Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have two wonderful kids whom I love more than anything. I am married, work outside the house and am the main caretaker. My boys (10 and 8) are great kids generally. We have occasional issues with them arguing and fighting, which turns into them yelling, which turns into me yelling, and the hamster wheel starts. I know their behavior is learned from my example. And honestly, I have opened my eyes and realized my example is no example! Lately I seem to find myself yelling out of frustration more than ever. Then I feel so guilty and hate myself for it. I feel like such a failure as a parent when this happens. I am willing to be open and work on things that I need to change. I just do not have any idea where to start!
— Tears and Tummy Aches (from the Berkeley Parents Network)
Dear Tears and Tummy Aches: Yelling is such a common pitfall of parenthood! I commend you for your honesty, first and foremost with yourself, and then with your support network (thank goodness for Internet anonymity). I suggest beginning by reflecting on the possible underlying causes. Let me suggest a few common ones:
1. Reproducing family-of-origin patterns: your mother or father yelling at you, or yelling between parents and/or siblings.
2. The transition from physically controlling your child in infancy and early toddlerhood to “remote voice control.” It’s so much easier! But often “voice control” imperceptibly grows from clear, firm directions to ever-louder orders as your child tests your limits. At first, raising your voice seems very effective, but before you know it you are yelling way too often. Some parents — thankfully you are not one of them — “graduate” to spanking.
3. Drained batteries: You are too exhausted, overwhelmed or stressed by other things in your life and your self-control goes out the window. Yelling replaces thoughtful reasoning, negotiation and firm limit setting.
Beyond trying to pinpoint what underlies the yelling, try to determine what triggers it. If you have a partner who’s around when you yell, ask him or her to be a quiet observer for a few days and accept the assessment (no defensiveness!) of when/where/what triggers your yelling. But I’ll bet you are usually alone with the kids when you yell … so run a tape recorder or video camera for several days during “the yelling hours.” It won’t take long before you forget about the recording and revert to your habitual behavior. Then watch and learn. By the way, listening to and watching yourself yell may be the easiest homemade aversion therapy (pairing unpleasant sensations with behavior you want to eliminate).
Once you’ve identified likely times and triggers, reorganize your routine to eliminate or bypass them. For example, if your kids come home from school hungry and demanding and that’s when you’re likely to blow, have a snack in the car before you even get home. Or put snacks out before you leave in the morning, ready for afternoon arrivals. Add a structured quiet activity right after snack, such as working on a 500-piece puzzle. Alternatively, your kids might need the opposite: eight laps around the school track before going home.
Or create a “DIY aversion therapy” by wearing a rubber band on your wrist, snapping it each time you yell. Belt out an “ouch!” when you snap it, as this will better ingrain the message. Pair this approach with rewarding yourself each time you step back from the “yelling brink.” Don’t be embarrassed to be a bit childish about it, marking success with a point, a penny in a jar or a sticker on a chart. Cash these in for dollars toward a guilty pleasure, time off on the weekend (your partner picks up the slack) or time in a spa. You get the idea — make it concrete, reward each “unyelling,” and set your heart on something fabulous.
If none of these steps work, I recommend working with a family therapist. Yelling rarely disappears by itself. You definitely want to get it out of your family’s repertoire before your kids hit puberty.