I believe self-discipline is the first rule of parenting, and the most important step in building trusting relationships with our children and peaceful homes for them to grow up in. In my book, “Positive Parenting,” I shared that during the times I have struggled most in my parenting journey, an honest look has always revealed that I was the one, of course, and my children were simply following their leader. When my patience was thin, or my words were unkind, this was reflected back to me in the behavior of my sons.
Getting control of our own emotions and behaviors is challenging work. We often feel justified in our tirades, blaming our emotional outbursts on our children’s behavior. If only they would listen!
My epiphany came one day when I heard my own snappy words coming out of my son’s mouth. I realized it wasn’t him who needed the discipline; it was me. He wasn’t being defiant. He was being me. He wasn’t being naughty. He was being me.
Children are mirrors, and the reflection I saw that day taught me a valuable lesson—if I expect my children to be kind, gentle, compassionate and respectful, then I must be kind, gentle, compassionate and respectful. What I model has more teaching power than any discipline strategy or lecture ever could.
Why is it so difficult to reign in our emotions rather than act on them?
Many of us didn’t learn how to effectively manage our emotions in childhood. We watched our parents and we learned how to handle emotions by how we saw them handle emotions.
When we tried out their tactics, we might have been swiftly punished, and so many of us quickly learned to stuff our emotions to avoid punishment or we acted them out in less than desirable ways. As adults, we simply repeat the patterns we saw growing up, only now we have the authority. There is no one to take away our iPhones. Adding to the problem is our exhaustion, busyness and lack of a village. We are spreading ourselves too thin, and with enough repeated stress, we snap.
To end this cycle, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We really must learn to manage our emotions now so that our children don’t bear the brunt of a harshness that they do not deserve, and importantly, so they can learn to manage their own emotions well.
However, parents have a difficult job at a difficult time. Of course, we don’t have to be perfect. Yes, our children can see us upset, and no, I’m not suggesting we stuff our feelings and put on a smile. I’m merely suggesting that we expect the same of ourselves that we expect of our children. It’s okay to feel hurt. It’s not okay to hurt others. But our go-to response—yelling—can be hurtful.
Taking ownership of your emotions and actions is key
Do you take ownership of your feelings and actions, or do you blame them on someone else? I used to blame my feelings on my kids all the time.
When parents say, “You’re making me so angry!” they’re admitting that they don’t have control over their own feelings and actions. The child has control. This is a double-edged sword.
First, this makes children feel responsible for our emotions, and that’s a big burden to bear for a child. Second, it teaches them to play the blame game and not take ownership of their emotions and behaviors as well. Does “she made me do it” or “he made me so mad” sound familiar?
Instead of “You’re making me so angry,” try, “I’m feeling angry right now, and I need to calm down.” Don’t blame your feelings on anyone else; they are your own. Your children are not responsible for your triggers. You are responsible for understanding why you have the trigger and disabling it.
It can be helpful to keep a journal about your emotions and responses. Just by bringing awareness to the things that cause you to feel angry, you take away some of its power. We are often armed with our triggers in childhood. For example, if you were told often to “quit crying” as a child, then hearing a child whine or cry may bring up uncomfortable feelings for you, perhaps even sadness. Anger is often the mask that sadness hides behind.
Next, work on reframing the negative thoughts that accompany your trigger. For example, if you often think, “My kid whines about everything!” then those words will fuel your negative emotions. However, if you consciously choose to replace that with a more positive or accurate thought, then the anger has space to dissipate. Try “My child is having a hard time and needs my help.” With consistency, you’ll begin to automatically think gentler thoughts, and your responses will be more positive.
5 Tips for practicing positive parenting
1. Do something physical
Like 10 push-ups or a few jumping jacks. Splash cold water on your face or step outside for some fresh air.
2. If you feel the need to yell, do this instead
Use a loud, silly voice or make a “toot toot” noise while cupping your mouth with your hands. Don’t worry about looking silly to your kids. It’s better to look silly than scary.
3. Choose a positive mantra
Something that you can repeat in times of stress. “I’m capable of remaining calm” or “I’ve got this” repeated often and out loud will help you calm down.
4. Take deep breaths
In for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and release for a count of eight. Repeat four times.
5. Pretend you are being recorded
Yes, I’m serious! If you knew they were going to show this situation on national television, you’d probably react differently.
Why it’s worth the effort
If almost every parent yells, what’s the big deal? Raising your voice can feel like a smack across the face. In fact, one study found that yelling is as harmful as hitting.
According to Dr. Kristen Race of “The Mindful Life,” “Yelling activates the structures of in the limbic system that regulate ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Repeated activation to these areas tells the brain that their environment is not safe, thus the interconnecting neurons in these areas must remain intact. Because pruning must happen, neurons will be pruned from structures like the prefrontal cortex where higher cognitive functions tend to be regulated.”
To put it bluntly, yelling at our children negatively affects their brains. We cannot see the damage inflicted, but deep inside the brain, neural structures are being affected. In addition, frequent yelling erodes the parent-child relationship which is so important for healthy growth.
A plan for how to stop yelling at your kids
1. Join a support group
There are several yell-free groups on social media. If you’re uncomfortable with letting strangers know your business, gather up a few close friends and enlist their help. Tell them of your plan to yell less at your family and ask them to help hold you accountable.
2. Declare your home a yell-free zone
Post signs. As a bonus to this, your kids can’t yell either! Give yourself a pom pom in a jar every time you manage to quell your yell. When that jar is full, buy yourself those new shoes you’ve been eyeing! I’m not typically a rewards and punishments kind of gal, but sometimes a little incentive is a good thing.
3. Go to the bathroom and yell silently into the mirror, only mouthing what you want to say
Why? This does two things. One, you get it out. Sort of. Two, you see exactly what it is that your child sees. That image of the twisted raging face is likely to stick with you the next time you feel like screaming at your kid.
4. Be proactive
If you know that the morning rush makes you mad, change your routine. Get up early. Set things out the night before. Give yourself extra time. Start the day with a short meditation.
5. Release your guilt
It’s easy to hold onto it, but once you realize you should have responded differently, you can let the guilt go. It’s served its purpose. Perfection isn’t an achievable goal. Aim for doing better, and celebrate the small wins.
A version of this post was published November 30, 2018. It has been updated.