Confession time: I'm a yeller, a trait that seems to be virtually imprinted in my DNA. My mom was a yeller, her dad was a yeller. It's just how we react. Don't get me wrong—I'm not a monster. It's just that when I'm provoked, or really stressed, or my daughter has fought me for the last 20 minutes about doing her homework, finally, I yell.
It's not something I want to pass on to my daughters. And I know it isn't good for them in the short-term, either—as registered play therapist Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, RPT-S confirms. "Yelling affects children in several ways by creating high levels of stress, shame and fear," she tells Motherly. "This in turn can significantly negatively impact a child's self-esteem, particularly if the yelling also includes insults and shaming statements."
In other words: Whatever you're yelling at your child becomes their inner voice. Ouch.
I know there isn't a great excuse for it, but I'm sure that my stress doesn't help the cause. With everything on my plate as someone who works from home 40 hours a week, runs a business on the side, takes care of two kids and an aging mother, I can see where this stress comes from. But I still don't think it's okay to take it out on my family.
So how do I undo generations' worth of bad habits and the stress that amplifies them? The answer is: slowly, painfully and imperfectly. I created a process as imperfect as my behavior, but it seems to be gradually working. Mellenthin reassures me that even though progress may not be as quick or linear as I would like, it's worthwhile.
"We have to be willing to change the things within us that we want changed in our children, because most of the time, we are their model of how to respond to the world around them."
Here's what I've learned:
1. Observe yourself
To solve a problem, first you have to know there's a problem. I became the observer in my life, watching my children's faces when I yelled, paying attention to how they react to each other. (I am their example.) I paid attention to my anxiety and my workload and my stress. I listened to the tone of voice I used to talk to them.
It wasn't easy. It made me sad. But it gave me a reason to change.
2. Treat the source
I discovered that a leading source of my yelling was anxiety. Studies show a huge link between anxiety and anger and it was definitely true in my case. So, what reduces my anxiety? For me, it was exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep (the link between stress and sleep is also huge) and prayer or meditation. For some, medication is necessary. Until my anxiety was under control, I had little hope for my yelling to get better.
"Many parents feel hopeless, helpless, scared and discouraged when they are unable to stop or 'parent away' unwanted behaviors or emotional difficulties. When we feel these vulnerable emotions, the easiest way to respond is in anger," Mellenthin says. And an untreated anxiety disorder is a recipe for disaster if you want to parent in a calm, peaceful way.
3. Hold yourself accountable
I decided I would keep track of my yelling. I would make a tally mark on the calendar each time I yelled in a day. Awareness was necessary. I began each day with a meditation: "Please let me be kind, wise and gentle today."
I focused on the moments like unnecessary accidents (such as breaking something they weren't careful with), fighting among the sisters and rude behavior—and then I watched my reaction and made an effort to breathe. Sometimes I just had to walk away. I didn't want to shame myself for slipping, but I wanted to be aware of my behavior, which Mellenthin recommends.
"We have to catch ourselves being good just as much as we need to do this for our children," she says. "When we can raise our insight and awareness into how we feel, we can make changes in how we react."
4. Celebrate your accomplishments
"It is so important to reward ourselves as parents—and one of the ways we can do this is by engaging in self-care as well as verbally telling yourself 'I am proud of me today,'" says Mellenthin.
There was an intrinsic reward to yelling less, of course. I saw my children relax more, I saw them enjoy their time with me more. I saw their faces light up when I responded with kindness and patience when they fought. (Side note: Whispering to your kids when they are in a yelling match is very effective.)
I told them that if I didn't yell for a solid week that I would take the whole family out to dinner. Now, I need to be honest here, six days has so far been my personal record. But six days without raising my voice once is huge. And a great start.
I've only been at this for six months, but so far, I'm a happier parent and my kids are happier around me.
So, whatever stage you are at in this process, be gentle and be hopeful. Being a wiser, kinder, more peaceful parent is within your grasp. And with that, everyone wins.