I only cared enough of what the neighbors thought by taking two seconds to look to my left and right before I yelled from our front porch to my stubborn second grader on the top of the stairs, refusing to go to school. "Get down here NOW!" I managed to simultaneously raise my voice while clenching my teeth. She stared at me, unmoving with arms crossed, her persistence trait in peak form. I walked up the stairs, put my hands on her arms, lowered my face to be even with hers, looked her in the eyes, and said, "you are coming with me now."
Before this moment, I had been yelling at her for ten minutes because she could not find her glasses and refused to leave without them. I had about a 15-minute cushion before I would be late for my first client, and I didn't FEEL like I was about to blow, I had already blown. I yelled that she wasn't looking. I yelled that clearly they weren't in the house. I yelled that she needs to be more responsible. I yelled. A lot.
She walked to school twenty yards behind me, but she walked. She was seconds away from officially being late, but she got there. I spent the rest of the day swallowed up in guilt and regret for not figuring out how to end our morning better.
I have read those beautiful essays from many mom blogs about that epiphany: I’m yelling too much and it’s harming my children. I took a hard look at my lifestyle and scaled back, and now I don’t yell and my children are happy. That is oversimplifying, but it is the message I remember after reading, and I feel judged. It may be very true, but not all of us have the luxury of changing our lifestyle, whether it’s because we are a single parent, rely on a stressful job that financially supports the family, or we can’t afford the luxuries that might help decrease stress (yoga class, regular massages, a nanny).
I absolutely support introspection and always wanting to grow and improve as a parent – we can all work at this all the time – but I worry about how many of us may become our own worst enemies. There have been hard days with the kids where either my husband or I looks at the other once they are in bed, and near tears says: “I was a terrible parent today. I yelled so much.” This self-criticism may compound our already high stress levels, to then circle into that vicious cycle of more stress shortening our patience and tempers, and then more frustration and yelling with our children.
How much are we harming our children by yelling?
I combed through the good, the bad, and the wrong on the internet, to boil the research down to the most helpful highlights. First, ALL interactions count, not just the yelling ones. Do you also have fun with your child, praise them, and tell them how much you love them? It matters whether these positive moments and interactions are also happening. Second, the CONTENT of the yelling matters. Yelling, “CLEAN YOUR ROOM LIKE I ASKED” because they have ignored the last three calm requests is different from yelling, “YOU ARE SUCH A BRAT.” I know it doesn’t take a PhD to see the difference in that.
Also, what you model after yelling can be really helpful in building your child’s skills around expressing and understanding emotions. I have apologized and confessed to my children, “I’m really sorry I yelled at you about that. I was feeling really frustrated and I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I yelled when I didn’t need to.” This sort of communication can actually be more helpful to a child than never having the conflict in the first place, since they are going to need to know how to navigate conflict in order to have successful relationships in the future.
There are also some prevention strategies that don’t require you to change your lifestyle as way to dial down stress (although if that’s a possibility – always a good option!). I admit this took me some years to figure out, so good thing I’ve had three children to give me more time to get it “right” (well, “better”).
First, manage expectations. If you are expecting your young children to straighten their rooms, eat breakfast, put on shoes, and get backpacks in 15 minutes to get out the door on time, that might be a set-up for frustration and yelling. I have learned to cushion time frames with more leeway since I know one of my yelling triggers is being late.
Second, be selfish. Many times, parents yell more when they are feeling suffocated by demands and tasks that have nothing to do with their own life satisfaction. This may sound taboo, but this professional is giving you permission to resent the bottomless needs of children. My husband and I have implemented earlier bedtimes than our children really need because we need that evening time to replenish. When I went through a phase of part-time work with an indefinite timeframe, I kept two kids in full-time childcare even though they could have stayed home with me two days a week. The financial sacrifice was worth my mental well-being (and I was a much less stressed and more present parent, for what it’s worth).
Take-home point: If you need to send your child to his room with an iPad for 30 minutes so you can sit on the couch with a trashy TV show, do it.
As a psychologist who promotes communication, positive family interactions, and focusing on strengths, I say this: we will all yell. But that's not all that counts, and the more you forgive yourself for it, the less you may actually do it.
After my day of feeling like a terrible mother, I greeted my daughter with hugs and kisses when I got home. She confessed her glasses had been at school, just as I had guessed. She was fun and relaxed, clearly loving me and wanting me, her mommy, yelling and all.