Yelling at Kids
My name is Francesa, and I am a screamer.
Admitting this to you feels as though I’m revealing a dark family secret. Yelling isn’t really done anymore. It’s retro, like leaving your kids in the car while you pop in the corner store for milk. There was a time when raising your voice was considered okay for parents to do, but now screaming is the new spanking.
Social stigma aside, raising my voice to my kids makes me feel bad. I’ll hear myself shout at my sons, Conrad, 6, and Dashiell, 3, “WHY CAN’T YOU LISTEN? PUT YOUR LEGOS IN THE BIN OR I’LL THROW THEM OUT!” and remember a clip from Supernanny that showed a little boy alone in his room after being chewed out by his mom. He was looking away from the camera, crying, feeling overwhelmed. Every time they’d show the sad-kid shot, I was always on that child’s side. “God, that mom is so out of control,” I’d think. But by 7 p.m. the next evening, I’d be starring in my own reality show.
I had to stop. This wasn’t the tone I wanted to have in my house anymore. The universe must have heard my plea because that very Monday, as I unpacked Dashiell’s backpack, I found a flyer that read: “Parent Workshop this Thursday: How to Master Positive Discipline Strategies.” I signed up the next morning.
On the night of the workshop, held at the Montclair Community Pre-K, in Montclair, NJ, the classroom was packed with desperate parents. Patty Dow, the therapist conducting the workshop, kicked off the session by asking, “Who yelled at their kids this week?” Everyone raised their hand. Then she asked, “Who thinks it’s working?” No one raised their hand. Patty nodded and explained that as parents, it’s only human to get angry when our child grinds play dough into our wall-to-wall carpeting. But showing how we cope with our anger and our displeasure is one of the most effective ways to teach a child, she pointed out. If you scare her by screaming, or insult her with judgments or sarcasm, her energy goes into defending herself instead of learning from her mistake.
Patty then asked us for examples from our own lives of when we screamed and regretted it. I was anxious for results, so I spoke up first. I explained that my morning routine with the boys was becoming worse by the day. Knowing that the kids are slow to get out of the house, I prepare for their dawdling the night before by laying out their clothes, getting their lunch boxes ready, and hanging their coats and backpacks on hooks near the doorway.
All the boys have to do is Velcro their sneakers, slip on a sweatshirt, and grab a backpack. But can they do that? No way. They whine and stall. They wrestle in the doorway. They throw their Crocs at each other. They ignore my initially friendly requests to stop roughhousing. And the less they listen, the more agitated I become until I shout, “Why must you make the morning so hard? Can’t you boys be helpers and do anything?” The result: Conrad bursts into tears and screams back, “When you yell at me in the morning, it makes me feel yucky all day.” It’s only 8:30 p.m., and we’re all exhausted.
Patty asked me what was missing from my well-planned routine. “An au pair,” I responded glibly. The crowd laughed, but she didn’t. “What’s missing is teaching your children a sense of responsibility. There are no consequences to their actions. You’re yelling at them because they won’t do anything for themselves. But you do everything for them, so how will they ever feel confident enough to try?” she asked.
Her solution: I needed to help my children solve their own problems by using descriptive language to get them to behave. This just means using words that have no value judgments attached; you simply describe what you see. For instance, instead of saying “Why must you make the morning so hard?” I could say “I see two boys who need to put on their shoes and their coats.” It’s a subtle shift from blaming to emphasizing what I need them to do. Such a simple change!
As the evening progressed and more of us revealed our screaming sins, Patty helped us cook up plenty of other ways to quit our hollering habits. Two hours later, I had so many unique solutions, I couldn’t wait for my kids to misbehave.
WHISPER SOFTLY — BUT SERIOUSLY
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. When I came back from the workshop, my husband, David, was getting the boys out of the tub, and they were in the throes of their pre-bedtime hyperactive hijinks. Dashiell had just tried to bite Conrad’s behind, and in return, Conrad was trying to give Dash a purple nurple. Neither was actually brushing his teeth as much as banging and strumming the toothbrush in his mouth like a musical instrument. I walked into the bathroom and David turned to me and said, “Whatever you just learned, put it to work.”
I was actually excited to experiment. To break the frenetic vibe, I tried the whispering tip one mom swore by when her kids were climbing the walls: I leaned down, put my head between theirs, and in my most serious whisper I said, “You two need to brush your teeth while I sing ‘Frère Jacques’ right now.” I sang in a deep, conspiring whisper, and they were so surprised that they tilted their heads in to listen and brushed for the whole song, nearly two minutes. I was thrilled by my immediate results. I wanted to run downstairs and tell David, but instead, I kept my voice low and described what I needed them to do next: “Now go put on your pajamas and pick out a book you both like.” Watching them behave so well, I realized that by whispering and using descriptive language (instead of my usual “No story!” threat), they tuned me in — not out. My voice was soft, but they got the message loud and clear.
TAKE A 15-MINUTE BREATHER
Because I work from home, I’m usually eager to see the kids after hearing them play all afternoon. But as soon as I step my foot into the kitchen, the boys are all over me, and I find myself trying to ask them about their day while making dinner and responding to last-minute e-mails on my phone. They sense that I’m distracted, so they become rambunctious to get my attention. Their strategy works — but I end up yelling. Apparently, I’m not the only one who struggles with the transition from work to home. At the workshop, one mom explained that this time of day is usually her prime scream time because she hasn’t had a second for herself. Her trick: Unbeknownst to her children, she lets herself in a side door and sneaks upstairs to shower and eat a protein bar. The kids don’t notice that she’s home, and that 15-minute pocket allows her to regroup. It’s not just kids, after all, who have a hard time switching gears. So Patty suggested we all try to give ourselves a sliver of time to reflect on what we really need, or what we are really feeling, before reacting to our children. When we do, we might be surprised to find out we are hungry or stressed — or perhaps feeling bad because of something small but significant, like not having called our mother. Reflecting for just a moment frees you to be present with your kids.
The next afternoon, I knew rushing downstairs would lead to yelling. I was already frazzled from a deadline-driven day: My story was late. A source was MIA. And my sitter asked to leave early. So at 5 p.m. I let her know she could leave at 5:15. Then I gave myself 15 minutes. I tracked down my source. I e-mailed my editor to ask for an extension. I even took a quick shower. This little time-out helped me feel more organized and in control. And that helped me go downstairs and be a mommy equivalent of a push-me-pull-me without wanting to pull my hair out.
ACT YOUR AGE, NOT YOUR SHOE SIZE
Saturday is the day we get a reprieve from our typical fire-drill-like mornings. Yet whenever we break with routine, the kids act up. And on this particular weekend morning after the workshop, Dashiell was in rare form. I was reading a Bionicle comic to Conrad, and for no reason other than feeling bored and left out, Dashiell took one of Conrad’s fairly elaborate Lego creations op the shelf and dropped it on the floor. Conrad shrieked and burst into tears. Normally, I would scream at Dashiell, “Why are you so mean that you must break your brother’s things!” Or I’d just let loose a flat-out “Bad Dashiell!” as if he were a naughty puppy. But I woke up anticipating a moment like this, and now it was time to prove I could turn our family tension around.
I looked at Dashiell and said, “What are you, three years old?” to remind myself that, after all, my son is only 3. Labeling your child by his age has a magical way of giving you instant perspective — reminding you that, no, he doesn’t get it. Dashiell was 3. He felt jealous. If I’d been living on earth for only 36 months, when I got mad, I would break things, too. “What are you, three?” stopped me from escalating the situation to where I was shouting and he was having a tantrum. It’s been so effective that my husband and I both use it now. And the real beauty is that it can work for any age: Your kid is skateboarding without his helmet! What are you, 9? Your daughter got her lip pierced! What are you, 16?
During the workshop, I was so impressed with the idea of using descriptive language instead of threats that I kept imagining scenarios where I could try it. Perhaps I’d discover the boys had decided to finger-paint the playroom floor. Instead of saying “Who was the genius who thought it was time to paint my floor blue?” I would say “I see a huge mess of finger paints on the floor, and it makes me infuriated that you didn’t use the table. Get rags and clean it up.”
But descriptive language is not the most spontaneous form of speech, and it didn’t come naturally to me. I needed an incentive, so I made myself a Descriptive Language Star Chart. Every day that I was able to use it consistently, I would give myself a sticker. At the end of the week, if I had more than six, I’d give myself a reward (a yoga workshop, sleeping in late).
At first, it was tiring to be on descriptive-language alert, waiting to pounce on a misdemeanor with a flat and accurate description of what I saw. When Dashiell jumped into the tub from the edge, splashing me in a tsunami of water and nearly cracking his skull, I shouted, “What are you, nuts?” then recovered with, “Sweetie, when I see you jump like that, it scares me, and the water splashes everywhere. Get a towel and dry the floor.” But the more I did it, the easier it became. When Conrad kicked his brother in the back for knocking over his block castle, I was able to turn to him swiftly and, in a whisper, say, “I see a boy expressing himself with his body when he should use words, and it makes me upset.” After a week, I had seven sparkling stickers. The following Saturday, Dashiell woke up just as the sun was coming up, and I nudged my husband to get up with him. I had earned my right to sleep in, and I had the stickers to prove it.
What’s PMs Got to Do with It?
Let’s face it: Even with all these tricks and techniques, there are certain days of the month when nothing seems to work. I noticed that my yelling and sulking were much more acute the days before my period, and it was making everyone unhappy. At a checkup with my ob-gyn, I told him that my PMs was getting so intense that I was considering checking into a hotel the week before! I needed a solution that had a shot at working. My doctor suggested I take Sarafem, a very low dose of an antidepressant, fluoxetine, that you take only the two weeks before your period. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of medicating my problems away. But when the stress of shuttling the boys to school in the morning left me crying in the parking lot after dropping them off, I realized I needed some help.
I called my doctor back and asked for a trial prescription.
Three months later, I’m here to evangelize about how I’ve become a better wife and mother through chemistry. Don’t worry — this is not a Stepfordian lobotomy, where I walk around the house saying “That’s nice, dear” and “More homemade biscuits, dear?” and “Would you like me to seduce you now, dear?”
No, my husband, David, can attest to the fact that it’s not like that at all. I haven’t gained weight. My sex drive hasn’t changed. I sleep normally. I still understand nuance and irony, and I can even feel bitter if I want to. But what’s gone is the dark spot on my heart: that angry place where I’d go from zero to sixty after asking the boys for the third time to stop hitting each other. When David says something like “Gosh, we’re low on groceries,” I no longer take it as a personal insult that I can’t get anything done fast enough. There’s an emotional cushion to buffer the everyday situations that could set off an anger spell, and the screaming switch that used to go all the way up to 11 now goes only as high as 6. I’m grateful to have figured out how to turn down the volume of my mood swings. I’ve even stopped feeling ashamed about having to take a pill, because Sarafem, in combination with my newly learned techniques, has put an end to the screaming, full stop. And I’ll take happiness over hollering any day.