The more calm we are as parents, the less out of control everyone feels, which helps reduce behavior problems in children. But how can we do that? Here's how to shift from being reactive to responsive when our children act out.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
November 19, 2020
Mom trying not to scream
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Dear Can't Stop Yelling,

I am the first to reassure us all that real-life parenting will include some yelling, and the children will be OK. However, when it feels like the yelling is "constant," nobody is OK with that. You don't feel good about it, and of course neither does your son. In fact, the increased yelling and more behavior problems may each be escalating the other, and it's a good time for a reset. Here's my advice on how to handle this situation.

Get to the Bottom of the Behavior

Behavior is the outer layer of what is happening emotionally for children, and the younger they are, the truer this is, as they are developing their abilities to more appropriately express emotions. That leaves us to do a lot of detective work, but if we can zero in on what might be underlying the behavior and address that, it will feel a lot better than constant yelling and nothing improving (and maybe even getting worse).

Even in the span of the few sentences of your question, some theories come to mind as possible explanations. He has a younger sister at an age with a lot of developmental changes that may leave him feeling like she's getting his attention. The jumping off furniture sounds like extra energy that may not have other outlets right now within the constraints of life with COVID. Most kids are not super excited to clean up "huge messes," but maybe the very fact they are huge makes it feel especially overwhelming to them right now.

This separates out each part of your concern into different pieces, but there may be other factors underlying all of it as a whole. Even if you are unsure of what those factors might be, you have good instinct that changing your response first may help you figure it out. Because waiting on a 5-year-old to not only figure out why he's acting out, but then tell you why, is a waiting period no one has time for!

Do a Self-Check

How are you? I know the idea to "change your response" is obvious, and you would have done so by now if it were that simple and easy. So, I urge you to reflect on how you are really doing. How is your stress level, including and not including parenting? What else is in your life is pulling at your patience and energy reserves?

According to many analysis, women are especially bearing the brunt of COVID life, most often through taking on more of the parenting demands simultaneous with sacrificing other parts of their identities that give them balance (by either leaving the workforce or reducing work hours). Maybe you have lost other parenting supports you are accustomed to having, and this erosion has accumulated over time to add to your overall stress in a sneaky way.

I want to be really clear: I am not blaming your son's difficult behaviors on you! But your reserves of patience and energy affect how you react and respond to his behaviors. It sounds like for whatever reason (and there are multiple understandable possibilities), you have found yourself in more of a reactive stance than a responsive or proactive stance. That probably leaves you feeling out of control, which makes it even worse when he is out of control.

Reclaim Control

We have established you cannot wait on your 5-year-old to magically have insight and change his behavior, and that your stress and well-being is a critical factor in changing the current pattern. Next is the bazillion dollar question: how do you reclaim control? You know the yelling is not working and making everyone feel worse, so I'm guessing you are invested in doing it less.

You can approach this from two lenses: zoomed in to the moment, and zoomed out to the big picture.

In the moment

For the immediate moment, pinpoint your triggers, such as your son potentially hurting your daughter. You know that in these emotionally triggering moments you need to take deep breaths and summon the extra effort to use a calm, steady voice to intervene. You staying calm not only helps the situation from escalating, but helps you feel more in control. Your projection of more calm and control helps your children feel more in control. Use this "deep breath, calm voice" intervention one aggravating moment at a time to help build your confidence that you actually can yell less.

Big picture

For the big picture, it sounds like a wake-up call to actively prioritize your own stress management. Life with COVID has increased our stress and stripped away our supports in a combination that may explain why many of us feel so out of control right now. You have two young children with a lot of energy and endless needs, and you need to take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

Figure out what calms and relaxes you (warm baths, escape reading, a long walk) and get this on your to-do list with at least equal billing as laundry. Come up with a plan for how you will put yourself first for a protected amount of time, every day. And then do it. If you have an internal (or external) guilty voice, remind yourself (or your partner) that it's for the sake of your children.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing simple about a 5-year-old's behavior, especially at this moment in time when there are so many possible reasons for children to act out. You are an anchor for your children and if you aren't on solid ground, they can't be either. The more anchored you are by taking care of you and your stress, the calmer you can respond to the behavior storms around you. And everyone will feel better about that; most importantly, you.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.