What can I do?
It was 8:00 in the morning, and I was sitting with the principal and my son’s first-grade teacher around a small table in the office. I had called the meeting, but I sure didn’t want to be there. No one wants to go to the principal’s office, no matter how old you get.
“We’re worried about Zach’s anxiety and frustration,” I began. I ran through a list of concerns: yelling, hitting, mean words, more yelling.
His teacher looked at me. “I’m not seeing any of this at school.”
Of course you’re not. Why should he act out at school when he can do it at home? Children take out their frustrations on the person they are most comfortable with, and I make him feel safe, that’s why he explodes all the time around me. (His four-year-old brother must make him feel super-safe!)
“Yes, he gets frustrated,” the teacher went on, “but I can usually help him come down and see reason.” See reason?! She can get my six-year-old to see reason?
I explained how we were worried about him having friends, how his stress levels seemed far too high for a six-year-old. “He has friends,” she assured me. Then she paused, hesitant. “I don’t mean to throw this back on you, but I’ve seen your interactions with your other two kids. It can be pretty intense. There’s a lot going on, a lot of noise.”
You ever have one of those moments where your stomach suddenly contracts rapidly and you can actually feel the acids moving around in there?
See, I was abused as a child – severely physically and emotionally abused for five years by a stepmother who herself was probably abused as a child. I was removed from her home when I was ten, after a teacher recognized what was happening and reported it. As a result, I worry a lot about what I am doing as a parent. I take criticism of my parenting hard, not because I care what other people think, but because secretly I worry all the time that I am screwing it up royally.
So when my son’s teacher says, “I’ve seen your interactions with your other two kids,” I want to vomit all over the principal’s table.
Dr. Lyndon Waugh, author of Tired of Yelling: Teaching Our Children to Resolve Conflict, explains that any yelling is worth examining and recommends “paying attention to your child’s actual response to it. Is she learning lessons or getting and more defensive? How successful is the communication?” If the child gets tense, as Zach does, or tunes you out, as Benjamin does, it’s time to try other communication techniques.
So, yeah, I yell too much – not a little bit too much, a lot too much. To get moving, finish breakfast, leave each other alone, brush their teeth, and for heaven’s sake, stop yelling at one another. Heaven knows I’m not the first mother to get frustrated with her kids, but both of my sons are highly sensitive, and I’m clearly not helping their anxiety any.
If I want my kids to learn to channel their frustration, I may want to try thinking about the example I’m setting. I mean, really, there is a certain irony in hollering at the top of my lungs, “STOP YELLING!”
Clearly I need to bring it down about eight notches. Simply becoming aware of my problem is a step, but there’s more to it than awareness. Waugh explains that if parents want to break the yelling cycle, they “have to diagnose the underlying problem.” What is triggering the frustration? Is it the parents’ relationship? Depression? Financial concerns?
Bonnie Harris, author of When Kids Push Your Buttons, agrees. “When a child pushes my button, I assume that it’s the child’s fault. But that button in me has been there for a very long time.” The key is to find the trigger.
In my case, the pressure of working while parenting three small children causes me to raise my voice far too frequently, and then my own worry that I’m raising my voice too much creates more pressure, which – you get the idea. Hard though it is to admit, my yelling had more to do with me than my children’s behavior.
To deal with the problem, Waugh suggests instructing a child with an upbeat tone, then moving on to a more serious, yet still measured tone if the child ignores your requests, and eventually moving on to putting your hands on the child’s shoulders. This is some seriously hard work, especially at elementary school dismissal, when I’m trying to summon Benjamin from halfway across a very crowded schoolyard, Zachary is anxious to leave, and two-year-old Lilah is trying to maintain her balance while an entire elementary school pushes past her. I need to round up Benjamin a few moments before the older children are dismissed from school if I want to avoid the chaos, but he doesn’t ever want to stop playing (though maybe he’d be more likely to come calmly if I didn’t shout for him in the first place).
This is what Harris refers to as the “Of Course Mantra.” Of course my kid wants to keep playing; what kid wants to stop playing? She advises parents to try to see things from the child’s point of view. That doesn’t mean he gets to keep playing, but it makes me less frustrated when he takes some convincing.
I’ve been making a concerted effort now for two weeks to break my habit. And I’m finding that the less I yell, the more I talk, and the more I listen. And the less my kids yell, the more they talk, and the more they listen. I’m not the only one whose temper has cooled; my children are a lot calmer, too.
Of course, my sons didn’t stop fighting just because I am working to keep my own cool; they needed an incentive to stop yelling at each other. Dr. Waugh cautions against too many incentive plans – such as sticker charts – because even positive interactions mean that a parent is monitoring the child’s behavior. However, I thought we needed a visual, so I placed marbles in an old peanut butter jar and wrote ICE CREAM on an empty jam jar. I told the boys I’d move one marble over every time they played nicely, but I’d move one back if they fought. And they’ll do anything to go out for ice cream.
It took a day or two to sink in, and Zachary smashed one of the jars to keep us from moving a marble. But, by day three, the boys were spending hours playing together without anyone yelling, hitting, or throwing heavy objects.
One afternoon, with yet another East Coast snowstorm on the horizon and their father out of the country, the boys were playing so nicely that I went to respond to a few emails. Ten minutes later, I came into the kitchen, entirely strewn with Legos and cardboard on which my sons were working intently. Lilah, the two-year-old, walked in, wearing nothing, and holding some underpants.
“Mommy, help these.”
“Where are your other underpants?”
Poopy indeed. The dirty undies were in the toilet, and our white bathroom was smeared – everywhere. It took forty minutes to clean the bathroom and the child, not to mention her bedroom, where the accident had occurred. When the baking soda and vinegar were put away and Lilah was dressed in clean clothes, I went to find the boys. They had moved into the family room, taking the Legos and cardboard with them. And they hadn’t fought once. In fact, we had made it through the entire incident with not one raised voice, except Lilah, who objected to the idea that she needed a bath.
Parenting is humbling. It’s about accepting that we aren’t doing things perfectly and then working to be better. It’s about knowing that I’ll probably fall into the habit of yelling too much again sometime down the line and need to knock myself back out of it. It’s about forgiving enough to grow, rather than trying to hide my failings in the sock drawer.
The difference between my stepmother and me is that I want to do right by my kids, even if it means admitting there’s a lot of room for improvement. That’s why my meeting with the teacher ended with a hug, rather than a call to social services.