Tone of Voice Awareness in Neurodiverse Families: How to practice self-regulation in family conflicts

teen getting angry at mom as mom takes away computer from herNeurodiverse families often struggle with emotional reactivity and verbal impulse control. Negative feelings and unpleasant words can intensify in the blink of an eye. Still, when the moments arise, it’s hard enough to calm down your own emotions — let alone the emotions of your child, teen or partner. Where do you even start? When that tone of voice (the one you’re all too familiar with) enters the picture, you can use the quick and direct steps of “T.O.V.” to help initiate a process of self-reflection and self-regulation for your family and yourself. Tone of voice awareness takes practice, but it’s a skill that will improve family communication and connections for years to come.

Family conflict: A familiar story

You are almost finished cooking dinner, a meal you’ve been planning since your last shopping trip a few days ago. You made sure to plan a meal that the whole family can enjoy, taking into account your son’s eating specifications. Everyone has had a rough week transitioning back into school mode. On top of that, work has been a bit overwhelming. You’ve been dealing with headaches on and off, and are ready for some quiet time. You have been looking forward to this meal all week, if not only to have some quality time with your family.

You go to pull the roast out of the oven and call the kids in to help prepare the table. Your daughter comes in and begins to work with place settings. You call your son in – for the third time – and he stomps in, muttering about how he wasn’t able to finish the level in his video game.

Mother sitting on the couch with her head on her hands while her kids run past out of focus.

You remind him he has plenty of time after dinner to wrap up his game and save it. In the middle of your sentence, you hear a commotion, high-pitched screech. You turn, and the kids are going at it. “She took my favorite cup!” he yells. They begin to chase each other around the kitchen.

You huff as you try to get the food from your prep station to the table without tripping over them. “If you had come in to help when I first called, you could have chosen your favorite cup.”

“It’s not fair!” he screams, and hits his fist on the table, scattering silverware and causing a side dish to fall. Your heart rate spikes, your face flushes. You want to scream, but you know you have to set a good example. Your headache increases in intensity.

How did your easygoing family evening escalate into this?

Why can’t your son use another of your many drinking glasses? When will he learn to modulate how he expresses himself and be more cooperative? Why did you allow yourself to be upset by him in the first place? You’re aware that impulsivity and emotional dysregulation are challenges for your neurodiverse family. And yet, here you are again, ready to pull your hair out.

Enter: Tone Of Voice Awareness

Neurodiverse family conflict outside by a pond, a teen yelling angrily at parent in wheelchair while the other parent looks away upset

So often, neurodivergent kids aren’t really aware of how they say things. They might have difficult understanding how what they say (and how they say it) can affect others. They might need guidance learning how to slow down and reflect on what they just expressed. But, since they are often sensitive to criticism, direct feedback can frequently backfire.

Discussing the impact of their tone of voice allows your child – and your entire family – to reflect for themselves on how they can say something in a more impactful way. It also allows them to have more tone of voice awareness around their thoughts before they communicate them.

Incorporating T.O.V. allows kids to practice several skills simultaneously: emotional regulation, verbal and behavioral impulse control, planning, shifting and personal insight (metacognition). So, where does this lesson start?

How to improve tone of voice (T.O.V.) awareness for more effective family communication

Step 1: Introduce the concept naturally.

Mother on the couch sitting with their teen who is talking in a calm tone of voice

Introducing T.O.V. won’t be very helpful unless it is introduced at a time when everyone is willing to listen and learn. In a calm moment, you explain to your neurodivergent child or teen that sometimes everyone needs help with improving tone of voice awareness and learning how their words and their tone of voice affect others.

If you have multiple children, it is important to include everyone in the conversation. This will make everyone feel like they are an equal part of the conversation, and will keep you from singling anyone out.

Let them know that you will be saying “T.O.V.” out loud when you think they should reflect on how they are speaking to someone. Allow them a minute or two to practice their tone of voice awareness and pivot how they are speaking. Encourage them to try again.

Step 2: Be prepared that it might not always work immediately.

If your child or teen can’t manage their emotions enough to change their communication style, then encourage a timed break. Allow them – and yourself – personal space to breathe and regroup. Many times, a 10-15 minute break is all it takes. But be prepared for it to take a little longer, depending on everyone’s headspace.

Step 3: Be willing to forgive and move on.

When your child or teen is successful in practicing tone of voice awareness and adjusts how they are speaking to you, your job is to appreciate their efforts, accept their attitude adjustment, and move forward. Positive steps in the right direction include speaking slower or quieter and using more polite, less aggressive, language. Let them know how much their attitude adjustment means to you. Positive reinforcement is very important, especially in any child/adult relationship.

Remember, T.O.V. is a tool for everyone.

Neurodiverse teen boy and father making eye contact and having a conversation in the living room, view point from behind father.

As much as you may be using “T.O.V.” to help improve your child’s communication efforts, you need to know your kids could call you out, too! How you respond to this is incredibly important.

A good approach is to acknowledge your feelings, or laugh and admit that you are also capable of messing up. While you don’t want to create an environment where everyone is calling out “T.O.V.” constantly, you do want to lead by example in combative situations, and take the opportunity to practice tone of voice awareness for yourself! Be selective when you use it, and they will be encouraged to do so as well.

More than anything, it’s important to realize that everyone is human. You can only react to things as your mood allows, and making sure you set everyone up with the proper tools to learn and grow through the aggressive moments can be very impactful.

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