By Dr. Laura Markham
“Dr Laura….I’m trying stop yelling, but I can’t. And I can’t imagine getting my kids to listen if I don’t yell at them. …Can you move in with me for a week?!” – Cheralynn
Like Cheralynn, most parents think they “should” stop yelling, but they don’t believe there’s another way to get their child’s attention. After all, it’s our job to teach them, and how else can we get them to listen? It’s not like yelling hurts them; they barely listen, they roll their eyes. Of course they know we love them, even if we yell. Right?
Wrong. The truth is that yelling scares kids. It makes them harden their hearts to us. And when we yell, kids go into fight, flight or freeze, so they stop learning whatever we’re trying to teach. What’s more, when we yell, it trains kids not to listen to us until we raise our voice. And it trains them to yell at us.
If your child doesn’t seem afraid of your anger, it’s an indication that he’s seen too much of it and has developed defenses against it — and against you. The unfortunate result is a child who is less likely to want to behave.
Whether or not they show it, our anger pushes kids of all ages away from us. Yelling at them practically guarantees that they’ll have an “attitude” by the time they’re ten, and that yelling fights will be the norm during their teen years. And as kids harden their hearts to us, they become more open to the pressures of the peer group. We lose our influence with them just when we need it most.
But believe it or not, there are homes where parents don’t raise their voices in anger at their children. I don’t mean a cold household, where no emotion is expressed–we all know that’s not good for anyone. And I don’t mean these parents have perfect children, or are perfect parents. There’s no such thing. These are homes where the parents DO get their buttons pushed and get mad, but are aware enough of their own emotions to stop and calm themselves so they don’t take it out on their kids.
Do you think, like Cheralynn, that you’d need your own private emotion coach in order to stop yelling? Luckily, you already have one – yourself! In fact, the only way to become the patient, calm parent you want to be is to “parent” yourself compassionately. That means learning to coach ourselves lovingly through our own emotions, so we don’t take them out on our children. How?
- Realize that your #1 job as a parent (after safety) is to manage your own emotions,because that’s how your child learns emotional regulation–from your modeling.
- Commit to your family that you’ll use a respectful voice. I know, that’s scary. But who else will keep you accountable? Tell your kids that you’re learning, so you’ll make mistakes…but that you’ll get better and better at it.
- Remember that kids will act like kids– that’s their job! They’re immature humans, learning how things work and what to expect. They need to push on limits to see what’s solid. They need to experiment with power so they can learn to use it responsibly. Their frontal cortex isn’t fully developed, so their emotions often take over, which means they can’t think straight when they’re upset. And, like other humans, they don’t like feeling controlled.
- Stop gathering “kindling”— those resentments you start to pile up when you’re having a bad day. Once you have enough kindling, a firestorm is inevitable. Instead, stop, take responsibility for your own mood, give yourself what you need to feel better, and shift yourself to a happier place.
- Offer empathy when your child expresses emotion — any emotion— so she’ll start to accept her own feelings, which is the first step in learning to manage them. Once children can manage their emotions, they can manage their behavior. Feeling understood also keeps kids from going off the deep end with their upsets so often.
- Stay connected and see things from your child’s perspective, even while you’re setting limits.When kids believe that we’re on their side and understand even when we need to say no, they WANT to “behave,” so they’re more cooperative. Shouldn’t you “correct”? Not until you connect, first. Until your child feels understood and reconnected, he can’t hear your guidance. There’s always time to talk later, once you and your child have both calmed down and you’re starting from the warmth between you, instead of from your anger.
- When you get angry, STOP. Shut your mouth. Don’t take any action or make any decisions. BREATHE deeply. If you’re already yelling, stop in mid-sentence. Turn away and shake out your hands. Resist that urgent need to “set your child straight.” The urgency means you’re still in “fight or flight.” Don’t take action until you’re calm.
- Take a parent time-out. Remove yourself from the situation if possible. If you can’t leave, run some water and splash it on your face to shift your attention from your child to your inner state. Under your anger is fear, and sadness, and disappointment. Let all that well up, and just breathe. Let the tears come if you need to. Once you let yourself feel what’s under the anger–without taking action–the anger will just melt away.
- Find your own wisdom.From this calmer place, imagine there’s an angel on your shoulder who sees things objectively and wants what’s best for everyone in the situation. This is your own personal parenting coach. What does she say? Can she give you a mantra to see things differently, like “I don’t have to “win” here…I can let him save face.” What would she suggest to get things on a better path? What can you do right now? (Don’t skip this step. Research shows it works!)
- Take positive action from this calmer place. That might mean that you try a do-over. It might mean you apologize. It might mean you get your cranky child laughing, and if that doesn’t work, support her through a good cry so that you can all have a better day. It might mean you blow off the dishes and just snuggle under the covers with your kids and a pile of books until everyone feels better. Just take one step toward helping everyone feel, and do, better — including you.
The bad news? This is hard. It takes tremendous self-control, and you’ll find yourself messing up over and over again. Don’t give up.
The good news? It works. It gets easier and easier to stop while you’re yelling, and then to stop even before you open your mouth. Just keep moving in the right direction. At some point, you’ll realize that it’s been months since you yelled at anyone.
The better news? Your child will transform, right in front of your eyes. You’ll see him working hard to control himself when he gets angry, instead of lashing out. You’ll see him cooperating more. And you’ll see him “listen” — when you haven’t even raised your voice.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in
Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.