When my kid was a toddler I discovered the surprising fact that I am not the calm patient person I’d been thinking I was my whole life. I based this self image on the fact that I never got in yelling matches with people (excluding all the times I suddenly freaked out and started yelling at friends because they touched my stuff because repressed memories don’t count). I yelled at my kid. A lot. I found myself losing my temper constantly. It’s not a pretty thing, yelling at kids. It’s demoralizing for you and frightening to them.
Unless you know how to do it the right way. I have been mastering my yelling skills for many years now and have become so good at it that if you were to ask him if his mom yells at him he would tell you “No”. I know this because I mentioned how I don’t like it when I have to yell at him and he looked mystified and said I don’t ever yell at him. How can my child not remember that I just yelled at him three days ago? How is it that he doesn’t remember that I pretty much yelled at him non-stop through years 3 through 5?*
Because I did it THE RIGHT WAY. And now, because I want you all to have the same parenting success that I’ve had, I am going to share with you the simple rules for yelling at your kid the right way too.
1. Never make value judgements about your child when you’re losing your shit.
When I as an inexperienced yeller I would say things like “You’re being so bad!” and “Why the hell won’t you nap you little hellion!!”. This implies that your child is misbehaving on purpose and is a bad child. I realized that every time I yelled at my child I was accusing him of being a bad kid or of purposely sabotaging my life by dumping the entire bookshelf onto the floor instead of addressing the actual thing I was mad about. So I changed my language accordingly “What you’re doing is not okay!” and “It makes me angry when you won’t nap!” This expresses how I’m feeling about his behavior rather than suggesting that his behavior means he’s a bad person: instead of yelling about who my child is by suggesting he’s an evil little cur, I’m expressing that his actions are making me angry.
2. Don’t be mean.
Some people might suggest that yelling in itself is being mean. I disagree. Yelling serves a distinct function in your child’s growing up experience. For one thing it helps teach them that people have limits to their patience. Can you imagine what would happen if a kid grew up never reaching the limit of their parents’ patience and then discovered out in the world that people have serious limits and are much more likely to punch you for pushing too hard when you’re not a sweet little cherub?! Kids have to learn this and it is best for them to learn this with the people who love them best in the world. Yelling is also sometimes necessary to keep kids out of danger (like when they hurl themselves out into traffic without looking, this is a great moment to yell your guts out to get their attention while you grab them back to safety). It may scare them but sometimes this is useful for their own safety. Yelling also helps them understand that everyone has to express their anger sometimes, that it’s normal to lose control of your emotions sometimes.
When you yell at your kid you should never be mean. This is an extension of the first tip. It’s not just about how you phrase your anger – it’s about not saying petty mean shit to your kid that they’ll remember long after you’ve made up. Things like “You’re so stupid! How many times do I have to tell you not to pee on the seat?!” or “What kind of loser kid are you to not understand what I told you?!” The kid will NOT remember that the reason for the anger was an action that is remediable but will remember only that they are inherently stupid, which you only said out of anger, not because you really think they’re stupid.
3. Remove the swear words from your yelling.
I heartily approve of swearing to relieve tension and to attach emphasis in language where it is needed. However, peppering your shouting with swear words makes it much scarier and though you may achieve something like making yourself feel better, you will not have a positive affect on your kid. Swearing at your kid is a lot like saying mean petty shit when what you really need is for them to acknowledge that they’ve done something you want them to stop doing. I speak from personal experience. Once you let the damns and the fucks rampant in your yelling, you’re just losing ground.
4. When you have become calm again, talk with your kid about what happened.
Apologize for losing your cool but be clear that an apology for yelling is not giving them a pass for what actions of theirs made you angry in the first place. In the adult world it is not okay to yell at someone and if you do yell at someone an apology is always necessary. By apologizing to your kid for yelling sends a couple of important messages: that everyone loses their cool sometimes and this is a forgivable action but also that the proper thing to do is apologize for having done so.
Then discuss calmly the thing that made you angry. Explain why their actions are not okay with you and if you feel consequences are required, mete them out. If I lose my cool and yell then I usually give my kid one more chance to change his behavior before giving consequences. But I let him know exactly what the consequence will be during this discussion, while I’m calm. Often times these sit down talks become meaningful discussions about appropriate behaviors and sometimes they extend into great learning moments. Take your time. Give your kid the chance to respond with questions or opinions.
5. End discussion with a hug
Then give them a giant hug and tell them that they are your most favorite person in the entire world and that no matter what they do, you’ll always love them.
This is the moment I usually inform my son that I’ll love him even if he commits crimes but I won’t lie for him or hide him from the police.
To be honest, I rarely yell at my child anymore. I snap at him impatiently sometimes but the days when I frequently hauled off in a yelling fit are far behind me. By writing this post I’m not saying that parents SHOULD yell at their kids, only that it’s natural, it’s definitely going to happen, and it matters how you do it.
*To be fair to me, raising a special needs toddler takes even more patience and energy than raising your usual hellion tiny person. I was just discovering at that time how different my kid was from other kids. The things that worked for other parents didn’t work for me. Their patience was tried, mine was fried.