How To Break The Cycle Of Yelling

by Elizabeth Broadbent

It happens every night: it’s bedtime. You tell your kids to pick up. You go into another room and come back to find them still playing. You tell them again, louder, more forcefully. They agree to clean. But again, you come back to see them throwing balls, or chucking dolls at each other, all while giggling. Then you yell. No, you roar. “I THINK YOU NEED LESS TOYS IF YOU CAN’T CLEAN UP THE ONES YOU HAVE!”

Before long, a full-blown yelling match has broken out, with the oldest siblings yelling at the younger ones, the younger ones yelling at you, and you yelling at them all to stop yelling. You put your hands over your ears and you just barely stop yourself from screaming “SHUT UP!” Sound familiar?

It’s really, really hard to not yell at your kids. It’s especially hard if, like me, you came from a family of yellers, where you were yelled at on a regular basis. You pictured things differently for your family. You want your kids to speak their minds more freely, without fear of punishment or retributribution. But you envisioned them doing this politely and kindly. Like, “Excuse me, mummy, but I don’t think I want to go to Target today. It’s raining, and my lovely white pants will get all mucky.”

You started out with the best of intentions. But before long you were yelling at them to get their shoes on because it’s time to get in the car. You yelled when they dawdled. When they refused to scrape their plates (they never scrape their fucking plates). When they wouldn’t get ready for bed. So instead of meek requests, you get, “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO TARGET! I HATE TARGET! TARGET IS STUPID!”

And one day, as you clap your hands over your ears, you realize all this yelling is your fault.

You have to stop the cycle. But how? This is where most people just give up and keep yelling. But they don’t have to. You see, yelling isn’t an intentional behavior. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I think I will yell at my children today. La-di-dah-dah! Time to scream at the wee ones!” No, we yell for several reasons.

We yell because it’s a kneejerk response. In fact, you are probably yelling before you realize you are yelling. Something in your past made you think this was a reasonable response to small children acting like small children. As I mentioned before, maybe you were yelled at as a child. Maybe you went through some kind of trauma or domestic abuse situation. Maybe you’re stressed to the nines, or maybe you’re anxious, and it’s manifesting as rage. Whatever the reason, you’re yelling before you know you’re yelling.

We yell because we don’t know what else to do. If you had something else in your parenting toolbox that you could reach for quickly in your anger, you would do it. And you probably do. You could sing a clean up song, or say that nothing happens until a task gets done, then sit back and make sure no TV, toys, dinner, or anything interesting happens until the task is accomplished. But instead, you’re so angry you reach for yelling instead. It’s the closest, most convenient tool.

So to stop yelling, we basically need to reroute the kneejerk response — we have to make sure we think before we act — and we have to take the time, in our anger, to reach deeper into our parenting toolbox.

Deep breaths.

Deep breaths and meditation or mindfulness can help everyone, but especially a parent who’s trying hard not to yell. We have to work hard, hard, hard at catching ourselves in the moment before we yell. And instead of yelling, we have to take ten deep breaths. Turn and walk away if we have to (I often have to, because I have a horrid temper). Then reach deeper into our parenting toolbox, to keep from yelling.

Then ask yourself what else you could do to diffuse the situation. In the case of my kids cleaning, I try to ask them if they need me to yell at them. Baffled, they say no. I tell them to clean then, or I will come in with The Big Black Garbage Bag and start scooping up toys. I say this calmly. Yes, it’s still a threat. But it’s a reasonable one (they need less toys), and one which I have in the past carried out (I put the bag in my bedroom and they can earn back the toys).

When I got sick of having to help them clean Legos off the floor, I banished all Lego play to the – wait for it – Lego table. I try hard to bite my tongue when they can’t find their shoes or they all want to look for lizards instead of getting in the car. I try to make it a race instead of screaming and worrying the neighbors will call social services. This breathing and mindfulness helps, I promise.

It’s a work in progress, and I’m trying. But I still yell at the dogs. Because if you poop on my floor when you can do your business in its designated area, you totally deserve it.