The TONE Of Your Voice Speaks Volumes

When it comes to using discipline techniques successfully, the devil is in the details.

And one of those all-important details is the tone of voice you use when letting your child know that he is doing something wrong that must stop.

This one small thing can make all the difference between compliance and being totally ignored. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful tools you have when it comes to discipline.

When families come for therapy with an acting-out or out-of-control child, one of the first things I pay attention to is what mom or dad’s voice sounds like when they set a limit or impose a punishment.

Unless it sounds serious and authoritative, they may as well throw in the towel. Their words, no matter how threatening, will be meaningless if the tone doesn’t match. And if the child doesn’t take them seriously, nothing will change.

Parents often struggle with this one. Some are uncomfortable with the idea of coming down hard on an acting-out child. They may worry that using a stern voice translates to being “mean,” and if they go there, their child will not like them anymore. For them, this is akin to death by slow torture.

Another parent may believe she can get her child’s cooperation better by buddying-up to him. Her thinking might be that if her child sees her as a nice, friendly, all-around ally, he will want to go along with her requests out of loyalty and shared friendship.

Other parents simply have no idea that the tone they use to say  “Oh, I think we’re out of ketchup,” is no different from the one they use to say, “Sean, stop hitting your baby sister on the head with your truck.”

But, the bottom line here is this: If you want your child to cooperate and behave, you have to help them by letting them know, first and foremost, that when you ask them to behave, you mean business. Your tone of voice must communicate that immediately. It must be different from the tone you use for everyday communication and you must make sure that you have their full attention before speaking.

The honest-to-God truth is that if you want children who love and respect you, and who will grow up to be successful, happy adults, you must accept that if you’re doing your job correctly, there will be times when your kids don’t like you.  And, on the path that ultimately leads them to adulthood, there will probably be times when they hate you. Goes with the territory.

But that’s okay. They don’t need another friend. They will have hundreds of friends, but only one set of parents. And the role of parent is drastically different from the role of friend. Friends are equal in status and power. Parents and children are not. You are the teacher, they are the students.

Your children need that strong, loving, consistent wall to bounce off of as they learn what kinds of behaviors are acceptable in the world. Otherwise, they are bound to fail socially, and suffer needlessly.

This isn’t to say that you should turn yourself into Attila the Hun. I’m not suggesting or advocating yelling, screaming or verbal abuse. Those approaches do not work, can be emotionally damaging, and send the wrong message completely.

But that doesn’t mean you cannot set and enforce structure, limits, and appropriate punishments in a serious, “I’m-not-kidding-around” voice when the situation calls for it. It’s part of your job, just like it’s part of theirs to learn to listen when you are talking to them.

So, next time your little angel starts acting like a little devil, think before you speak. Stop, take a deep breath, get down to his level, look him in the eye and THEN say in your stern, serious “Mommy’s not happy” voice, “Andrew. I DO NOT like what you are doing right now. You may NOT hit your sister. Do you hear me? Do you understand? And if you do it again, you are going to have a time-out.”

Then, wait for him to respond to you. Make sure that he tells you that he understands. And if he does hit her again, it’s a time out. You may well need to practice “the tone.” Most parents do. So, get yourself a tape recorder or lock yourself in the bathroom and practice in front of the mirror. Use low tones to communicate disapproval. Save the high pitched ones for when you’re communicating approval, happiness, and congratulations for a job well-done.

Then, once you get that voice down, check out what your face is doing, too. Does it look mad? Good! Does it look serious? Great!

Once you nail the all-important details regarding voice and facial expression, you’ll be well on your way to letting your kids know that you mean business. And once they get that clear, unmistakable message, they will be well on their way to success.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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