Everyone yells at their kids. Oh, I’m sure there are some truly perfect parents out there who don’t (and some who don’t because they are physically unable to yell), but the rest of us do. Parents are human; we all get frustrated, angry, exhausted and scared and, well, yell.
But yelling rarely helps. It usually makes things worse. And it makes us feel bad.
I certainly felt bad this past weekend when I yelled at my youngest, Liam (he’s 9). Especially since he wasn’t doing anything but whining (about whether he or Natasha, 13, owned certain flashlights). Now, to be fair, it was that fingernails-on-the-blackboard kind of whining and his whining was making Natasha upset and angry, which made the whole situation worse. Then the whining turned into crying — over the disputed ownership of the flashlights– which made me lose it even more.
“I’m crying because you are yelling at me!” said Liam when I told him to stop. “I’m yelling at you because you are crying,” I said. Which not only underlined the absurdity of the situation, but made me feel so proud of my parenting and my ability to manage myself and a 9-year-old. Sigh.
It was clearly time to take the advice I give to parents all the time (yes, we pediatricians sometimes forget to follow our own advice). Here’s what I suggest when it comes to stopping — and preventing — yelling:
1. Take a deep breath. I was scattered and tired and annoyed with various things this weekend. None of that had anything to do with Liam. So, rather than listen and try to work things out, I yelled at him. It’s so much easier, after all: You raise your voice and then it all stops. Except it doesn’t always work out that way, and even when it does, it can have unwanted consequences (like making your kid feel scared, worried or like you don’t care). Sometimes, taking a deep breath helps pull us out of that yelling place and into a better place.
2. Be more mindful in your parenting. Take a moment and think not just about what’s going on with you (like recognizing that there’s a teensy tiny possibility that you might be taking something out on your kid), but what’s going on with your child. Kids, like us, aren’t always fully in touch with their thoughts and feelings. Natasha is all about being the cool teenager these days, and doesn’t always want to hang out with her 9-year-old brother anymore. This is devastating for Liam, who adores Natasha — and so he doesn’t always react well when they start arguing.
3. To yell less, we need to think more like a kid — or at least try to see the world the way they do. We need to try to remember what it felt like to be that age. We also need to remember what they are and aren’t capable of (if you take a cranky, tired kid to a toy store to buy a present for some other kid, there’s no way you can expect them to behave). It amazes me how often we parents set ourselves and our kids, up for yelling by unrealistic expectations of them and ourselves. Taking a step back and being a bit more mindful can make all the difference.
4. Give yourself a time-out. When we are upset, we can’t always be mindful. We can’t always take that deep breath, either. Sometimes we literally need to remove ourselves and cool down. If that’s what’s going on with you, make sure your child is somewhere safe (like a crib if he’s little) and then go somewhere else (nearby). Like your bedroom. Or the bathroom. Just get away until you can pull it together and think more clearly.
5. Speak more softly. A clinical assistant I used to work with did this all the time with patients and families when they got mad (about being made to wait, or whatever). She talked more softly. To hear her, they had to get more quiet too. It was like magic. Most of the time, anyway (sometimes they got mad because they couldn’t hear her). Try it out. Not only does your child have to get quiet to hear you, speaking in a soft voice has a way of changing the whole situation — and de-escalating it.
6. Think of something good about your kid. There’s always something. We just lose sight of the good stuff when we are upset and frustrated. But if we do stop and force ourselves to name a few things (she’s wicked cute, she gives great hugs, she tries so hard to do her homework right) it can sometimes be that little bit of perspective shift that we need to take that deep breath, be mindful, bring our voice down — and stop yelling.
That’s what happened with me and Liam. We actually had to stop yelling because we had to get to church (he was crying about that too, saying I’d surprised him with going, even though it was the same day and time we always go, which didn’t help my mood). We got into the pew, and I looked at him, with his thick goofy glasses and his serious little face and sticking-out ears that always melt my heart. I watched him earnestly say the prayers and do exactly what he was supposed to do … and suddenly I felt a bit bad (and silly) for yelling. I took a deep breath, reached out and pulled him close. He is a great little kid who is, like me, trying to do his best and deal with all of life’s curve balls. Sometimes we do it well, he and I — and sometimes we don’t.
“I love you,” I whispered into his ear. He looked at me solemnly for a few seconds, and then whispered back, ” I love you too.” He leaned into me, and we were OK again.
Until next time. But hopefully I’ll do that deep breath thing earlier on.
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