You know the drill: Your child is screaming at you, ignoring you, being irresponsible or hurtful. Suddenly, you’re yelling at the top of your lungs, matching him decibel for decibel. Later, you think, “Why did I fly off the handle again? I’m so tired of letting him push my buttons so easily.”
Yelling is a natural response when your kids are rude, not listening, engaging in irresponsible behavior or treating you poorly—or in any other situation that triggers your emotions. Even though you know it would be better if you could stay calm, it’s hard to always do that emotionally. Or you may even argue that yelling and making our kids afraid of us worked when we were growing up, so why shouldn’t we do that today?
Yelling or “losing it” transmits the message, “I need you to behave so that I can feel calmer; I don’t know how to be calm and in control of myself unless you are behaving the way I need you to.”
It was good enough for me…
When our parents were raising us, adults used threats, intimidation and fear to scare us into better behavior. The value prized was obedience. Some parents hit and others withdrew love to get their children to submit to authority. And kids were much more obedient than today’s kids—but it came at a price. Although today’s parents value obedience, we also put a high value on long-term connections, fostering independence and self-reliance, building trust and on our kids’ emotional wellbeing. The old way of parenting might help kids fall into line, but it works against some of today’s parents’ values.
So the question becomes, “How do we get our kids to behave without yelling and screaming, while also building a good relationship with them?” It’s important to remember that losing our temper may make us feel better in the moment—it’s a way of managing our distress—but it doesn’t feel better later. It does not enhance the relationship with our kids that we hope to achieve over time or help them to develop successfully into responsible adults.
The message you send when you “lose it.”
There are many ways to influence your child’s behavior, but yelling is not effective. The message that it transmits to our kids is often, “I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to do to get you to act the way I want you to act. I feel out of control.” Of course, the message we want our children to pick up is, “I’m in control of myself; I know what to do and you do not control me.” Yelling or “losing it” also transmits the message, “I need you to behave so that I can feel calmer—I don’t know how to be calm and in control of myself unless you are behaving the way I need you to.” What happens is that your child feels that he is in charge of your emotional wellbeing—and that’s not a good position to put him in.
Although we want our children to be self-directed and independent in their thinking, we are putting them in a position of acting in reaction to us. This is the opposite of “self-directed.” Now your child must either do what youneed in order to calm you down, or go against what you need if he doesn’t want to be in charge of your emotional health. Neither behavior will help your child think for himself, be self-directed or learn from the natural consequences of his own actions.
How being calm changes the game
Remember, anxiety and upset are contagious—and so is calm. If you can operate from calm, you will help model for your kids a lifetime skill that will help them do well in their own relationships. Bonus: when you recognize that you are not responsible for the ultimate choices that your child makes, you will feel calmer—and when you feel calmer, you will be able to think of better parenting strategies to help your child to make better choices.
Here are five ways that will help you stop yelling while guiding your child toward more desirable behaviors.
- Think differently about what you are responsible for. If you think you’re responsible for every decision and choice your child makes, you will feel inadequate and anxious, which will cause you to be reactive. But if you recognize you can’t possibly be responsible for the choices they make, you will calm down and feel less anxious. Instead, stay in charge of what you are responsible for—how you behave when she is behaving poorly. That’s in your hands. For example, your child decides to sneak a cookie before dinner, even though he’s not allowed. You’re not responsible for the choice he’s made, but you are responsible to handle your responses calmly and maturely, and to consider how to help him follow the rules that are set by giving him a consequence for his actions.
- Know your triggers. Plan and prepare for your own triggers. If you get triggered when your child is rude to you, prepare and plan what you will do other than yelling. You have choices. Plan ahead what you will do when triggered so you won’t be caught off guard. In that split second between the trigger event and your reaction to it, you have control. Plan your own timeout. Take a walk, call a friend, listen to music, put on headphones, sing, think, breathe. Take care of other difficulties in your life so the stress of those situations doesn’t spill onto your child.
- Make a commitment to take charge of your reactions. Commit yourself to taking charge of your own emotional reactions (and those triggers we were talking about) rather than putting that energy into trying to control your kids. Recognize that by “losing it,” you’re asking your children to take care of you instead of you being the grownup who no longer has temper tantrums when others don’t behave the way you want. By taking charge of your triggers and reactions, you will be in a better position to have your children learn how to behave. Realize that your child has the right to choose how to behave even if it is a bad choice—you don’t have control over their preferences and choices. Rather than being mad at them, decide how you can effectively guide them to better ways of thinking by providing effective consequences. For example, if your child keeps forgetting to say “thank you” for Grandma’s gift, rather than being mad and yelling, decide how he can learn. Here’s the truth: he will learn better without all of your emotionality. One possible consequence is that you don’t allow him to have the gift until he sends, says or writes a “thank you” to Grandma.
- Recognize stress in your life. Yelling can be indicative of how stressed you are. Take a self-inventory. Are you overly-focused on your child’s behavior because you are under-focused on your own life? Do you need to pay more attention to your adult relationships or your personal goals? Maybe you need to take a stand with your husband and his drinking. Or perhaps you’ve been over-functioning for your irresponsible brother for far too long. Are these stressors causing you to spill some of this anxiety onto your kids?You might also be losing it frequently because your family is over-stressed. Is your lifestyle too frenetic with all the schedules, demands and activities? We want our kids active, but if we spend so much time running around, we won’t have time for relationships. Take the time to think through what is really best for the family. If you can cut back on things or replace parts of your over-booked schedule with something in everyone’s best interest (like free time, dinner together several times a week minimum, etc.), there might be less stress in the home.
- Know your boundaries: Remaining calm with your child requires you to stay as emotionally separate from her as you can. Know where you end and she begins. When you can be separate, you will be in a better position to see her for who she is—and you’ll know what you actually need to give her in order for her to behave well. By doing this, you will be better able to guide her. Remember, closeness comes from separateness—yelling really is the result of being too enmeshed. For example, if you worry that you teen isn’t keeping up in class, instead of letting her face the natural consequences or setting stricter guidelines around schoolwork time, you step in and start completing her homework for her. This blurs the boundaries and doesn’t give her the chance to learn how to make good choices on her own.
Being a calm parent is important to your own health, and the health of your family, as well as to all good relationships. By not yelling and by staying calm and level headed, you will be more credible and respected by your child, and therefore more deeply connected. These are the big gains that will help you stay on track while you’re doing the hard work of parenting during your kids’ younger years—and later, when they’re grown, you’ll have a firm foundation and framework upon which to build your adult relationship.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.