OK, it happened again. The kids were fighting over, of all things, an elastic band, and after asking them once, twice, three times to stop — I snapped. And I snapped LOUD. Yelling felt momentarily cathartic (until the guilt set in), but let’s face facts: I didn’t exactly restore the house to a state of calm.
Yelling is a common problem because when our kids don’t listen, frustration builds, says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto therapist and author of Connected Parenting: Transform Your Challenging Child and Build Loving Bonds for Life. But yelling won’t make your kids hear you; it just escalates the misery, not to mention the noise. And yet, we keep doing it — again and again and again — because, says Toronto parent coach Kathy Thomas, habits are oh so hard to break.
There must be a quieter way to make ourselves heard. But how? To find out, we asked three families to share their caught-in-a-yelling-rut stories with Kolari and Thomas. For two weeks, each family put their expert advice to the test in hopes of learning how to turn down the volume in their households. Read on for a sneak peek into their journeys.
RUT: The mad rush
Yeller: Don Kates,* Toronto dad of David, 5 ½, and Grace, 3
“With my wife away on business, it’s my job to get the kids to school,” says Kates. “But the closer we get to the door, the more distracted they become. They seem to be doing everything in their power to stop us from getting out on time.
“This morning, Grace suddenly said she wanted to bring loot bags to school. I said no. I had already asked her five times to put on her boots and I kept telling her we’d be late, but she just stood there, melting down because she wasn’t getting her way. Soon, I was yelling: ‘WE ARE GOING! WE ARE GOING NOW!’ And I picked her up and carried her out in her socks.
“In this case, David was outside waiting, but they take turns. When one is listening, the other won’t budge, so it seems as if I am always yelling.
“When I yell, the kids rarely comply. After, my blood pressure is up, I’m boiling, shaking and mad at both the kids and myself. I don’t want to yell, but because I have a very strong voice, I’m not always aware I’m doing it. And I was raised by a yeller — my mom. She would go from apparent calm to a sudden explosion. That’s me too.
“I need strategies to deal with the frustration of kids not listening.”
RESCUE: Morning is mayhem for families, Kolari says. It feels like there is not a second to spare. To slow down and get off to a cheery start, try these tips:
Hold a family meeting. Tell your kids you don’t want to yell and you need their help finding a better way to get a morning move-on, Thomas says. Offer suggestions — like deciding on clothes and breakfast in advance. If you’re all on the same team, there’s less chance for conflict.
Leave 1 ½ hours for the morning routine because kids need time to transition between activities, Kolari says. And if you have time to sip your coffee, you’ll bypass that stress that fuels your anger. Save a 15-minute window for that last-minute “doorknob conversation” — whether that’s about loot bags, the favourite hair band or money for a school trip.
Find your triggers
Notice the bodily cues that signify you’re about to yell (racing heart, sweats, tight jaw). Instead, try counting to 10, bending over to tie your shoes, even stuffing your fist in your mouth, Thomas says. Then breathe, think and choose your response.
Lower your expectations
No matter what you do, your kids will sometimes act up and you will sometimes yell. So drop the standard of perfection and give your kids kudos for trying. And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for yelling less than you did yesterday, Kolari says. Then discuss how you can all do an even better job tomorrow.
RESULTS: “Mornings are so much calmer,” says Kates. “Today, we actually giggled as we got ready and we arrived at school early.
“Here’s how it started. On Sunday, I told the kids I wanted to stop yelling and asked if they could help. They were up for the challenge.
“Monday was hard. Grace changed her mind about her clothes, and David had been up in the night. We were all tired. As I got angry, I noticed that my breathing was faster. So I held my breath and lifted my hand like a crossing guard. I then exhaled and spoke slowly, with clear purpose. We got out the door a little behind, but we were not late.
“By Wednesday, I had not yelled in two days. The stop- and-hold-my-breath was working. So was the positive reinforcement. Thursday, we were functioning like a team. The kids were telling each other to hurry up and raced out the door.
“The calmness in the house has profoundly changed the kids’ behaviour. I see now that it was my yelling that was causing most of the problems in the first place. I can’t believe I just said that — but there you have it.”
*Names changed by request.
RUT: Arsenic hour
Yeller: Connie Whitehurst, Calgary mom of Melissa, 9, and Alena, 3
“I typically yell around 5:30 p.m.,” says Whitehurst. “Everything happens at once. The kids are fighting, I’m cooking, my husband and I are catching up, and then the phone rings.
“I pick it up and in the middle of arranging a playdate, I’m interrupted by Melissa tattling on Alena. Holding the mouthpiece, I tell her to give me five minutes, but she continues to report Alena’s every move, demanding my attention. I can’t concentrate on what’s going in one ear while she’s talking into the other, and eventually I ask her to go to her room. But she just keeps on talking, and so I start yelling: ‘GO TO YOUR ROOM! LEAVE ME ALONE FOR TWO MINUTES!’
“I know all I really have to do is get off the phone, or stop whatever else needed doing, but that would be giving in and I just can’t do that all the time.
“With the three-year-old, I can pick her up and put her in her room, but if the nine-year-old doesn’t listen when I yell, now what? I have tried removing myself to the bathroom and closing the door, but they follow and bang on the door!
“I usually yell a couple of times a day and I always feel awful after because I know that all I’m showing them is that yelling is the way to deal with problems.”
RESCUE: It’s usually when a tornado of activities is happening around you that the kids seem to need you most. Here’s how to keep cool during the storm:
Prioritize your schedule
To reduce the overwhelmed feeling that leads to yelling, make a list, in order of importance, of the activities you’ll take on during the high-stress period — time for yourself, the kids and your spouse, and to cook. Post it on the fridge for all to see. Let the machine pick up dinnertime calls, Thomas says.
Take a time out
Before 5:30 p.m., take a 10-minute break to recharge. Lie down, do leg lifts and release the tension in your body. If your jaw is clenched or your shoulders crunched up to your ears, breathe out all the kinks, Thomas says. You want to go into the witching hour as your calmest, coolest self — not someone about to lose it.
Zero in on the kids
After your time out, give each child five minutes of your undivided attention to tell you all about their day. Kids need attention and when they don’t get it, they’ll act up until they do, Thomas says. So beat them to it by listening before they have a chance to accost you.
Keep your voice neutral
Set up a challenge to see if your children can help you stick to the schedule and try their best not to derail you in mid-task. If they can’t, explain that you’ll give one warning — which if unheeded will land them a consequence that you’ve all agreed upon in advance. But make sure you deliver that consequence calmly, in your regular voice, Kolari says. Once you allow the anger to creep in, you are well on the road to yelling again.
RESULTS: “In the last two weeks, I have felt much less stressed around suppertime,” says Whitehurst.
“First, I told my daughters that I was going to modify our routine so that I stop yelling so much. They were happy. They didn’t like the yelling either.
“In the midst of getting supper on the table, I couldn’t seem to find that one-on-one time with the girls before eating. However, I did promise them that scheduled attention for after supper, and I made sure to fit it in. That made a big difference. I noticed that they were less needy because they didn’t have to wonder when, or if, I would have time for them.
“Now that I am taking one task at a time, our supper hour is no longer chaotic. I can organize my time and — even more important — I can control my reactions rather than just yelling without thinking. It’s stuff I already knew, but in the rush times, it’s easy to forget. It’s so good for all of us to have a concrete plan to follow.”
RUT: Bedtime battle
Yeller: Andrea and Mark Black,* Calgary parents of Emma, 5, Tom, 3, and Tara, almost 1
“We’re always yelling at Tom because he never listens,” says Andrea, speaking for both parents.
“Bedtime is huge in our house. The routine is the same for all: bath, snack, book, teeth, bed, sing song, good night, I love you, out. But five minutes later, Tom’s light is on. We have tried everything: a checklist, positive reinforcement, threatening consequences. Still, he’ll run out. He has to pee again. Or say good night to his sister.
“The first time, we tell him he’ll lose his night light, then his toys and, one night, Mark pulled everything out of his room — his train table, everything! — all the while yelling ‘THIS IS RIDICULOUS! DON’T GET OUT OF BED ANYMORE!’
“But the yelling doesn’t work, the kids can’t sleep through the racket, and we’re all zombies the next day.
“And now Tom explodes every time his sister touches him. But we can’t very well demand he stop yelling when he’s frustrated because that’s exactly what we do. And, believe it or not, Mark and I have a rule in our relationship that yelling doesn’t get you anywhere. Yes, we are calm, collected people — except when our three-year-old is not listening to us.”
RESCUE: When you’re out of gas, patience is at an all-time low, and yelling feels like the last resort. Here’s how to try something new:
Surprise with silence
Kids push their parents’ buttons to get a reaction. Angry or not, it’s attention they can count on, Kolari says. So tell your child that if he gets out of bed, you are not going to yell. Instead, one of you will lead him back to bed without a word. Without the attention he’s used to, he’ll have to figure out a different way to behave.
Imagine how scary you look and sound towering above your child screaming, Kolari says. You’re tall, you’re loud, your face is purple and your eyes are bugging out of your head. Remind yourself that this monster is not someone to be respected or taken seriously — only feared.
If you feel like you are about to lose it, don’t be afraid to lean on your partner for support. You’re a tag team, Thomas says. If Dad feels like he can’t deal with the kids without a mean look on his face, then it’s time for Mom to take over.
Find a frustration outlet
Just because you don’t yell doesn’t mean you’re not angry, Thomas says. So find other ways to let off steam — lifting weights, taking a walk, watching CSI. The payoff: Soon, your kids will see that there are lots of other ways to release their own frustration other than shrieking.
RESULTS: “Tom did fantastic at bedtime!” says Andrea. “We told him the plan the first night and that was that. Somehow, without us yelling, he took us seriously this time. He only came out of his bed once to pee, and guess what? He went straight back.
“To all the kids, we explained our newest family rule: No one is allowed to yell. We are all trying to follow it.
“Throughout the day, we act quickly on Tom’s negative behaviour by giving him as much positive attention as we can. We have noticed something interesting. When he misbehaves and we stay calm, he does too. And in the occasional moments when our tempers do flare, his flares right back.
“Mark and I are making an effort to keep each other in check. If one of us becomes agitated, the other is ready with a reminder. We’ve also been giving each other breaks from the kids.
“Our whole family is relieved that there is less yelling, both at night and during the day. Finally, we are all enjoying some serenity at home!”
*Names changed by request.