I am not a Zen Mama. I try my best, but deep breathing doesn’t always save me from all the intense emotions that accompany parenting. So, I have yelled more than once. At my daughter. Each time I have felt so bad about it, I’ve begun to wonder: Am I the only one who views herself as a failure when she yells at her kids? Should I feel this bad?
Parents don’t tend to talk much about yelling at kids. It’s hard to admit I’ve lost my cool over a refused sweater, even if the sweater was just the last straw. It’s even harder to admit that it’s satisfying to let the emotions out and get a result I want, even if the long term result is probably not a good one. But it can also be embarrassing to talk about yelling because I worry others will judge me, or think I’m judging them.
Being judged and judging others–it seems to go hand and hand with parenting. When we make careful decisions for our kids, it’s hard not to wonder how others came up with different answers than we did, and harder to believe a different choice is equally “good.”
When it comes to yelling, there’s a lot of gray area. Some families are louder than others. Some children are more sensitive than others. And sometimes in an emergency, one needs to yell (“STOP! A CAR!”). But some kinds of yelling seem much more harmful than others. Name-calling yelling (“YOU FOOL!”) seems worse than the commanding “I ASKED YOU NOT TO THROW FOOD AT YOUR SISTER!” sort of yelling. But neither seem pretty, and while I don’t yell names, I struggle at times to control these commanding sorts of yells.
While yelling a command can win immediate results, I worry that it will create disconnection, distance, and resentment from my daughter. Because I want a connected, loving relationship in the long run, I try to find ways to more gently, effectively, guide my children to behave how I’d like in the short term.
So, I employ strategies that seem so very logical and easy in books. They’re much trickier, however, when I’m tired, frustrated…or communicating with an irrationally whiny or screaming child.
One of my favorite books, Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles (Harper, 2001) by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, assures me:
“Have faith in your child. She isn’t out to get you.”
Sometimes it feels that way, but usually when I take the time to figure it out, there’s a reason for frustrating behavior beneath the surface. I just haven’t figured out how to help my daughter express it clearly, or I haven’t laid out clear expectations to begin with. Or maybe I just haven’t calmly followed through with consequences the way I should have.
The point is, thinking this way reminds me not to take her actions personally and I can be more effective. It’s a bit like a sport; sometimes I fall flat on my face, but the more I practice, the better I get. And OOH LA LA! Is it rewarding when it actually works!
Here are a few of the strategies that have worked for me:
1. I try not to make too many “required” requests
By keeping my list of “must have’s” short, I allow myself more energy to communicate about issues that really mean something to me.
2. Before speaking sharply, I pause for a moment.
In taking at least one breath before responding, I give myself a moment to decide if the battle is worth it, if I’ve been unclear, if there’s another alternative, if I can use a more patient voice, or if I can ask a question instead of issue a command.
3. I try very hard not ask people to do things without being in the same space.
Even better, I try to get down to eye level with my child. This is a more recent change, but it’s been significant. I’ve noticed that calling requests when I cannot see my child’s face ends badly–she feels bossed and I feel ignored. When I get close enough to see her face, then we can sometimes make progress.
4. I collected a number of clarifying questions and memorized them to help me diffuse tense feelings when they’ve erupted.
Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles had a huge list of them. I posted them on the fridge and use them when I’m too angry to think clearly. It’s amazing how much it has helped to open a dialogue when it seemed impossible. Here are a few I’ve used:
“Do you feel like you have a hot bubbling volcano inside of you?”
“Is it frustrating to do X?”
“Would you like to have a choice?”
5. If I cannot stay calm enough to continue a discussion without yelling, I leave the space my daughter is occupying.
“I feel really angry right now. I’m going to sit in my room for a few minutes and do some push-ups to calm down. I’ll be back in about 5 minutes.” I’ve found that as long as I can leave my daughter in a safe place and tell her the plan, it’s easier for me to leave than to tell her to go away. Trying to send her to a “time out” or even a “time in” can create another battle, whereas removing myself is straightforward.
Even with all these strategies, plus others, I still yell sometimes and then feel awful about it. Do others share this frustration, and what sorts of things help you work through anger and communicate effectively with your children, friends, or family?