A few months ago, I wrote this piece on what science says about parents who yell. It was directly inspired by my utter frustration with my children because no matter what I tried to do to get them to listen to me, our communication would inevitably devolve into a yelling match over screentime or chores.
Yelling at my kids doesn’t feel good, and it has never solved any problems, so why was that my default method of parenting? And if science was telling me that yelling is considered as harmful as hitting, how much damage was I causing my family? The guilt that was intimately bound in those questions was difficult to face, mainly because I love my kids and want them to grow up to be kind, self-assured, and empathetic people, which couldn’t happen if my kids were getting yelled at all the time.
So, I decided to change my ways for good.
After that article was published, my inbox has seen a steady stream of emails from readers wanting to know what happened next. Did I quit yelling? How to quit yelling? If I quit yelling, can I undo all the damage from yelling to begin with? What do I do when I want to yell? The questions haven’t stopped. Now that some time has passed and I have looked into evolving my parenting strategies from Frazzled Bat Shit Crazy Mom to Calm and Rational Person Whose Children Listen (Mostly), and I have some tips that I think might help.
No, really. When I find my blood pressure starting to rise because my kids are fighting or being loud — or just being kids in a way that isn’t meshing with my mood — I walk out of the room to calm myself down.
One thing I have learned about my yelling is that it tends to be an impulsive reaction and not an intentional response. A reaction is sudden and has a sort of cause and effect feel. But a response requires some forethought; it’s an opportunity to take a breath and readjust myself before I speak.
For example, my two oldest children have discovered Fortnite during the pandemic, and they like to play together with a split screen. Unfortunately, one wants to boss the other around during the game, and as you can guess, it usually ends up with lots of tears and fighting. I used to overreact to that situation by yelling over my kids from another room ro knock it off. To quit fighting or else. To please, for the love of all that is holy, just freaking get along, already! And then I would threaten to shut off the Wi-Fi for the rest of the night if they couldn’t get along. That would typically work for about three minutes until the bickering started back up again, and BOOM, we were back to me yelling threats and losing my cool.
By the time my kids went to bed, we were all pretty sick of each other, and each one of us was harboring some form of anger at the other. They went to bed feeling cut down by me and hating each other a game. I went to bed feeling like the worst mother of all time and would vow to fix myself by the day and not repeat my mistakes. But how was I supposed to get out of a deeply grooved rut worn down by terrible habits?
Yelling is not communication. Yelling, it seems to me, is a power struggle, and there’s never a winner. I can’t always leave the situation, though. There are times when yelling is absolutely necessary for safety. The other day, my four-year-old got excited when my husband’s car pulled into the driveway. She dashed from the garden toward him, and I instinctively leaped toward her, yelling at her to stop. My reaction to prevent her from getting hurt was appropriate, and she was startled enough by my screeching her name to stop running and look at me.
And last week, when my two oldest kids were messing around in the kitchen, one knocked a glass off the counter, and it shattered on the floor. Of course, I was already irritated that they were roughhousing after telling them to take their energy outside. Still, I couldn’t leave the situation because I had to safely get them out of the kitchen without them stepping on broken glass. So at that moment, I yelled to get them to stop moving so that I could guide them out and then clean up the mess. Did I want to scream at them? Absolutely. Was I angry? You betcha. Did I yell beyond, “GUYS! DON’T MOVE! THERE IS BROKEN GLASS!” Nope.
I bit my tongue and focused on getting the glass cleaned up and my kids occupied with something else — and then I left the room to calm myself down before talking to them.
When I come back, I get on their level.
One of the most surprising things about unlearning yelling was realizing how often I yelled from another room. If you are a parent who yells, I am willing to bet money that you don’t do so to their face; you likely yell from another room. The weird part about this scenario is that having to yell from another room means a) you’re likely already upset and b) if no one hears you, responds to you, or openly ignores you, then that feeling of upset morphs into rage pretty quickly.
My kids had learned that they didn’t need to listen to me — or respect my directions — when I was shouting at them from the other side of the house. And if I am honest, if someone was constantly yelling at me from several rooms away, would I feel respected? Probably not. So, why should I be expected to show respect to them? This realization put me in my place.
When I feel the impulse to yell from across the house, I now find myself intentionally stopping in my tracks. I’m retraining my brain here, so I say out loud to myself, “Sarah, go in there and look them in the eye and speak calmly.” It might sound ridiculous, but it works to redirect me.
When I walk into the room where my kids are, I follow these quick steps:
- I get on their level; even it means bending down, so we are eye-to-eye.
- I speak calmly and politely as if my neighbors just showed up.
- I speak clearly and keep my words as brief as possible.
Getting on their level makes them pay close attention to me. We are making eye contact; they are no longer moving around; they are not speaking over me.
Speaking calmly and politely, instead of yelling, gets my kids to pay closer attention to what I am saying because I am saying it with respect.
Speaking clearly and briefly helps my kids to understand the direction without all the fluff of a lecture. The problem with lecturing is that it does nothing to change their behavior but fuels my frustrations further.
The consequences have to be reasonable.
One aspect of yelling that took me a long time to understand is that I felt the need to yell because I wasn’t doing a great job setting appropriate boundaries. By giving my kids repeated warnings or reminders about their behavior and then getting myself riled up and finally exploding, all I was teaching them was that they didn’t have to listen to me the first time.
I sat my kids and explained that I would only ask them once to redirect their behavior or complete a task from now on. Instead of multiple reminders and a full-on mom meltdown, they could instead expect consequences directly related to the situation.
So, when I tell my two oldest kids that if they bicker over videogames that, I will turn the PS4 off and keep it off for the following day, they have a choice to make. They can agree to try to problem-solve together and ask for help when they can’t. Or they can choose to bicker and lose their games for a day.
Following through is a pain in the derriere.
When I set a consequence for my kids, I need to be prepared to follow through. Meaning that I have to choose consequences that don’t just fit the situation and (hopefully) give my kids an opportunity to learn something, but I have to be cool with going through with whatever that consequence is. It might sound mighty to scream at everyone that they are grounded for two weeks, but what lesson will my kids get out of that? They’ll learn that they didn’t have to listen to me until I flipped out and that I only give ridiculous consequences that are impossible to execute.
When I mess up and yell, I immediately stop and apologize.
My kids need to see me as a human being trying hard to show them love in a fair and meaningful way. For me, that means that when I screw up and yell — because hey, it happens sometimes. I correct it. Fast. When I stop and say, hey, guys, I am out of line and should not have yelled like that, I apologize. Can we start over and try this again? So they see what respect looks like. Furthermore, they know that I am not angry at them, but rather that I am frustrated with a situation and want to fix it. I never want my kids to feel humiliated or at fault, which is why owning my screw-ups and taking responsibility for them is a massive part of reforming my habit of yelling.
Parenting is hard. No one knows how to do it exactly right, and no two kids (or parents) are the same. However, there is beauty in the messiness of raising kids, and when I remind myself that it’s ok to screw up and be imperfect, it takes the pressure off of me to feel guilty for not always getting it right.
I hope this article helps!
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