Setting the tone at home. Why tone trumps content and intention…

And how we can use tone to come alongside our tweens and teens, build connection, strengthen frayed attachments, and make repair.

Emma Gleadhill.

Over the past few weeks, I have been speaking at various parenting events on the healing power of connection, and how parents can have restorative conversations by putting thinking about our relationship with our child as the prime driver. When we do that, we can elevate the tone of our interactions in many different ways.

In this blog, I’m going to pull together some reflections on tone – and how the tone we set, in our tone of voice, and our ability to reflect on tone, can be so powerful in setting ourselves up for connection, or disconnection; collaboration or conflict.

Connection has been a powerful theme – reflecting the times we are in with unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation among young people. We can take it as read that the pandemic – with its focus on social distancing, has been a social experiment which prioritised physical safety above psychological needs – an experiment which has revealed the absolute importance of balance.

Like a massive version of Harlow’s 1950s experiments with infant rhesus monkeys – removed from their mothers and given the option of inanimate surrogate ‘mothers’. They showed unfailingly a preference for the wire mother covered in soft fabric and foam, rather than the wire construction which could provide them milk.

Infant monkeys deprived of maternal caregiver preferred comfort over food. Infant monkeys deprived of peer contact fared notably worse.

What is less known, and far less ethically palatable to us today, is the impact of his experiment on further social deprivation. Infant monkeys who were removed from the group and placed in isolation showed especially disturbed behaviour. They became withdrawn, dissociated, restlessly and repeatedly circling, and self-mutilating. These monkeys were most profoundly affected – seeming lost when returned to the group – as if they did not know how to interact. Many stayed separate from the group. Some even died after refusing to eat.

And although the pandemic experiment of social distancing was not as brutal as what Harlow was able to pass through an ethics committee in the 50s, his work is still considered ground-breaking in terms of the importance, role and function of a caregiver being far more important than physical nurturance. His work continues to inform our understanding of human behaviour and our fundamental psychological needs.

Unfortunately, the layer of his work concerning moving infants from their peer group has been less well-known – but certainly resonates with what we are seeing in the population of young people today. We know this in terms of the increasing level and intensity of safeguarding concerns emerging in school life – as well as the convergence of research results giving the similar indications.

It is true that some children experienced gain. According to prominent Canadian Child Psychiatrist Dr Jena Clinton, younger children appreciated more connection within their family, older children and adolescents – especially older adolescents experienced more negative impacts on their mental health.

So what to do? How can we as parents, be able to orient ourselves around the increased risk factors? One answer is to double down on the quality of our connection with our children – which is not simply a matter of time. It is a matter of the quality of our presence, signs of safety, and our emotional availability. And these practical ideas about how we can improve the quality of our connection may be something you want to experiment with as we move into the slightly less pressured holiday period…

So now, as promised, I’m going to pull together some reflections on tone – and how the tone we set, in our tone of voice, and our ability to reflect on tone, can be so powerful in setting ourselves up for connection, or disconnection; collaboration or conflict.

When we do this, we lay down investments in our bank of connection. And this is so important – because there are always times when we need to make withdrawals – doing the harder stuff of parenting. Setting limits, clarifying and holding boundaries. Taking a stand in the interests of health and safety. Or recruiting our teens to come on-side and help make a difficult changes when we notice something out of whack in the vibe at home.

Safe harbours…holding, calming, grounding with our presence…using tone.
  • As Kim John Payne of Simplicity Parenting often advocates. Make your home a safe haven. The world out there is busy, frantic, hyperconnected, over-stimulating, stressful.
  • Dial back the ‘busy work’ of parenting. This is not about ‘doing parenting’ – it’s about having the scope and capability to ‘be’ as a parent. This is not concierging, chauffeuring, as Julie Lythcott Haims describes it. Evaluate the routines and commitments that build up mollusc-like in family life. We are very very good at adding things in. Remember that sense of initial relief and simplicity at the start of lockdowns – the chance to create a new regime…well it has all flooded back now…When do we actually strip back to the essentials? When we do this evaluative task, we can make sure we set forward in a discerning way, a way that is led by our values and purpose.
  • Make yourself available without an agenda – not possible to do all of the time! But ensuring there is a spot in your time with your child / teen when you’re not checking up, pace-setting, prioritising for them, chasing them, reminding them, interrogating them. Can you be with them and drop the rope of your agenda, and drop into curious, receiver, listener, learner mode…Control comes at the price of connection. Check out John Duffy on Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety:
  • Design the flow of home-life – collaboratively. Create routines and rhythms which create predictability, and therefore a sense of control for kids and teens. Discuss, negotiate and agree reasonable, liveable, workable limits. Timings, values, routines for eating together. Screen time etiquette in the home. Bed times, curfews, limits on homework and work times. Yes – that’s them AND you…Access to down time and hobbies that provide a sense of flow.

Setting the tone in how you communicate at home…

  • Open, curious, playful, experimental, inviting…Verbing, not nouning… ‘I am noticing that…it’s making me wonder…would that be right?…what’s your take…?’ ‘I’m curious, what’s your take on…?’, ‘Interesting – so what’s the plan?’ – all of these satisfy the psychological need we all have, and our children increasingly have when they approach puberty and adolescence – to experience that they have our attention, that they are seen and heard, their viewpoint matters. That their lived experience is acknowledged, and that their autonomy is respected. When we leap in with instruction or judgment, it can be experienced as an empathic fail, and close off connection.
  • An attitude of curiosity rather than judgment will take you much further in enabling connection. Connection is THE foundation for learning, redirecting, choosing higher / lower paths… ‘You’ve got some amazing opportunities here, and also some challenges…I’m wondering what your thoughts are in how you’re going to…’
  • Soften your face, and soften your voice and slow down when addressing our kids – ESPECIALLY teens… This is so important I could say it again…Many of us as working parents are constantly rushing, rushing. Lots of us have the capacity to flex our lives with the opportunities that come from working from home…but let’s face it – we are STILL LEARNING HOW TO WFH. It is hard to leave your desk, the last minute high-stakes Teams meeting and click into family mode. And just because we can take deliveries, let in people to do much needed work on the house…it doesn’t mean all of this makes it harder to truly FOCUS on our work and be deeply in it and then FOCUS on not being at work…You can always slip back to that Excel spreadsheet whilst the pasta sauce reduces. And while you’re making your mid-morning cup of tea, why not fold the laundry too…So. If you want the interactions to improve when you are coming out of work mode and into relational mode at home…just do some physical checks…
  • Soften your brow, the muscles round your eyes, your jaw. Roll your neck and release the tension there as you leave ‘rushy’ and move into ‘relationship’. Make it a thing you do before putting the key in the door, or as you leave your desk in your home office. Mindfully do a physical re-set. Maybe even add a nice deep belly breath and an elongated outbreath…
  • Kim John Payne spoke memorably in his podcast # 133, called Rushy Rushy…about the need to slow and, for instance, have both feet on the floor when we are giving our kids time checkers, exit notices, practical instructions. What he said really stayed with me – because it’s so simple, but so effective. It can be a real flashpoint, when we ask for something to be done, but the child is still immersed in lego, or the ipad, or the teen hasn’t surfaced from Tiktok world or the butt is still in the gaming chair…In the holidays, now, our kids FINALLY have more autonomy and freedom from living by the class bell, the activity regime, so when we come in with reminders, calls for action, we are often going to be interrupting them from something they are quite deeply engaged in and won’t want to leave. We set ourselves up for success more when we don’t issue directives from over our shoulder as we rush around…Instead, if it matters to us that they do respond to our call to action, we can help them – and us – more by approaching them, being in proximity, stopping and naming, getting some eye contact or attention – so that what we say can actually land.
  • When you do speak, try to incorporate a musicality to the way you speak – Chris Voss, the hostage negotiator, and founder of Black Swan Group says that you can say the perfect thing – you can craft the content of what you say really carefully. But the tone of voice will betray you. You can say exactly the right thing – but if the tone is wrong the message will misfire, and the connection is dead. I am summarising from his excellent Masterclass series on negotiation skills: And his point is backed up by what we know about how our nervous system is designed to pick up on threat – through our middle ear. Unconsciously and at a pre-conscious level, our system is designed to tune in to what might be unsafe, what might be attacking – to be avoided. And what might be playful and connecting – to be approached. So remember lightness and variety in your tone. Also variety in rhythm and pacing. Listen to yourself when you are revved up. What happens to your voice? There’s a more forceful energy. We speak in choppy sentences. Our voice becomes more monotone – if your voice has a low register, it drops lower, if higher, it will go higher. And there is a contagion. Both inner and outer. WE go more instructional or even forceful, even if that’s because we feel activated to be actually very firmly on the side of our kiddo… but it instantly disconnects, and your teen especially just tunes into anger and threat as the salient keynotes and their mind is racing, in anxiety circuitry, and not open to receive what you are saying. So we need to think ‘inviting’, more musical…and when we are operating with that tone, it not only helps our kids be better regulated and access their social engagement system, it also calms us down too.
  • Consider / reconsider how you use text to communicate with your tween/teen. Remember that there is no tone – what we can mean warmly, can be received in a completely different way. For instance texting our teen to ask how their test went can be totally well intentioned when we write it. But -especially if the test did not go to plan – it can be received as pressuring…Roland Barthes wrote of ‘The Death of the Author’ – a philosophical literary discussion about the limitations of language to communicate – rebalancing that notion that the writer writes with one set of intentions. The reader receives in with their own reading and the author has little to no control of it…This is especially true of the text – snippety communication which can be written hastily, casually and be received like a punch in the face.
Emin’s neon – Connections – at St Pancras’ Station.

So…some thinking, some ideas, and some resources around tone…What tone do you want to strike in family life as we say farewell to 2022. How do you want to set the tone around the relationships you want to have at home – both over holiday times, and forward, into the New Year and all the opportunities and challenges that await.

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas.

With love and gratitude


Linked articles & further reading.

http://When things go wrong – Emma Gleadhill

http://Talking about feelings – Emma Gleadhill

http://Improving relationships with your kids – Emma Gleadhill

Research papers:

Harlow H. F., Dodsworth R. O., & Harlow M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from

Suomi, S. J., & Leroy, H. A. (1982). In memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905–1981). American Journal of Primatology, 2, 319–342.

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