It happens to the most patient of us: we’re going through our day, and even though it feels like the world is out to get us — a dish breaks, a playdate is canceled, the store does not have the one specific ingredient we needed to make that meal we’d been looking forward to for weeks — and then one of our kids innocently places the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For just a moment the “mean mom” comes out, yells in frustration, and then huffs away, leaving a stunned child in her wake, and a load of guilt and regret on her own shoulders. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has resolved and recommitted to being more patient with my kids this year.
Yelling at them is something I have never wanted to do and have fought against their entire lives. I’ve always thought it did more harm than good, causing fear, diminishing their self-confidence and self-worth, and straining our relationship in the long run while also making us both feel horrible in the moment and likely not even causing much of a change in their behavior, either then or in the future. Additionally, recent research has shown that yelling at kids can be just as bad for them as physical punishment, leading to depression and antisocial behavior. Oy!
But yelling at kids is not just detrimental to their mental, emotional, and social development. It’s physically taxing for parents, too. Expressing anger negatively can increase the stress hormone cortisol and lead to ailments like high blood pressure, which in turn can contribute to greater abdominal fat, heart attacks, strokes, and lower immunity. Sounds like a lose-lose to me.
And while I’m no believer in yelling at children, I’m also not keen on going into a battle — especially one against our more animalistic natures — without a plan. If we’re going to stop yelling at our children, we should probably come up with a calmer, more productive, healthier way to approach those maddening situations. After all, when our patience is thin and we’re about to explode, that’s really no time to be trying to defuse the bomb.
Here are some ideas on how to release the tension of the situation, maintain composure, and become a more authoritative and less reactionary parent. Maybe you’ll even make some happy memories in the process.
When you feel the frustration welling up to the point where it is almost out of control, using that last bit of reserve to smile can stimulate the tide to turn in the other direction. “Fake it till you make it” is just as true for these situations as it is for any other. It can keep you from feeling a lot of regret later, and even fake smiles can decrease your stress levels almost immediately.
GRAB THE CAMERA
Some of the most exasperating moments of parenthood involve messes of epic proportions: a bag of sugar spilled all over the pantry floor, paint peeled off the walls, favorite belongings pressed into service as props in the latest play and subsequently ruined. Rather than yelling in anger, take the opportunity to document what will certainly become a story for the family book of lore with your camera (and to share with all your friends via the social networks) — then talk about how they are going to make it up to you and fix their mistake.
A slow intake of oxygen can help you relax when you are feeling a lot of tension, and restore equilibrium when you are off balance and about to make a mountain out of, yes, a molehill. (Like the one that sprung up when the kids dug that huge hole in the front yard while looking for buried treasure). It also gives you another moment or two to evaluate the situation and come up with a more fitting, character-building consequence.
SING A SONG
It’s hard to be angry when you are singing, but you can still say exactly what you want to say — without the regrettable hangover that comes when you’ve blown your top. Plus, you may just surprise your kids enough that they actually listen to what you say. (Pro tip: speaking in an accent has the same effect.)
REPEAT A MANTRA
The repetitive nature of chanting a mantra can be calming and soothing, and the words, whatever they are, can help you put things in perspective. My favorite mantra for such occasions is, “I love my kids more than I love that _______” (bike, yard, wall, plate, etc.) But “Serenity now!” might be a good one if it makes you laugh.
Not yelling at your kids does not mean that they get a free pass from consequences — and setting and enforcing rules are key to raising responsible, respectful children — but rather than yelling at them if they break a rule or go against the family ethic, just hold them accountable with whatever pre-determined consequences are in place. And if they haven’t broken any rules and are simply being annoying or behaving like children, well, there are more than a dozen other suggestions here of how to keep your cool.
Sometimes when I see my kids doing something that makes me want to scream, I’ll realize that if I just took another moment to observe, I would have had a better understanding of what happened. How many times have I sent the “innocent” child to time-out or made harsh judgments before I’ve really been able to evaluate what is going on? Those are the times I most regret yelling because it means I assumed the worst of my child when they most definitely didn’t deserve it. (Plus there have been some times when looking a little deeper made me realize there was actually something really hilarious and heart-warming going on, and I would have missed it if I’d jumped in with guns blazing.)
Stepping away from a situation can sometimes be the most productive thing to do — especially if it’s you who is on edge and not the kids who are misbehaving. (We all have days like this!) Putting yourself in “time out” can give you a chance to regroup and regain perspective — or to go yell into a pillow until your frustration is purged and you are ready to be kind again.
Kids can be really annoying. They get stuck in ruts. You are forced to listen to their jokes over and over again, or to watch while they jump off a chair in the exact same way a dozen times in a row until they get it “right.” And sometimes it can be maddening that they are keeping you from doing whatever it is you need to be doing with their silly “tricks.” Why not take a turn jumping off the chair yourself if you really don’t think you can stand to watch your kid do it one more time? Try to out-silly them or take them by surprise with your feats of imagination. Maybe they’ll be so shocked they’ll let you go about your business — or maybe you’ll be able to let go of your schedule for a bit to have some fun.
POP SOME CHOCOLATE
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure, so if you feel yours rising and you’re about to blow your top and yell at your kids, it might help to sneak over to the cupboard and take a bite or two from your stash.
FIND SOMETHING TO PRAISE
When our first instinct is to yell at our kids, they may think that they never do anything right. Well, nobody does everything wrong. Sometimes you can make the best of a bad situation and soften the ground for your child to learn a powerful lesson by leading with the positive things they did, or do, or have done, before pointing out the things that they’ll need to work on.
LOOK THROUGH THEIR EYES
My 17-month-old daughter is currently in love with the “Llama Llama” books. In “Llama Llama Mad At Mama,” the little llama has a tizzy fit in the middle of the Shop-O-Rama, and Mama Llama, in her wise way, realizes that she has been forcing her child to this big, loud place that he doesn’t want to be and treating him like he’s just another thing in the cart. And that’s no fun. After cleaning up the mess he’s made, she fixes the situation by letting him play a more active role in the shopping and involving him more in the process. This has been a lesson to me to be aware of how my kids are experiencing the situations I “drag” them into and checking in on how they are doing. If I’m aware and respectful of their needs (and keep them fed, watered, and involved), then we both have fewer meltdowns.
TELL THEM HOW YOU’RE FEELING
“Boys, I’m losing my patience,” are some of the most effective words I’ve uttered as a parent. It’s a warning — to both of us — that things are not going well and we need to make some changes. My sons are usually very responsive and attentive when I tell them this, but more important, it keeps me from sweeping my emotions under the rug or from thinking that I am fine when, in fact, I’m about to lose my cool. And usually just saying the words out loud lets off enough steam that I regain control.
BRING THEM CLOSE
It’s hard to yell at someone when you are hugging them. Or they are sitting in your lap. Or you are holding them tight. At least that is what I’ve found. And research backs me up: hugs can relieve stress and lower blood pressure when they are between people who know and trust each other. They also promote bonding, which may improve the impact of the conversation you are about to have about how we are going to make the stressful situation better.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS, GET READY TO APOLOGIZE
Okay, so even with all of these tactics, even with all of our resolve, we’re never going to be able to keep a lid on it all the time. But when we do slip and yell, it’s important to be up-front with our kids and re-commit to ourselves — and them — that we are going to do better. Apologizing will let them know that you respect them and that you, even though you are imperfect, are trying to improve. And that’s important for them to know.
All photos: Lizzie Heiselt