Family Communication, Parenting Help, and How to Stay Calm: Lessons Learned From a Sobbing Hysterical Tantrumming 6 Year Old

miscommunication lesson from a crying 1st grader to help family communication and how to stay calm

A “Hysterical” Miscommunication

A few weeks ago my son had an out of the ordinary temper tantrum – OK, he was flipping out — during a sleepover with his grandparents. They were calling me, I was calling them, and all the while he is yelling and crying in the background.

It was stressful all around and the uncomfortable feeling lingered for days.

A Few Days Later

I was in an important meeting. My father was taking my son out for dinner and this was the first time they were alone together since “the tantrum incident.” I learned that part of the problem had been related to a miscommunication. I explained to my kiddo what a miscommunication was and how to deal with it but I was not feeling optimistic.

OK, OK, I was sick to my stomach. Dreading getting “the phone call” with the chilling sound of six-year old shrieks in the background.

My phone was on the table to manage time and use an app related to the meeting. So, when it vibrated receiving a text I became distracted and noticed. A picture of my son eating a big cup of ice cream with gummy bears on it appeared (hey, one person’s idea of disgusting is another’s delight)! Cute. Good sign.

Fifteen minutes later it vibrates again and a picture from my brother appears of my niece. There’s a caption but since I’m in the meeting I don’t read it figuring I’d check it out after the meeting.

Five minutes later I receive a text from my father again with one word: “hysterical.”


Cold sweats start coming over me.

I’m thinking “I can’t believe we’re going through this again and I don’t have the time or energy to deal with this. What’s his problem this time?”

I do what I can to remain focused in the meeting but was distracted by images in my head of my son kicking and screaming, beads of sweat appearing on my father’s upper lip, and the stressful conversations that are to come with my parents.

Finally, the meeting is over. I find a private space, take a few deep breaths, call my father, and ask how things are going.

His response: “Great!”

Great? GREAT? What in the world was he talking about?

The Ice Cream is Always Right

Well, as it turns out my father also received the text of my niece from my brother. It was a funny picture with an even funnier caption, and my father replied – to all – “hysterical.”

This comedy illustrates a dynamic that I see play out in mediation all the time, especially parent-teen mediation and divorce mediation: interpreting information out of context. I knew they were recently at an ice cream shop and my son looked as happy as could be.

Yet, I was so anxious about the possibility of my son acting out again that I automatically assumed that “hysterical” meant “my son is hysterical AGAIN!” An honest and reasonable misinterpretation of this situation but a potentially damaging one when it occurs in a tension filled relationship.

Apparently, having a difficult time dealing with miscommunication is not limited to six year old boys.

The Role of Context in Family Communication

I have found that the most successful mediations occur when clients are able to pause before reacting. When they take a few deep breaths before responding. When they clarify information to ensure that their assumptions are accurate. These steps are critical to avoiding miscommunication.

The narratives we have in our heads are just not always accurate.

Before getting hysterical make sure you have the facts and stay open to the possibility that there may be a different storyline than your interpretation.

Do you have any hysterical anecdotes that you’d like to share about miscommunication?

Please share your thoughts and comment below!

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Andrew Stich says:

    Love this story and glad I could contribute to it!

  2. Harriet Stich says:

    Great example!

  3. Josh Hoch says:

    Great story. Reminds me of the time I was doing a parent-child mediation. Mom asked son what he does at night when he should be sleeping? Child responds: Burning cd’s. Mom flipped out. I then asked the son to explain what burning a cd meant. (It does not mean you can set fire to it! This means to write data to a disk. Maybe you want to “burn” a copy of your favorite music or movies on to a disk.) He was able to explain it and it was a good lesson in communication and jumping to conclusions. I wonder if she bought him ice-cream after the mediation?

  4. Brian Galinkin says:

    Good story, Great analysis.

  5. Susan Hamilton says:

    More useful advice and insight. This blog has helped me to recognize the small ways we can all pause to find perspective. Ben’s examples offer simple advice and guidance…and in life the simple stuff is often the most useful and the points we can easily carry with us and remember in the heat of a moment. They also remind us that we are all human and no one is a perfect parent or partner because we often react to our assumptions. My daughter’s standard line to me when I am about to over-react: “Mom!, slow down, you are jumping to conclusions, just hear me out.” This is enough to make me pause to consider her perspective, clear my assumptions, and remember the skills I have to negotiate without all of the unnecessary drama. Thanks, Ben, for breaking this down into the simple, but so useful guidance your stories offer.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Wow, what a thoughtful response, Susan. Your daughter sounds very emotionally attuned: she is able to pick up on your cues, recommend some steps that can help you hear her out, and avoid arguing defensively (at least in this example!). Your comments are great and helpful for me and I am sure for other readers.

  6. Jagoda says:

    Hysterical example (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Such misinterpretations are frequently the inciting incident to a conflict if not caught and nipped in the bud. Glad we found each other’s sites.

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