“I’ve tried really hard not to yell at my children. But sometimes I just can’t avoid it. I yell so hard, and then I feel so guilty afterwards. I know it isn’t really about what my children are doing, it’s just me, having a hard day and transferring the frustrations. Is it really possible to stop yelling? What’s the secret?” — Vivienne
It is practicable to stop yelling and I can assure you that thousands of parents do it, some of whom I have personally engaged. The secret to this is empathy. I am not just talking about empathy for your children but empathy and compassion for yourself as well. Being emotionally generous is impossible when you are stressed, running on an empty emotional charge, or feeling inadequate. You know how dramatic you become when you’re stressed, how heightened your emotions become and how in that state everything seems worse. But when you get calm, you see with logic and reason and you’re able to respond without yelling. On the days you feel irritable, realize that it’s a part of your humanity. There’s no need to feel shame and there’s no need to blame anyone. Here’s a creative way to view this. Put yourself in the driver’s seat and imagine your irritation as a blinking light on your dashboard, when you notice it, do you ignore the light, and pull out the wire to stop the light from blinking or do you park your car somewhere safe to check it out? I bet you went with parking your car, yeah? That’s exactly what irritation is, a blinking light to inform you that something is off.
Which of these reactions are you prone to when your child is acting out in a manner you think is inappropriate:
- You try harder to control their behaviour even if you end up yelling.
- You beat yourself up for not being good enough as a parent. [Of course, you end up yelling less but this is a sure ticket to guilt-lane.]
- You swallow those upsetting feelings and numb the emotions. [The problem with this is that these pent-up emotions burst out later in a totally different way.]
- You are grateful for the “signal” and you use the opportunity to check in with your emotions so that you can figure out how to return yourself to a state where you can be emotionally generous to your child.
I bet you agree that option 4 seems like the best answer. I need you to see your irritation as a message that’s prompting you to engage in immediate acts of self-care so as not to break down emotionally and resort to yelling and rageful reactions that will most definitely make you feel remorseful afterwards. I am asked why yelling seems like a big deal in parenting, after all, some of us were yelled at repeatedly while growing up and still turned out right. It’s a big deal because our definition of “turned out right” is flawed. How many of us yelled at as children can now boast of a high-quality relationship with our parents? How many feel safe enough to be vulnerable with them? How many of us can control our rage when responding to triggering situations? How many of us dealt with self-esteem issues? Research shows that children who are yelled at regularly are more predisposed to develop anxiety, depression and behaviour problems including physical aggression. If you have the opportunity to break a negative cycle in order to position your child for a life of zero tendencies to depression and anxiety or self-esteem issues, will you not take it? So, on those tough days when you feel irritable, do these:
1. Slow Down. Drop whatever agenda you have for the moment and just breathe.
You need to remind yourself to calm down so that you don’t get hijacked by the fight or flight response system that’s present with big emotions like anger or rage. In the fight or flight response system, you’re likely to react emotionally rather than respond logically but to parent appropriately, logic is what will help you overcome yelling. So, when you feel that outburst coming, take a few deep breaths and watch how that simple exercise will help move you from the illusion of emergency created by your brain to focusing on the present moment. Taking this pause before taking any action can save you tons of regret.
2. Engage Thankfulness:
Sometimes, after taking deep breaths your emotions are still running wild. Your best bet is to distract yourself from those raging thoughts by focusing on gratitude. What are those things you’re grateful for? What do you have to be thankful for? Yes, your son stole the keys to your car and crashed it. It wasn’t insured and it’s going to cost an arm and a leg to get it repaired but he’s alive and no one else got hurt, that’s something to be grateful for. Gratitude helps secrete happy hormones that help disengage you from that state of emergency. It relaxes you and positions your body to be calm. Your best response is given in a state of calm. Gratitude gives you that emotional atmosphere.
3. Observe Your Emotions:
Your frontal cortex is the seat for logical thinking and when you’re calm, that’s the portion of your brain in charge of decision-making. If you still feel that urgent need to act then I can assure you that you’re still in that state of emergency — the fight or flight response — and your prefrontal cortex is not in charge. If it’s in a dangerous situation, set whatever limits you need as patiently as possible. But save the discipline for later. Whatever lessons you need to teach your child are best done while you’re calm. Children cannot learn properly when they’re upset and if you are upset, they will become upset too. The most important lesson you can teach your child at this moment is self-regulation, and you do that by modelling. Every time your frontal cortex overrides your emotional upset, you’re rewiring your brain, so it gets easier to regulate yourself. The concept of “practice makes perfect” is very true in this instance. And every time you tolerate upsetting feelings, accepting them without taking action, you’re working through old unfinished emotional business, so you don’t get triggered as often as you would have.
4. Plan Your Response:
Your response should be rooted in compassion and empathy to get the best results. As parents, we have wrongly believed that it’s our duty to take care of others while waiting for others to take care of us. But that’s not true. Only you can give yourself the love and care you deserve. In order to properly parent your children, you must learn to parent yourself. Otherwise, how can you give what you do not have? When we call ourselves “grown ups”, we are simply saying that we own up to taking up the responsibility to nurture ourselves, so that we can act like a grown-up when our children act childish. And you do this by not responding emotionally. So don’t forget to give yourself a hug (literally) when you need one. Love yourself with all your heart. Ask yourself today: What can I do right now to return myself to a state of love and well-being?
If you need a big change — more sleep, or exercise — make a plan to create it. Write a promise to yourself, post it where you can see it, and keep to it. If it’s something you can’t do until later, set a time when you will do it. There are times when you will flop so each time you find yourself starting to raise your voice, you can stop, breathe, and say,
“I’m so sorry! that’s my crankiness talking not me. Let’s try that again. Here’s what I meant to say, Sweetie, I need it to be quiet right now. Can you please go outside to play this game?”
If you find yourself routinely irritable? Take a ‘Vow of Yellibacy’ where you make a family commitment to always speak in a respectful tone to one another. Whenever you are not respectful in your words or tone, devise a [hand] signal that everyone in the family can use to call you to order. Then, as soon as you notice your tone, just STOP and start over. Of course, if you’re irritable every day, that’s a sign that you need to change something in your life. I encourage you to get whatever support you need to do that. You deserve to feel good. And your children deserve the best of you, not what’s left of you.
Children learn so much from you — how to manage themselves, how to empathize, and how to ask for what they need in a respectful way. Children are able to sense when you’re disconnected and stressed, and they act out. When they do, your hug will reel them back to their best selves. As they watch you deal with your emotions and theirs], they will do less of screeching and pushing than usual.
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