How Do I Stop Yelling At My Kids?

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Dear Zoe:

One of my new year’s resolutions is to stop yelling at my kids. It’s the second week of January and I’ve already broken it (several times). I always feel like a monster afterward. I grew up in a shouting household myself and I don’t want that for my kids.

– Twist & Shout Mom


Dear Shouty Mom,

I’m going with the assumption that you think yelling at your kids is not good and that you don’t like the shouty version of yourself.

The thing about new year’s resolutions — close relatives of the to-do list — is that when we’re not successful at keeping them, they can quickly become a source of frustration and prevent us from getting other things done. When we complete a task, we are immediately freed from the psychological or actual burden of it. We feel empowered and able to address new tasks. The trick is to make sure the task is easily addressed! (If you haven’t already, your primary resolution should be to read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.)

You want to stop shouting. This is a tall order because every mother I know needs to shout, sometimes simply to be heard amidst the general din of family life. Also, Moms usually have a lot to shout about and get confused about how much of it has to do with their children. So perhaps we can rephrase your question in two ways:

“When is it ok to shout at my kids?”

Shouting at your kids is sometimes exactly what they need. Think about the terrified mother screaming at her son as he zooms off on his scooter towards a busy road. As she pulls him away from the curb, spitting a hundred words in his face, something interesting happens: He doesn’t answer back. He has understood her genuine fear. He knows that though it didn’t look or sound nice, this time mom knows better and it is not appropriate to negotiate. He may also have learned to slow down the next time he’s near a busy road. Mom can feel the glaring eyes of onlookers but can justify her outburst as a normal reaction to seeing her child in danger. Here, shouting was a necessary tool and her motivation was authentic.

This doesn’t apply only to an emergency: If you can explain it, you won’t feel bad about shouting. When you can take responsibility for your raised voice, children can understand. “Sorry I shouted, I was afraid you were going to get squashed by the car!”

This brings us to the next question.

“Exactly why am I shouting at my kids?”

It’s when the explanation is a bit shady that you are likely to judge yourself for shouting — and children have an excellent nose for self-doubt and the opportunity to challenge. Chances are you are dealing with fairly relentless fatigue and the hundred things on your to-do list are following you around like a labrador.

Don’t keep it all to yourself. Every family, however big or small, is about teamwork. Nobody said you had to be Supermom and children love to help. When you’ve asked fourteen times for the kids to put their toys away and get their pajamas on and still nobody has moved, go ahead and shout — or exhale loudly — but instead of shouting at your kids, shout out loud what is going on for you:

“I’m so tired and I don’t want to get upset with my precious children right now!” Then in a nicer voice, “Can you help me out please?” Quietly start to tidy away the toys. They will join in and if they don’t, try repeating the request, “I would like you to help me out please.”

Another thing that usually works is to create a baddy you can gang up on together. Give her a name that suits your family and the person you don’t want to be.

“Oh no! I can feel the Mommy Monster coming and she’s gonna get mad/steal your treats/eat the iPad if you don’t brush your teeth now!” It’s a warning with an opportunity to be humorous and to avoid conflict, but it is a warning. It helps to talk about her in quieter moments too. “You know, it’s great when you get ready for bed on your own, I much prefer when I don’t have to turn into the Mommy Monster.”

Finally, don’t be afraid to cry in front of your kids. Often we turn to frustrated emotions to find the adrenaline we need to keep going — when all we want to do is curl up and weep. It’s not weakness, it’s human. Children take their parents’ cues for which emotions are and aren’t allowed and ultimately bring that into their adult relationships.

Your resolution could be about shouting less or better, instead of not at all. And why not investigate the true reason for your fraying edges? Maybe a monthly massage is in order. When you return home to domestic chaos, sit down, pick up your copy of Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing and remind yourself and everyone else in a quiet, guilt-free voice, “I just had a massage.” Mommy Monster has left the building.

Yours,
Zoe

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Zoe Gelis

Zoe Gelis is a trained psychotherapist with a private practice in Paris. Previously, she was an Associate Psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital. If you’d like to know more about Zoe, visit her here .

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