I come from a long line of yellers. My grandma was a shrieker, pulling her cigarette away from her mouth to holler, “You kids stop throwing those circus peanut candies I bought you!” My mom was a yeller as well. She had eight kids and for several years every conversation with her was punctuated by a shouted command for someone to stop punching their sister or taking off their pants.
When I had kids, I was determined not to be a yeller. I wouldn’t shout, or shriek; I would always speak in calm, low tones. I even discussed this plan in therapy before I got pregnant, just to make sure I was prepared. I remember my counselor, a mother of four, smiling and telling me that it was a noble goal. I’m sure she was laughing at me.
I have two children who are two years apart. With my first child, I managed not to yell, right up until the day her brother was born. In the hospital she jumped on the couch and tipped over some flowers. “Enough,” I snapped at her. She started to cry. Game over.
It devolved from there. After the baby was born, my daughter gave up naps and often spent her 40 minutes of rest time kicking the walls and yelling instead of playing or listening to the books on CD I had gotten her. Her hijinks would wake up the baby and make him cry. Then, my daughter would cry and I would yell for everyone to stop crying. It was a rough time.
I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until my brother came to visit and he heard me snap at my daughter. “You sound like mom,” he said. Then, it was my turn to cry.
I still don’t want to be a yeller. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I probably will, especially when my baby toddles toward the street or my daughter whines for five minutes for more candy. Instead of expecting to never yell, I now just try to prevent those stressful situations, make sure my yelling isn’t mean name-calling, and to always apologize.
I spoke about this topic with SaraKay Smullens, a social worker, psychotherapist and the best-selling author of Whoever Said Life Is Fair: A Guide to Growing Through Life’s Injustices. She recalled a time when her children were younger and they were begging for candy. “I finally had enough,” she said, “and I just snapped. Someone overheard me and said, ‘Hey, aren’t you a therapist?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I am also a human.’”
It seems like such a sad kind of defeatism to just give into the fact that I am going to yell. But Alicia Clark, a psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, notes that many parents are in the same boat. “Parents are human, we experience normal human emotion. And when you combine that emotion with the stresses of parenting, then sometimes parents yell. And if we don’t talk about how to be frustrated as parents, we aren’t prepared for frustration and then, we can be mean. And while yelling can be OK, being mean never is.”
Clark describes anger on a continuum: there is crazy, abusive anger, and there is repressing your emotion. For most parents, their anger falls in between, in that gray area of normal frustration. Clark is quick to point out that if you have a problem with anger and abuse that it’s important to just not go there with anger. She cautions, “If you can’t be moderate, if you are destructive, then, like an alcoholic who has to avoid bars, you need to avoid anger. It’s important to get help.”
But for parents who don’t fall on the extreme end of the continuum and have older children, Clark says that expressing anger positively can actually help children develop the skills they need to be successful. “For children who are in grade school and older, expressing your emotions to them even while yelling can be positive. They learn empathy,” she says. “And it’s an opportunity to teach children to separate what is being said from how it is being said.”
Clark recommends that parents do their best to avoid situations where they might yell–going to the grocery store over nap time, say. But this isn’t always possible. So, if you do feel frustration coming on, do your best to express it in a positive way—like focusing on “I” statements. For example, “I feel angry” instead of an accusation, “You are making me angry!”
Clark notes that apologizing after an angry episode is key to helping a child learn and grow. “A real apology is a powerful example of good behavior. Wouldn’t you rather have a boss who knew how to apologize after making a mistake? Or an employee?” she says. “By modeling that behavior to our kids, we teach them to become the people we want to work with.”
These lessons can be a valuable tools later in the workforce. After college, I found myself in a high-pressure magazine job, where I was repeatedly yelled at by the publisher. One of my coworkers quit because she ended up in tears every time someone raised their voice. But I was able to weather the screaming, stay calm, and push back. I knew not to take the shouting personally and was able to focus on what was being said, rather than the tone.
Clark further parsed this out, noting that everyone at some time in their life is going to be yelled at and it’s important to have the skill of empathy–to know that beyond someone’s tone of voice is an emotion. For a person to understand the reason behind the rage and have empathy for the emotion is a big step toward positively handling conflict.
Modeling that successful behavior starts young. Smullens notes that when a child knows how to handle yelling from their parents, they can handle themselves in high-stress situations later on in life. “In highly competitive situations–the coach, the one you report to in a job you want to keep–may well have a style different than a caring and sensitive one,” she explains. “So as our children grow, with the right balance of love, limits, and letting go, the child learns to stand on his or her two feet, when to speak up and when to know that is not in his or her best interest.”
Lately, when my daughter hears the edge creep into my voice, she’s been telling me to take “deep breafs” or to “Slow down, mom.” Part of me feels mortified that she is correcting me and that she is right, but I also realize that even in this moment where I’m making a mistake, I can still be a good parent. I can own up to my mistake, I can apologize and I can try again. And I hope the lessons she learns will enable her to survive in tough situations later in her life.
Or as Clark wisely put it: “We have a responsibility to teach our children how their choices affect others and model for them realistic consequences they can expect in the world. While yelling can be alarming, it can be a realistic consequence of hurtful, insensitive, aggressive behavior that needs to stop. Yelling is not in itself abusive, belittling or emotionally controlling. Yelling is in the range of normal emotional expression, can be an effective parenting tool, and should not be off limits to any human, including those of us who parent.”