It had been a very long morning, and my boys had spent most of it fighting with each other, destroying their room, and not listening to me. I was at my wits end and had spent most of that morning yelling at them to stop. Suddenly, my younger son, who was about five at the time, looked up at me with his big brown eyes and asked politely, “Will you not yell at us anymore?”
My heart broke. I come from a long line of yellers. We’re phone shouters, across-the-room shouters, and “oh you did something very wrong” shouters. I was yelled at often as a kid, and I knew what he was saying; You’re hurting me, please stop. And, I’m glad to say, that mostly I have. I’m not saying that we don’t have rules, I’m saying that I’m trying not to raise my voice to enforce them.
But I have to admit, it’s hard. My boys, who are 18 months apart, are going back to school today after three weeks of winter break (yes, three weeks!). They’re eight and nine now, and after all of this time together, they were on each other’s last nerve and constantly bickering and fighting. I find myself wondering if I was as patient as I could have been. Did I need to yell at them after asking them four times to brush their teeth before going to the dentist, and they did not? Maybe. Did I need to yell when they bickered for an hour about whether to play Minecraft or Marvel Superheroes? Probably not. And does it really matter if I occasionally yell at them?
“The issue is the cumulative effect,” said Dr. Carl Alasko, a psychotherapist whose book Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Interpersonal Communication, comes out this week. “If it’s once a day, it’s a problem. If it’s twice a week, it’s not good either.” I talked to him last week about the impact of yelling at a child can have over their lifetime and what parents can do to control their impulse to yell.
If you yell at a child twice a week that’s 100 experiences a year and over five years that’s 500 experiences. “That’s a huge amount of experience for a growing being to absorb,” he said.
Those numbers really got to me. What if all my boys remember about their mom are the times that I lost my cool and yelled at them to pick up their Legos? Or when I yelled at them to get out of the room so I could interview a doctor to learn how to not yell at them? Not the books I read to them, or the cookies I baked them, or the adventures we went on? Just me being a crazy person yelling about how it shouldn’t take four hours to put books back on a shelf.
Alasko recommended a simple and classic solution to stop yourself before losing your cool. Take three deep breaths before reacting. Then ask yourself, “What’s your intention? What do you want to accomplish?” By thinking about your intention you’re not only slowing the reactive process, you’re putting the entire communication on the communicator the parent, the adult, he said.
So what do I want to accomplish? Stop a fight or get out the door on time? Or do I want to model good behavior? Hearing me yell at them isn’t going to stop them from yelling at each other. It isn’t modeling the kind of communication skills that they need.
What I want to accomplish is to raise boys who are independent, kind, smart, and thoughtful. Yelling at them to be this way likely won’t accomplish that.
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