Still another provocative preadolescent behavior is the mumbled insult—the “I don’t care” or “Oh, shut up” delivered sotto voce. Invariably, the parental response is an angry “What did you say?!” The child is smart enough not to repeat the words. “Nothing!” he or she insists. It’s a frustrating exchange that’s unproductive for all concerned.
What to Do?
Although it may seem logical and natural to react strongly to children’s provocative statements and gestures, the somewhat surprising reality is that most punitive or negative responses are ultimately ineffective. They don’t succeed in changing the behavior “once and for all.” More important, negative, punitive responses are frequently detrimental to the child because they foster guilt and shame; because they squelch emotion and inhibit the child’s freedom of self-expression. In the chap- ters that follow, we will learn how to decode and decipher the feelings your child is expressing through provocative behavior. We’ll also decode and decipher your own habitual responses to such behavior. Sometimes children’s provocative behavior elicits an even worse counterassault from the parent. When caregivers begin to understand the why of their own feelings and actions, they’re better able to change the how of their responses.
Look at it this way: Are your disciplinary interactions with your child producing the results you desire? If not, ask yourself whether your usual responses to provocation from your child are themselves provocative. Angry, punitive responses do not teach enduring lessons, lessons that your child willingly internalizes and lives by. More often, authoritarian discipline incites children merely to “humor” their parents cynically. It also tends to escalate provocative behavior because it models the very kind of aggressiveness you are trying to eliminate in your child.
Children have strong feelings and powerful impulses. They experience anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment, fear, jealousy—in short, all the emotions adults feel. But children are not necessarily equipped to express their feelings in the ways we deem appropriate. Further, children often feel powerless in a world governed by adults. And they react to this perceived tyranny by asserting themselves, sometimes very aggressively. As if all that weren’t enough, children often feel overwhelmed by all the expectations adults place on them. “Do this!” “Do that!” “Don’t do this!” “Don’t do that!” They hear it all day. It’s no wonder they can lose their patience! Unable to control their every impulse or thoughtfully regulate their reactions to the world around them, they “act out”; they react impulsively and openly in the only ways they know. They don’t fully understand the impact of their words or actions; they just feel an overwhelming need to express themselves, no matter how it comes out.
Different Types of Provocative Communication
Children’s provocative communication can be broken down into a few broad categories:
Persistent, Annoying Comments
Your child tugs on your sleeve, whining the same plea over and over: “I want some ice cream!” or “I want to go home!” or simply “Daaaaddyyyyy!” Young children have great difficulty deferring gratification. When they want something, they want it now, including their mom’s or dad’s complete attention. Parental reaction to such annoying behavior tends to escalate quickly from an offhanded “Shhh” to an angry “Stop that right this minute!!”
Kids get mad at all sorts of things—their parents, their siblings, their friends, their toys. They get mad at themselves, too. Often children’s angry comments “cross the line” and elicit an even more irate response from a parent or sibling. The result is usually an intensification of the child’s anger, making the situation worse for everyone.
“Mommy, get me my milk!” “Put me down!” “That’s mine! Don’t touch it!” When very young children who are just learning to express themselves make bossy, hands-on-hips comments like these, grown-ups often laugh delightedly. Such dictatorial displays can seem very funny coming from a toddler. But later on, bossiness ceases to be a laughing matter, and most parents are no longer willing to tolerate it.
These are statements that are provocative mainly because they’re puzzling; they seem inappropriate, flying in the face of reason or the observable truth. A little girl comes home from nursery school and reports, “Miss Davis doesn’t like me.” A little boy says to his father at bedtime, “When you kiss me good night, I have bad dreams.” The typical parental reaction to such statements is “Where did that come from? What’s that all about?”
“I wish my sister would die.” “I’m going to kill myself.” “I hate my friends.” Statements like these from very young children can send panicky parents in search of a psychologist. Most of the time, though, such comments are not indicative of any serious emotional problem. They simply reflect children’s exaggerated reactions to daily life situations. Just the same, they do require appropriate responses.
The key for parents is to avoid overreacting to children’s provocative communication, and to try instead to understand the powerful emotions behind the words. Young children are just learning self-expression, and frequently they don’t really mean what they say or say what they mean. When parents learn how to guide their children toward clearer self-expression and a better understanding of their own feelings, communication becomes more rewarding and productive, and conflict is reduced. Parents and children alike feel better about themselves, and destructive feelings like guilt and shame are banished. Kids are very flexible. They want to learn, and they’re good at it. It’s never too late to teach your children—and yourself—more appropriate and mutually satisfying forms of interaction. Let’s get started!
A Word About How to Use This Book
At the risk of sounding facetious, the best way to use this book is to read it—all of it. Take your time. Reflect, in particular, on the things I have to say about discipline without anger. Practice the “scripts” I propose for interacting with your child. Examine your own habitual responses to your son or daughter as carefully as you analyze his or her behavior. The prescriptions I propose for controlling provocative communication in your home can be a considerable challenge for many people. But the potential rewards are incalculable.
This book does not offer a simple, three- or four-step program. In my view, parenting is far too complex and important a task to reduce to a few easy steps. Every child is different, both temperamentally and developmentally. Every parent is different, too, and so is every household. One size simply doesn’t fit all. So I will describe a variety of responses to provocative behavior tailored to different kinds of kids and circumstances.
Finally, this book focuses on preadolescent children. Its basic lessons can be applied with great effectiveness to teenagers, but the case histories and other illustrations I have chosen throughout involve kids from three or four to eleven or twelve years of age.