By: Cristina Trette, MA, LMFT
I think it is safe to say that most parents have yelled at their kids before. Yelling can be a protective response, such as when a toddler runs into a busy street. In some situations yelling is reasonable and could prevent a child from harm. Yet there is another kind of yelling that happens far too often in too many homes that creates distance and hurts relationships between parents and children. This kind of yelling is the... if you don’t stop crying I will give you something to cry about... kind of yelling. Parents yell like this for all sorts of reasons.
I love this quote by Haim G. Ginott:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming".
Yelling can be humiliating, hurtful, and de-humanizing. With the exception of situations where a loud voice is needed to stop unsafe behavior, yelling generally leads kids to feel worse. When kids feel worse, they behave worse.
Socially we would all probably agree that it is not appropriate for us to yell at a stranger, customer, boss, or a friend. Yet somehow it seems to be an accepted practice that parents will yell at their kids. I am not speaking from a space of moral or character high ground. When my kids were younger I yelled too much. Yet I never felt good about nor did it appear to have any positive impact on the children or our relationship. Many years ago, I did a lot of inner work on yelling and learned how to stop. If you yell, and want to stop, keep reading.
1. Take an honest look at the impact of yelling
How does yelling impact your kids? Does it aid in your parenting and in their development? Does it scare them? Do they become compliant? Do they ignore you? I have found that many parents start yelling because it seems to "work" in the beginning. Yet later on they realize that yelling has little to know impact on their child's behavior and only seems to make the situation worse. Ask your kids how they feel when you yell at them. Listen closely to their answers. Assure them that their honestly is a gift and will help you parent in the way you want to parent. Ask your partner to give you honest feedback on your yelling how it influences the family.
2. What sets you up to yell?
What are the situations that tend to end with you yelling? Sibling fights, defiant behavior, and rushed mornings can all set the stage for yelling. For me, its hunger, being late, or too many activities back to back with the kids. Take a look at the situations and experiences that are highly stressful for you. Write them down and get very clear on this. Then take an honest and practical look at how you can approach these situations differently.
3. Why are you really yelling?
Spend some time looking closely at this. Do you yell because you think it will have a positive impact on the kids behavior? Or do you tell because you become upset and dysregulated and it just sort of happens? Or, are you yelling because you are overextended, worn out, under slept, and depleted?
Yelling is an outdated discipline tool. It rarely leads to positive outcomes. Most often, when parents yell a lot, their children behave worse. There are many ways to guide positive behavior, set and hold limits and boundaries that don't involve yelling. Learning about attachment-based parenting strategies that emphasize emotional regulation and connection can transform your parenting and your child's behavior.
If you are yelling because you are stretched too thin and under resourced, it is time to do something about this. Amp up your self care, increase your wellness practices, get a family member to help out with the kids, and take some things off your plate. Take this seriously. We cannot parent well when we are burned out and we have to take action in order to get back to some sense of balance.
Some parents yell because they are triggered. They may have had an abusive or high conflict past or high conflict childhood. Parenting is highly stressful and it can kick up painful memories from the past. If you can relate to this, be gentle and easy with yourself. I highly encourage therapy and getting compassionate support.
4. Pay attention to your physical signals in your body
It is likely that stress is slowly building in your body but you are unaware. Start turning in to the early warning signs that you are getting ready to blow. Common symptoms include increased heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, tightness in your chest, clenched jaw, etc. When you notice your body reacting, this is a sign to you to let you know that you are heading into the red zone. Tune in to yourself when you start to notice your tension building. Sometimes just taking some deep breathes or rubbing your shoulders is enough to bring you back to a state of calm.
5. Create a code word
It takes time to change behavior. If it was as simple as deciding to never yell again then you would have already done that! Often we need cues to help us get back on track. These becomes signals to our brain to switch gears. Tell you family that you are working on not yelling and you would like their help. Create a code word that you can use that lets everyone in the family know that you are getting dysregulated. It could be any word you want like apple or dragon or red. The idea is that when you use the code word, this signals to everyone that you need to pause. For example, let's suppose your code word is apple. You could call out "apple" and then go on to say, "I am feeling frustrated, I do not want to yell. I am going to focus on my breath for a few minutes. When I am feeling balance we will talk again".
6. Acknowledge thoughts of powerlessness
Many people yell because it gives them a false sense of power right at the exact moment they feel powerless. At any given moment we have thoughts, belief, and perceptions that can be inaccurate and unhelpful. When things become intense, go within. Pay attention to what is going on for you. It is likely that some negative thoughts or beliefs come up for you right before you yell. Try to catch these thoughts as they happen. Then replace the thoughts with a more adaptive and affirming message. For example, if you are thinking thoughts similar to, “I need to be in control, he must do as I tell him, he is out to get me, I am a bad parent, he needs to respect me...". See if you can shift your thoughts to to, “I am a leader, I want to empower my children, respecting my children will teach them to respect me, I am a great parent, I am able to teach them without force".
7. Focus on yourself first
Ask yourself, what is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now? My guess is that your inner voice will not tell you to scream at the kids. Sometimes all that is needed to shift the dynamic is to take care of yourself so that you are able to be present with your child. Walk out of the room, go outside in fresh air, breathe, recite a mantra, splash water on your face, or turn on music and start dancing.
Recently I was getting into a power struggle with my daughter. I was holding my ground and she was escalating. I stopped, mid-sentence, and told her I needed to pause. We agreed to take a break (my daughter is a teenager now and trust me, I know this won't be as easy to do with a toddler). Nevertheless, while pausing I focused deeply on my self, and caring for myself in that moment. As soon as I was back in balance, the situation no longer seemed as intense nor did the problem at hand feel like such a big deal. When I went back to my daughter to talk we came up with a solution that worked for both of us. If I had not taken care of myself, I would have stayed in an unproductive power struggle that would have come at a cost to our mutual dignity and respect. Taking care of myself took care of both of us.
8. Take care of your child
Once you are emotionally balanced, do what you need to do to take care of your child. Is your child hungry, tired, scared, overstimulated, rushed, stressed? Did they have a bad day? Do they need connection? Do they need support? Rather than focusing on your child's behavior, get into your child's inner world. Children act out behaviorally when their inner world is out of sorts. Look to your child's heart and mind for the answers.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist that specializes in counseling couples and parents. Have you overcome a habit of yelling? If you have, tell us what worked for you in the comments box below.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couples Therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified in Perinatal Mental Health. I write on all things related to relationships, parenthood, and connection.