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To Yell Or Not To Yell–Answer the Question!

To Yell Or Not To Yell–Answer the Question!

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?

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24 comments

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11:04AM PDT on Jul 26, 2010

There is no gray area about yelling. It IS harmful, except in the case of saving a child from danger. Yelling is extremely demeaning and whittles away at your child's self esteem each time you yell. I do realize there are times when we do yell, but make it a rare time and apologize to your child for yelling while discussing what he/she did wrong.

6:59AM PDT on Jul 12, 2009

I grew up with a mom who yelled a lot. While I knew my mom loved me a lot (we have always been very close), I felt insecure growing up. I often felt, and still struggle with feeling, like I have to yell to be heard. I am 36 now and have a 2 1/2 year old. I have vowed not to yell like my mom did. I do fairly well most of the time, but I have certainly slipped up at times. I do believe there is a time and place for yelling, but there is a fine line. I try to remind myself of this: When I yell, do I feel in control? Am I yelling deliberately, with forethought and with a purpose in an effort to have a positive outcome for my daughter? Or am I frustrated and yelling out of WANTING to gain control and have immediate gratification? It's hard to consider these things in the heat of the moment, and I have failed at times. But I am always striving to break the cycle.

My mom has expressed to me many times, and in different ways that she wishes she hadn't yelled so much. She sees now, and I agree, that using that as a means of communication is demeaning and does not encourage open communication between parents and their children. There is a time and place for yelling and even for spankings, but what are we teaching our children if, every time we get upset when they don't listen or do what we want, we yell? We are teaching that anger is the way to conflict resolution rather than kindness, love, and rational communication.

6:37AM PDT on Jul 12, 2009

I love the advice you gave; however, I have 2 boys very close in age (13-1/2 months apart). They seem to make an art out of fighting with each other. The youngest really instigates a lot of things. though when he has stuff to occupy himself....he is fine. Anybody else out there with a similar story?

8:15AM PDT on Jul 11, 2009

Some great advice here, however as a father (of three boys), I yell a little too often, and every time I worry and seriously doubt my parenting skills.

6:45AM PDT on Jul 11, 2009

I'm not a parent, so I can't speak from that point of view. But I was a child, and I was raised using punishment. Unfortunately, many times I was punished for my parents' own mistakes. They either expected me to read their minds, or else they gave me wrong instructions.
As an adult, I hear that I'm considered cold and unemotional. I disagree - although I try to be rational and logical, I think I am still too emotional.
IMO, I don't think it matters how you express your commands/opinions to your child, as long as it is not excessively violent. What matters most is that you should be consistent in your message, and that your child sees that you are correct in real life. I think that you can scold your child, or not, cane your child, or not, and it wouldn't matter. If they see that you are wrong, if they see that what you say is not matched by what actually happens in real life outside the family, they will lose their respect for you.

7:28PM PDT on Jul 10, 2009

After many years of teaching I remember one particularly large class of "slow learners" I had and for some reason I thought that I had to raise my voice all the time to get their attention and also had to repeat myself constantly. It was very taxing and damaging to my vocal chords to the point that as per doctor's instructions I had to go on a "vocal rest" for 2 wks and not even teach until my chords were back in shape. That means I couldn't speak during all that time. Needless to say, it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. However, since I couldn't talk all I could do was listen. And, you can't believe how much I learned about people during that period of time. When I finally went back to school I decided to "speak softly" ( I had to for my own sake) and it was amazing how much better the kids listened. I also would just stop talking and stare at them sometimes to get their attention. This same technique can be applied to parenting. Also, sometimes I would just walk over to a kid's desk and lean down and whisper something in their ear which I either wanted or didn't want them to do. Wow! It was so personal and worked wonders too. To this day, as a grandmother, I use these techniques and it not only works for the kids, it is so much better for me.

5:22PM PDT on Jul 10, 2009

I like getting down on the child's level, and I ask parents who are having problems with their kids behaviors to offer their hand to their child. No grabbing! The physical contact seems to help the connection and the communication get through.
In my office, I demonstrate this with the child and often get a big smile from the kid, as they come to me and take my offered hand. It seems so easy, and it is!
Kids want and need that connection. Their lives depend on it!
I love what you are saying here, and your lovely daughter is quite lucky to have you for her mom.

1:14PM PDT on Jul 10, 2009

I liked this article and people's comments. I just wanted to add that, generally, we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves all the time and worry that we're horrible mothers. I doubt men sit and worry and doubt their parenting skills when they yell at their child.

5:42PM PDT on Jun 30, 2009

I grew up with a mother that yelled all the time. Eventually she stopped realizing when she was yelling, and even regular discussions ended with her cutting me off and yelling at me. It got really out of hand.. She never spanked me, and if she had I might've understood better--mental pain lasts a lot longer than physical pain--but her yelling at me all the time made me feel like I was always doing something wrong to make her so angry... I'm 18 now, with a child on the way, and I get panic attacks and automatically go into a defensive and ignoring mode when anyone raises their voice at me. I have an awful relationship with my mother, and she doesn't realize how bad she still makes me feel.

My advice when using stern words with kids: yelling really gets the point across, but keep it short and to the point and use clear words so the kid will know why you're angry and why it's so important. Also, only yell or talk really loudly if it's really necessary to make them understand the importance, and only as a last resort. I've yet to try these methods with kids, but I would've much preferred it when I was growing up.

7:37PM PDT on Jun 26, 2009

Thank You- I honestly feel and understand your struggle with two little ones myself- boys ages 11 months and 3 years. I have felt guilty so many days, but after i come back from my timeout, I give hugs and try to explain what happened. It usually clears up the situation, but still I am so afraid I am too harsh sometimes- so I work on it every day- running, exercising and learning how to better express myself and teach them to do the same. No One is perfect, we just try to be. Good luck to u

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