A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1
She sat across from me, looking drained, defeated.
“I am a terrible mom. I can’t stop yelling at my kids. When I get ticked off, it’s like a tap that’s been turned on, under very high pressure. Everything just gushes out and I’ll not stop till am spent. It’s like a bout of ”- she looked away and sighed – “diarrhea. Then later I feel so terrible! I can’t erase the look of pain on my son’s face. I think I am ruining them and I can’t stop myself! What is wrong with me?”
Sigh. My heart resonated with her words. Her predicament struck a familiar chord within me. And here’s why.
My name is Carol and I am a Recovering Yeller.
And like all bad habits we need to recover from, I was not born a yeller. Heck. I am not even a natural yeller. Under normal circumstances, I am as calm as they come. Ever been to those workshops where you are asked to introduce yourself by adding an adjective to your name? Like Joyful Joy, Amazing Anne, Daring Daniel and Courageous Chris? Mine is always Calm Carol.
And I am a Recovering Yeller.
See. We don’t wake up in the morning with a plan to yell at our kids. Nope. Life just checks in at some point during the day. Our kids push boundaries, they do something daring that scares us, they step on the carpet with muddy shoes, spill strawberry juice on the white shirt, fight with their siblings and talk back at us.
And they pick the perfect time to do that.
When we are running late for work. When the finances are not adding up. When we are fighting with our spouse. When we haven’t submitted the term paper. And SNAP! Everything we know about parenting flies out the window. By the time we’re done, we have left a trail of damage somewhat akin to what a tornado does. Doors have been slammed, words have been said and undeserved consequences have been given. All in a record three minutes!
And then it’s over. Now all we have left is the after-taste of self-loathe and guilt in our gut. Like my Mommy client. And we wish we could take it all back.
I checked out the synonyms for the word ‘yell’. This is what I found. Shout. Screech. Bellow. Shriek. Bark. Bawl. Howl. Scream. Blabber. Rant. Sounds familiar, anyone?
When a little girl was asked, “How can a stranger tell if two people are married?” this was her response, “When they are both yelling at the same kids”. Ouch. When it comes to yelling, parents fall roughly into three categories: those that hardly yell, those who sometimes yell and those who yell a lot. The biggest chunk fall in the middle. Most, if not all, parents yell. It comes with the territory.
So. Let me share a few things I have discovered about yelling, from my work with parents, and as a Recovering Yeller.
One. Yelling actually works. Yup. At least temporarily. I have met many parents who admit that their kids will not listen to them unless they yell. What they do not understand is that if their kids only listen when they yell, it is because they have trained them to do that. For them, yelling has become the easiest ‘go-to’ tool to get their kids to do something. In the long term, it teaches children that shouting and aggression are part of normal communication.
Two. Yelling is very selective. We usually don’t yell at the boss, colleague or even other adults. We take it out on our softest targets – our kids whom we have taught that they shouldn’t yell back. And that’s just not fair. If we can choose not to yell at other people, we can choose not to yell at our kids.
Three. Yelling is never about what the child has done. Yelling has an underlying trigger, a root cause that almost always has to do with what is going on with the parent than the child. And that, again, is not fair.
Four. Yelling does not make you a bad parent. You are a good parent who has a really bad habit that you need to work on. Habits can be reversed. They can be changed. Just ask me.
Which brings me to Five. There’s hope. You can stop yelling. How?
First. Identify the trigger. Give yourself time to think about the situation once you’re calm. What pushed your buttons? What’s going on in other areas of your life? Is there a pattern of certain things that trigger you to respond by yelling? What is your baggage? The best gift you can give yourself as a parent is the gift of self-awareness.
Second. Be intentional. One of the most effective ways of breaking a bad habit is replacing it with a good habit. Studies on relationships have shown that for every negative moment, we need five positive interactions to keep the relationship healthy and balanced. With time, the habits created in the positive interactions will outweigh the negative ones. Positive interactions need not be BIG. A hug. A kind word. Spending time doing a favorite activity.
Third. When you do slip and yell, apologize. I know this goes against everything you ‘learned’ growing up. After all, adults are always right. Right? However, in most mature democracies, a leader will step up, take responsibility, apologize, even resign to show the extent of their remorse. This is not a weakness. It is a true mark of leadership. Model to your children how to take responsibility without shifting the blame to someone else.
Fourth. Seek support. A trusted friend. A therapist. A parenting class. Admitting that you need help does not make you a bad parent. It’s a sign of strength. My Mommy client did that and I can confidently report that she has made great strides in working through her struggle with yelling. Like me, she is now a Recovering Yeller.
And when the occasional relapse happens, do not beat yourself up. Forgive yourself and pick up right where you left off. New habits aren’t formed overnight.
Step by step. Moment by moment.
You can do this.
I leave you with a few quotes to inspire you:
Your children will not learn anything from you when you’re screaming at them except how to shut you out.
If you’re yelling, you’re the one who has lost control of the conversation
Yelling silences your message. Speak quietly so your children can hear your words instead of just your voice. – LR Knost.
Words that soak into our ears are whispered, not yelled.
Don’t yell at your kids. Lean in and whisper. It’s much scarier…
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
Dr. Carol is a mom, psychotherapist and parenting coach. Check out her work at www.beingparenting.com