A while ago I almost broke a blood vessel in my eye from yelling at my three kids to go to bed. Another time, I literally went hoarse from screaming as I tried to get them out the door for school. The problem? After asking them five times to putonyourshoes putonyour shoes putonyourshoes, my parental motivational strategy defaults to the same thing: shouting at the top of my lungs.
I’m well aware that this isn’t a smart choice. First, it turns me into the kind of parent I never wanted to be. Second, it rarely convinces my girls to do what I’m asking. Third, it’s… so… loud. And worse, it’s potentially damaging. Research published in the journal Child Development found that being yelled at can make kids more aggressive. In case you’re wondering, like I am, why your kids might be screaming at each other so much and sometimes even at you: Pot, meet kettle.
Most parents have yelled at their children. And most of us feel pretty bad about it. In fact, a Parents survey revealed that of all the things that induce guilt—being distracted by the phone, allowing too much screen time, not cooking healthy foods—being remorseful about shouting at our kids topped the list for most moms. Count me among them. Either I need to add more money into our flex-spending account to cover therapy for my three girls, or I have to get this hollering thing under control. But how?
The answer is simply to break the habit, according to Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. “Every time you don’t act on the urge to yell, you rewire your brain so it’s no longer your default reaction,” she says. I knew from past attempts to kick other habits that I wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow as a non-yeller, all cold turkey-like. (Full disclosure: It took me an entire year to wean myself from putting sugar in my morning coffee.) Rehabbing would need to be a process—a five-step process, to be exact.
Until I consciously monitor myself, I’m completely unaware of how often I raise my voice about silly, non-frustrating, everyday things: “Dinner’s ready!” “Turn the music down!” “Close the screen door!” This elevates the volume level in our whole house—and normalizes it. “Instead, try walking right up to your kids and talking to them in a regular speaking voice,” suggests Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.
This sounds easy. Except that it isn’t. It takes weeks for my husband, Thad, and me to remember to stop shouting for the kids to come to the table at mealtime. But eventually it has a boomerang effect. When we summon them quietly, they stop screeching back, “I’m coming!” or “In a minute!”
When Dr. Markham suggests that I start meditating for five minutes every day, I laugh. Like I have time to be mindful. But as she points out, study after study proves that taking time for daily introspection helps us “chill ourselves out in the heat of the moment.” That’s exactly what I’m after: a method to allow my bubbling rage (like when Drew, my 9-year old, smack-talked me in the supermarket because I refused to buy the 5-pound chocolate bar) to float away, like a cloud, before it turns into a banshee yell.
I know I’ll need guidance, so I download the Headspace app and sign up for the free ten-day trial. A gentle sounding British guy talks me through a daily meditation. After a week, I can’t tell if it’s truly calming me or not, but I haven’t lost it with my kids either. Then I slack off for a few days and, in the car one afternoon, I go from zero to 60 when Camille, 5, whines (and whines) that her socks feel “funny” and I need to fix them “right now.” Maybe there is something to learning how to ignore distractions and be in the moment. I pony up $13 for another month and take a little time to meditate before falling asleep each night.
If only letting my unholy anger gently drift into the ether worked every time. Sometimes, though, I’m so revved up that I’ll actually stomp up the stairs to lay down the hammer, like at the outbreak of the weekly “You didn’t knock before you came into my room” war between Blair, 11, and Drew. What then?
“Come up with a phrase to tell yourself as soon as you realize you’re about to freak out,” says Dr. Markham. She suggests “Choose love” or “You’ve got this.” After the kids are in bed, Thad and I discuss what our words should be. He knows immediately: “Snow.” (Yes, I had the same thought: “Huh?” He explains that picturing falling snow calms him down. Whatever works.)
My mantra is more direct: “Easy does it.” It stops me from flipping my lid a few times—notably when Blair rants about the unfairness of having to put dirty dishes not merely in the sink but into the dishwasher. But it turns out that our self-soothing phrases are most effective at helping us hijack each other’s explosions. For example, I can see Thad’s jaw getting tense after his third time asking the girls to put their jammies on, so I catch his eye and say, “Snow.” It’s all he needs to shake his annoyance.
Let’s be real: Just because Thad and I have now (mostly) curbed our yelling doesn’t mean our daughters are suddenly, magically, powering down their devices when they’re supposed to or brushing their teeth the first time we ask. And when they don’t listen, it makes me want to, well, shout. I need a replacement discipline tool for when they’re disobeying. Instead of consequences or lost privileges, Dr. Markham suggests that I focus on a gentler method: reconnecting. She means that literally—getting down at your child’s level, putting your arm around her, and telling her that you understand how she’s feeling.
Though cynical, I test it out when Camille refuses to turn off the TV once her show is over, screaming “No!” over and over. I sit down next to her on the couch and start rubbing her back as I softly explain, in a kind but still firm voice, “I know you want to watch more, but you’ve had your TV time for now. Can you please hand me the remote?” Instead of escalating into a full-on tantrum, Camille wordlessly hands it to me. Then I hear Drew announce from across the room, “Wow, you’re really being nice today, Mommy.” Ouch.
Weekday mornings are when I’m always most likely to yell. So many tasks need to be accomplished in a finite amount of time that I feel like I’m sprinting up Mount Everest. It’s maddening, but getting mad doesn’t help. “You have to be able to keep your cool in order for your kids to keep theirs,” says Vanessa Lapointe, Ph.D., author of Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up.
I start with my opening move. At Dr. Lapointe’s suggestion, instead of awakening them by charging into their bedrooms with a brisk (and admittedly jarring) “Rise and shine,” I begin the day using a more pleasant, neutral “Good morning, sweetheart” and aspire to maintain this pitch all day. That’s a challenge, since Drew is anything but pleasant and neutral in the morning. She starts her day by yelling at her alarm clock—or at me—because she’s tired/cold/hungry/ breathing.
When Drew volleys with her typical shenanigans, I choose not to sharply remind her that “the bus will be here in 22 minutes.” Instead, I inject some humor, pointing out that our dog, who is lying on the floor of her room, just burped so loudly that she actually scared herself. Drew starts giggling. Then, as if forgetting to be her usual irritable self, she gets dressed and comes down for breakfast without complaining, screaming, or making a fuss.
Ever since, I’ve made a point of getting the girls to laugh in those trigger moments when one smart comeback from them could easily set me on the road to Yell-town—say, when they’re starting homework, doing chores, or being told to go to bed. It works like magic: Humor breaks the tension, keeping them from retorting with a smart remark and me from snapping back nearly every time.
Since embarking on my journey a month ago, I’ve noticed something unfamiliar in our house: quiet. It’s not tranquil all the time (because, you know, three girls). But more often than not, our family is decidedly less agitated and shrill. Now when I yell, it’s usually for good reason—like when Camille nearly ran into the street without looking. And because I do it far less often, my kids actually hear me when I do.