Family Therapy: Keep Calm and Parent On

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

Slats Maple. It sounds like a flavored granola, but Slats Maple was just an ordinary man who volunteered to coach baseball for middle-school kids in Fort Collins, Colorado, back in the late 1980s.

I lived there, too, and volunteered to coach as well. That was long before I ever thought about doing family therapy; I was a sportswriter with time on my hands and a desire to help kids.

I was also young—ridiculously so. We always think we're more mature than we are in our mid-20s, and I was sure that the way to help my team during a game was to hold umpires accountable. (That's a nice way of saying that I yelled at them.)

Slats' teams played well, were well-mannered and never lost control. I wondered how he managed that with 13- to 15-year-olds, whose stability as a group resembles a fault line. One day, it occurred to me that I'd never heard Slats' voice during a game, whether it was barking instructions at players or nagging umpires.

When I asked him about it, he said, “I learned a long time ago that they don't listen to me any more when I yell, but they hear me a lot better when I don't.”

That's the day that I stopped yelling. At umpires, at kids, at family, at everyone. Sometimes I'd drive people nuts because I refused to have pointless, loud arguments, but Slats was always in the back of my head when I got upset.

Now, it's not hard to see where this is going in a parenting magazine, but I may surprise you. It'd be easy to take the role of “expert” and tell you not to yell, but life is never that simple.

You feel how you feel. Denying anger just creates a double bind where you feel more anger, not less. It's better to accept anger and deal with it; that's the first step in taking anger's power away.

But I also see the damage done to families when we start yelling at each other. When anger takes over, we do and say things that we would never do otherwise.

In sessions, I help families focus on how they communicate rather than who's right. We learn to recognize anger (and other feelings) and explore ways to reduce its influence before we start screaming at each other. As Slats said, we hear each other a lot better when we're not yelling.

It's sometimes hard to walk away when your teen is yelling that he hates you, or when your partner is screaming about housework. But taking a timeout when you feel overwhelmed—taking time to calm down and allowing others to do the same—means that you stay in control of what you say and do, and it makes it much easier for others to hear what you're actually trying to say.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.