elevating child care

I Think I Know Why You’re Yelling

“I find that I become one of two moms when my children are upset. I’m either Mary Poppins — kind, loving, patient — or I’m completely intolerant and prone to yelling and screaming.”
–Concerned Mom

If you’re yelling at your kids, you’re not alone. Yelling seems to have become something of a parenting epidemic. Some are even calling it “the new spanking”. Why are so many dedicated, intelligent, aware parents losing control?

My sense is that parents often end up yelling because they’ve actually made the very positive decision to give their children boundaries with respect rather than punishments and manipulation. These parents are working really hard to remain gentle and kind, and yet their children’s testing behaviors continue. They become increasingly frustrated, even fearful, feeling they’ve lost all control without any way to rein their children in.

And it’s no wonder! If I attempted to absorb all the vague, contradictory advice I’ve seen and heard regarding discipline, I’d be blowing a gasket on a regular basis myself. So many of these theoretical ideas are seductively warm and fuzzy, but they come with a whole lot of scary don’ts (“don’t punish, reward, control, give time-outs or consequences, use the word ‘no’, expect obedience, be authoritative, etc”), and very little in the way of practical tools.

If you’ve been yelling, here are some thoughts to consider:

1. You aren’t taking care of yourself

A long soak in a warm tub, getting away with friends or your spouse are always good ideas, but what I’d suggest is far more basic and crucial: know your limits and personal needs, and establish boundaries with your child from the beginning. Yes, even with your infant.

For example, in the context of a respectful relationship (which means perceiving your infant as a whole person and communicating with her as such), it is okay for your baby to cry for a few minutes while you make your regular morning trip to the bathroom to brush your teeth. You leave your baby in a safe, enclosed place, tell her you will go and always acknowledge her feelings when you return.

Since you are respecting your baby’s need for predictability, you’ve made this activity a habitual part of your day together, and your baby learns to anticipate that you will go and return. She still may complain, which is her right, but you confidently let her know you hear her and accept her expression of displeasure. “You didn’t want me to go. That upset you. I’m back.”

If you are a sensitive person who can’t sleep deeply with your baby near you, but you’re co-sleeping because you think you should, you are not taking care of yourself.

If you want to wean your child or limit your toddler’s nursing, but you feel guilty about that, you are not taking care of yourself.

If you need to go to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, but you’re afraid to leave your fussy baby or screeching toddler, you are not taking care of yourself.

In fact, if you feel guilty about any self-care moment, you are probably not taking care of yourself.

We all give up much of our lives for our children, but it is unhealthy for us (and even less healthy for our kids) to become an egoless parent, neglecting our needs and virtually erasing ourselves from the relationship. We need personal boundaries, and our children need us to model them. This is what it means to have an honest, authentic, respectful relationship that will make limit-setting in the toddler through teenage years clear and simple (notice I didn’t say “easy” — because it’s hardly ever easy).

Parenting fact: Our babies and toddlers will never give us permission to take care of our needs. “Go ahead and take a little break, mom, you deserve it!” will never be said or implied through our young children’s behavior, even on Mother’s Day. Quite the opposite, in fact. These boundaries must come from us, and our children will do their job by objecting, rebelling, making demands and more demands, and continuing to feel around for our limits until they are firmly and consistently in place.

2. You have spent your baby’s first year distracting, appeasing or otherwise manipulating her rather than speaking honestly about limits.

It disappoints me to hear some of the non-punitive discipline advocates I admire making statements like this one:The bad news is that babies often want everything they see. The good news is that they’re generally distractible during the first year.”

Your baby is a whole person ready to engage actively and honestly in a relationship with you at birth.  When you distract, you are practicing avoidance – denying an honest connection in order to side-step your child’s healthy feelings of resistance. The pattern this creates for both of you will make it so much harder for you to feel comfortable setting respectful limits later on.  This formative first year is a crucial time to set limits honestly, because this is when we will establish what will always be the core of our parent/child relationship.  (For more about setting limits honestly with babies, please read 5 Reasons We Should Stop Distracting Toddlers (And What To Do Instead)

3. You feel responsible for your children’s emotions

Here are the main reasons parents neglect to establish personal boundaries with their children or use manipulative tools like distraction (all of which often lead to yelling):

  • They don’t believe a baby is really a whole person who can understand words and interact honestly.
  • They can’t make peace with the discomfort they feel surrounding their child’s emotions.
  • They perceive all crying as something to avoid or fix, “one-note communication”, rather than a nuanced dialogue.
  • They ride the whirlwind of their child’s disappointment, sadness, anger, etc., rather than being an anchor with the understanding that it is essential to emotional health for children to express themselves.

This unhealthy perception of children and their feelings thwarts the development of emotional resiliency, creates the need for even more limit-setting in the toddler years, and will exhaust you every time you have to say ‘no’ or insist upon something (which will be often). The toddler years, especially, are a limit-pushing, resistant period. Your child needs to behave this way in order to individuate in a healthy manner. If you feel pained about or responsible for your child’s daily roller-coaster of emotions, you’re going to be reluctant to set honest limits, get tired, and probably end up yelling…or crying, which isn’t healthy for your children either.

Repeat after me: Once I’ve fulfilled my child’s basic needs, my only responsibility regarding feelings is to accept and acknowledge them.

4. Your expectations are unreasonable

You also might be yelling because you are expecting the impossible. Children are explorers. They need safe places where they can freely move, experiment, investigate. Asking a toddler not to run, jump or climb is akin to saying, “Don’t breathe.” Create and find safe places for your children to play. Don’t expose them to materials or equipment they can’t use as they wish and thereby set yourself up for frustration and anger when they don’t comply.

It’s up to us to avoid situations that will try our patience rather than get caught up struggling to keep the peace and make it work.

5. You are confused about setting limits gently with respect

Join the club, and please allow me to introduce you to the most well-tread section of my blog: (HERE) I also recommend the blogs Regarding Baby, Not Just Cute, Abundant Life Children, Mama Eve, Aunt Annie’s Childcare, Core Parenting and Teacher Tom for their wealth of helpful advice and advocacy for respectful limit-setting.

6. You needlessly enter into power struggles

It takes two to struggle, so don’t engage. You are not your child’s peer; you are her capable leader. So, instead of taking your child’s healthy, age-appropriate button-pushing behavior personally and going to that “uh-oh” place that leads you to yelling:

a) Make eye contact with your child and confidently state a limit: “It’s time to brush your teeth.”

b) Give a simple choice or opportunity for an autonomous decision: “If you can come now, we’ll have time for a second book.”

c) Acknowledge your child’s feelings of disagreement (and welcome those feelings to continue as long as they need to, while you continue to acknowledge them). “Oh, I know you are having so much fun with the dog and it’s hard to stop, but it’s time. What a bummer! You are really upset and disappointed that it’s bedtime. I know the feeling.”

As completely counterintuitive as this is for most of us, it works. The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on. How can your child continue to fight when you won’t stop agreeing with her? This parenting “white-flag” of empathy will miraculously dissolve the tension for both of you.

d) If your child still does not comply for whatever reason, follow through by taking her hand (literally or figuratively). “You’re having a hard time coming upstairs to brush your teeth, so I’m going to help you.” You calmly take her hand, and then perhaps you add, “Thank you for letting me know you needed help.”

This by the way, is exactly what she was doing.  And once you’ve recognized that all of your child’s resistant, impulsive, objectionable behavior is really just an awkward request for your help, you’ll probably find it easier to stop yelling about it.

 ***

This article and more are included in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

And I’ve shared my most popular discipline advice in this new book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

(Photo by Natesh Ramamsamy on Flickr)

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150 Responses to “I Think I Know Why You’re Yelling”

  1. avatar Haggard Mom says:

    Actually, I don’t think any of those reasons are why I yelled at my 3yo yesterday morning. Maybe you could say it was because I had unrealistic expectations that she wouldn’t lose her mittens, but that wasn’t really it. The mittens were just the trigger because her 8yo brother with mental health issues had spent the last hour screaming at me that I was a f***ing a**hole b*tch over and over again for not letting him play video games because he hadn’t yet finished his chores or homework. I was kind and gentle and firm with him as I guided my children through getting ready for school. But you can’t spend an hour taking that kind of abuse and not be affected. At least I can’t. And there is no one available to help me in the early morning hours, we can’t afford to pay anyone to help, and he’s on a long waiting list for therapy. I only have a certain amount of patience and unfortunately for her, he used it all up. Any ideas? Because I’m fresh out.

    • avatar Aunt Betty says:

      I would seriously see if you could find some money in your budget for help on some days in the morning so you can get some relief of this stress.

      Even one or two mornings would provide a breather.

      Do you have a college or university nearby? Maybe a student enrolled in special education needs some credit hours toward field experience or community service.

      Another idea is to see if you can sign up for respite care. I think this is offered through the foster care system. A foster family cares for your child for a few days to give you a break.

      Good luck and I hope it won’t be too long before your son is to the top of the waiting list. When all else fails know you are not alone. Other families struggle with the same issues. Is there a support group nearby?

    • avatar Toshia says:

      Hi HM. I am a single mom and although I am not religious I went to my local Universalist Unitarian Congregation and joined. When a married couple interviewed me to ask me why I joined (and how much I would be contributing financially to join) I explained my financial circumstances (then they reminded me I need not pay more than I could afford), and explained I need help. I said I’m a single parent and have struggles. I guess they spread the word. So many lovely people offered wonderful friendships and help to me and my little guy. It was like having a great big family. Many of the members were older or had no children, and were so happy to be helpful to us and spend time with my LO.

      • avatar Mary says:

        I agree I too have turned to a UU for much needed support. They have been so helpful with everything, super super friendly.

    • avatar annie says:

      HI, I don’t know if this is helpful for your situation but if you have a spare room in your house you could get an aupair in? You just post an ad on a backpacker board. Generally they only require a room and food and they will help you with housework and childcare for four hours a day (or whatever you decide on with them). I know it wouldn’t be specialised care but maybe it would help for the Aupair to do some of the jobs around the house and your small child so you can focus on the 8yo?

    • avatar Bryan says:

      Yah, a lot of these articles that get passed around facebook fail to take in to account having multiple children in the house -much less children with unique needs. We yell at our kids because self control is like a muscle. Once our strength to be like Mary Poppins is depleted our instincts take over and we go all rage monster to get stuff done. It’s universal, yelling at kids is universal – not necessarily the “best” way of doing things, but it is normal. I don’t remember my parents yelling at me as a kid – but they did. That’s not what you end up remembering as an adult though. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you yell at your kids, just don’t be insulting or abusive.

      • avatar Marisa says:

        Yes I completely agree Bryan, if I had one kid I reckon I would be a pretty awesome parent, but with 4 I’m a pretty awesome parent a lot of the time except when they all start demanding at me at once, then my coping skills max out and if I don’t yell I at least get grumpy and rude to them. Sometimes if they all start talking at me at once I put my hands over my ears cos I literally cannot cope with it

    • avatar Jenaiya says:

      I can commiserate. I’m a preschool teacher of 10 high-maintenance children, many of whom have witnessed abuse or experienced neglect of some kind and one who has an attachment disorder. I am by myself in the classroom without consistent support. These children are used to yelling, so how can I implement something different if they’re used to adults being pushed to their brink? Any child whose needs demand one-on-one are too much to handle by myself with 9 other high-needs children during the course of my 10 HOUR shift. Caring for myself I am not. The classroom needs to function like an organism, and when there is disruption, that is exceedingly difficult. I find myself scoffing at people who have only 1-5 children to care for.

  2. avatar Louise says:

    How insightful! I have never thought about taking care of myself in conjunction with setting limits – thank you for making it so clear. My husband is always trying to get me to put my needs first more often, this lets me see how to do it more gracefully. My 2.5 yo has been getting up before 6 a.m. lately. She is dog tired and grumpy but will not go back to sleep (even when she wakes up at 5:15 or earlier). I’m grumpy all morning if the kids are up before 6:30, so need to set a limit here, to protect all of us! So far we haven’t been able to come up with a way to do this – anyone have ideas?

    • avatar Kate says:

      My sister uses a clock that changes colors with her little girl. You set it like an alarm clock – though an alarm doesn’t sound – and the clock face changes colors. For example, my sister goes to work very early in the morning. Her husband doesn’t get up for several hours after that, but her child likes to get up very early. The clock face remains orange until 7 am, at which point it turns green. When the clock face turns green, my niece knows she can leave her room. She is only allowed to leave her room before that if she needs to go potty. She is five now and they have been using this method since she was three. It works very well for them, though I understand it might not work with all children. I don’t know what the clock is called, but it would it is probably easily found with a quick Google search.

      • avatar Lan says:

        The clock idea – the Gro Clock – has been a life saver for me. My first child kept waking me up before 7 but I cannot function when I wake up earlier than that. Now that the older daughter can read numbers on a clock, I use it for my second child. It’s insanely expensive but worth every penny.

    • avatar Aunt Betty says:

      I like the clock idea. In the winter you can also say you may not leave your room until you see the sun shine in your window.

      Another idea is to put a potty chair in her room and a baby gate in the door. She may play with quiet toys until you come and remove the gate.

  3. avatar Stacia says:

    I’m struggling with limit setting for an almost 3 year old who is starting to show blatantly defiant behavior. It is a time of major transition for us and I know it will take time. She has a 9 month old brother who is recently mobile and a 4 year old brother who enjoys screeching, bathroom humor and roughhousing. We pulled them from regular preschool last week since we are getting ready to move. She’s always been very sensitive and clingy. Now she’s angry. I’m not sure how to work with her, since we are all stressed too. What a timely article. I try my darndest to be patient and consistent. But I am pretty sure she’s more stubborn than me.

    • avatar Aunt Betty says:

      You are under stress because of your move. things should settle down once you move. Her routine and environment are being disrupted causing her stress.

      Is there a pre-teen in the neighborhood who would love to come over and play with the kids while you pack? Since you will be there the teen just has to entertain them and can get you if any problems arise.

  4. avatar Erica says:

    What an eye opener, thanks so much for this.

    One of my problems, however, is the age difference between my kids. My daughter will be 3 years old in may, and my son is now 15 months. The things she wants and needs to play with are inapropriate for him. Also, she is loving him sooo much, that she cant control it. She is all over him. I practice with dolls, show her how, read books, make jokes… I don’t now how to minimise this hurtfull love she has for her brother (most of rhe time it is adorable!).
    So when i yell, it is probablt the 7th time she does something spontainious that accidentily hurt her little brother. I feel so sad afterwords, because she means well….

    Any advice for this issue?

    Kids regards,
    Erica

    • avatar Aunt Betty says:

      Provide separate play spaces for when she gets to “loving”. In her space she has a space to play with her special toys that he can’t have because of his age. Your son needs a safe place to play with his toys. They can be in view of each other just not together all the time. When you see things getting tense (before it becomes problematic) request she go to her special place. The only toys allowed in the group space are playthings they both can play with.

  5. avatar Jill says:

    This was posted at just the right time. It has been a week of yelling and then the resultant guilt that I’m a horrible mother. The first thing on your list is what I need to do. I’d already decided that, and you confirmed it. Can’t take care of four others without taking care of yourself.

  6. avatar Maureen says:

    Janet,

    Great post. I wonder if you could direct me to a site that is having these same types of discussions about older children. My daughter is eight. Thanks.

  7. avatar Teresa says:

    Thank you for this article. I found it compassionate and insightful.

    My husband and I spent many years using distraction and bargaining with our children as the foundation of conflict avoidance. This was not by choice, but by default.

    Our children are now 3 and 5 and we are all suffering from a family culture of rudeness and accusations. This article helped me to understand that without a history of respectfully establishing and acknowledging personal boundaries, we are prone to feeling trampled on, getting defensive, and that we deal with the fear of our boundaries being violated by being rude.

    I look forward to sharing this article with my husband and including these ideas in our thinking as we tackle trying to detoxify our family culture.

    Thank you!

  8. avatar Toshia says:

    Hi Janet,

    I print your articles so I can sit and read them and meditate on the words slowly and with deep reflection. Your wisdom shapes my family dynamic and I consider it a great blessing & a gift that you share it here for us. You do tremendous work. Thank you.

    My question pertains to line number 6, letter d) If your child still does not comply for whatever reason, follow through by taking her hand…

    If I try to take my son’s hand he rips it away, and then runs away. Sometimes laughing saying, “chase me mommy”. Sometimes shrieking and throwing himself on the floor. He is 3 yrs 4 months.

    My approach: I tell him it’s time to do x. He refuses. I tell him why it’s important to do it. He may or may not refuse. When he refuses I say, “you can choose. Either you can get into your carseat all by yourself, or I will put you into your carseat.”

    This worked well, especially when he first entered the “do it myself” phase. Now he just says no and runs away or fights me. If I pick him up to put him into his carseat he screams, slaps my face, kicks, etc.

    What do I do if taking his hand doesn’t work? a) if he turns it into chase. b) if he screams and gets physical.

    Thanks for any feedback.

    • avatar Joanna says:

      I just read the “taking by the hand” part to my husband and laughed. The section about respect, and setting clear, firm limits is excellent. However, my son also gets physical when “taken by the hand”. I have found that stepping back physically and quietly waiting can help the child de-escalate. It is hard, but when the flat-out NO NO stuff begins, do not engage in an argument. Step back, wait, and then calmly ask again when the child is quiet. (I know that staying calm is VERY hard. It may work to allow extra time into a routine so it is easier to wait. )

    • avatar Rubyruth says:

      I would very much appreciate more feedback in response to this questions. The article ends one step too soon- What do you do when gently taking them by the hand results in their throwing themselves to the floor screaming? My default response is to put him in his room for a few minutes and generally when I let him out he will be willing to cooperate, but I feel as though I spend my life putting him in time out (and I get the feeling you aren’t a proponent of time out).

      I understand that the other things this article mentions can help reduce the occurrences of my child throwing a tantrum every time I try to get him to do something, but what do I do when he does throw a tantrum? Or when he defiantly refuses to do anything? My 2-year results to tantrums and my almost 4-year old just won’t do anything he doesn’t want to do.

  9. avatar Jennifer says:

    Toshia, Hi, I’m the mom of four teenage boys. I struggled with this when they were younger. I finally figured out that they did what I wanted/what they needed to do when I gave them a choice, much like you do. However, I added benefits to the “correct” choice and consequences to the “wrong” choice. It taught them a sense of freedom/responsibility/control. I looked at theses type of situations and asked myself how I would respond if the tables were turned. I knew that I would rather have a choice than being told what to do. I have had only positive results with this approach.

  10. Oh my Haggard Mum. This is all too familiar. I. experience the same with my 6yr old. It’s impossible to not be dragged down by the constant verbal abuse. Even I’m lucky enough to get a break for a few hours a week, but you always return to the same crap. Live in help is a good idea. Perhaps publicing at universities on Psychology notice boards and Special Needs notice boards for a student studying in those areas to be a live in. They would interested and keen to help you. Could be a win, win! Their lecturer maybe able to help them with advice on helping your son.

  11. avatar allison says:

    things were pretty much roses when I had only one child. No yelling, respect, ability to cope – and I’m a SAHWM (stay at home working mother – meaning I work a fulltime job from home and take care of my children and house). It is when the first was diagnosed with autism, then I had the second that things started to get difficult. Really difficult around about year 3 of the second, and just absolutely HELL at times when I added my 3rd and last almost two years ago. (see simultaneous screaming, yelling, demands, whilst coloring on the walls, refusing to follow simple directions and trying to prepare dinner).
    All of my patience is used up not freaking out on my demanding clients.Typically I do take care of myself and my husband is “pretty good” at helping out in the way that he can.
    It isn’t that I have unreasonable expectations of my kids, I have – get ready for this – UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS OF SELF.
    As an over achiever, I expect to be able to keep my cool, make a very decent living, have a clean house, clean laundry, have wonderful playtime with kids, keep a garden, take time for myself, and have friends, and a relationship with my husband – No WAY on earth is that possible.
    No way is there money for an au pair, not to mention my husband dislikes people in our house, most of the people who have tried to help are either very helpful or quite unhelpful depending on their own agendas.
    Your relationship with your children isn’t the only thing at play here and if you have a spouse who also loses their composure, it is another added stress.
    I know now why my mother lost it on us when we were perfectly capable of doing what we were expected to do.
    it is also hard to break a pattern. If you’ve become used to blowing your top because you’ve been pushed too far, undoing it isn’t an overnight thing. Be patient with yourself.

  12. avatar Beanie says:

    I hope my child feels safe to feel angry. And if he needs to get mad, he can do it responsibly. Anger and a frustrated yell is not a bad thing. I understand what you are saying, but one day these kids are going to be in the real world (usually by kindergarten, or even daycare at a much younger age) and they are going to be really shocked when this hash it all out stuff doesn’t work as well as it does in their protected environments. I don’t condone a household of continuous yelling and putting kids down or being mean. Step one is always conversation, compassion, empathy and using your words and I am trying to teach these values to my kids, but toddlers are toddlers, kids are kids and teenagers are teenagers. I think it is okay for them to see that certain actions are not acceptable and make people angry, not a polite smile and ‘that hurts mommies feeling when you hit me across the face, perhaps we could talk about it next time’. Or that they can disappoint a parent.Teaching them that anger does not exist is letting them down.
    I have two lovely boys that snuggle, play well with each other and others, whom overall are happy go lucky adventurous. My two year old is also strong willed and passionate and already knows what he wants…. which makes me proud…. but also creates a certain amount of head butting. I yell and it isn’t because I don’t have enough me time or I didn’t spend enough time when they were two months old speaking about limits or any of the aforementioned reasons, he just made me mad. Plain and simple. I don’t want to explain for the 200th time, he knows, he is a very smart kid. I’ve explained and he is trying to push my buttons.

    Anger/yelling is not my go to emotion or way of dealing with everything, not by a long shot, you have to understand that, but when it happens he knows something is not right, there might be a yell and a big scolding, then he gets upset and he learns and when things calm down we talk about it rationally. But the whole rational talking is only started at 2…. pre that, yes he is human…… but he is two…. he has not gone trough 12 years of school and six years of university.. rational conversations were overall way beyond his scope. I know many adults that are incapable of rational discussion. But now we can with baby steps.

    I have spent my life working with children, now that I have my own I couldn’t be happier. Most people that meet me would be shocked I yell or get angry. I love my children I adore them, I am so full of love for them, they make me smile and laugh. We read, play, have imagination time and outdoor adventures. Life is good. We are kind and respect one another. We have manners and display love to others. But then, as I said earlier, toddlers will be toddlers and push a button that might make mommy mad. No is no, not six hours of why. If you flail and disagree with me after our discussion and warnings, I am not going to gently take your hand, I will pick you up kicking and creaming all snot nosed and crying and you will go home, your park/pool/playdate etc time will be over.

    I just can’t handle everyone reasoning all the time with their kids. Or talking about big feelings. No is no, I am the parent. I am here to make sure you turn into a respectful human being that feels safe, knows boundaries and understands mommy loves them with all her might, but anger is only one of the millions emotions I display to my kids. The word NO exists and it is a powerful word. When my boss tells me to do something, I get it done…. I don’t talk it out first. Life people, life!

    • avatar Suz says:

      Thanks for that, Beanie!

  13. avatar pb says:

    But how do you set limits with a 13 month old who refuses to sleep past 4:30? I need my sleep!

  14. avatar Kel says:

    Really ?????we yell because we lack self control… Cause we are sinners in need of Gods saving grace just like our kids… This ladies thinking puts us in a very judgmental place as parents and doesn’t really address or help the root problem… It’s like a big band aid on a huge cancerous tumor

  15. avatar Jill S says:

    This only works if you have kids that eventually give in. If you have ‘high needs’ or ‘independent’ or whatever other nice thing you put on it.. you know what gently taking their hand to get them to go do something got me? A busted hand and a hernia. It’s all still ‘frou frou’ advice if your child does not eventually comply without yelling, which some children WILL NOT.

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