Sometimes it seems that the only way to get kids to listen is to shout. Learn to take it down a few decibels -- and enjoy better behavior in the process.
By Corinne Garcia
My boys, who are 3 and 5, always seem to want the things that they know they can't have: cookies for breakfast, a movie at bedtime, flip-flops on a snowy day. When they get the inevitable "no" for an answer it often sends them into a tailspin -- whining, writhing on the floor, and kicking the air. Nothing gets to me more than these spontaneous freak-outs. Don't they understand that if they stay up late watching Shrek they'll be cranky the next day? Before I know it, I'm yelling again.
How do things go from movie request to scream-fest in seconds? The kids hit one of my triggers, and like many parents, I react by shouting. (If you've never screamed at your children, know that statistically you're one of the few. According to a study in The Journal of Marriage and Family, 89 percent of parents report doing it.) Still, it doesn't feel good. In fact, most shouting sessions result in a scream hangover. Afterward, adults may feel guilty, wishing they could have dealt with the situation in a better way.
It turns out that it's no fun for kids either, according to psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of Ain't Misbehavin': Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors. If yelling is your main form of discipline, it can diminish your child's sense of security and self-esteem, she explains. "If you just yell on occasion, you won't damage your kids," assures psychotherapist Jim Hutt, Ph.D., creator of counselorlink.com; still, it's not a good strategy for getting good behavior. Yelling is scary, so it activates a child's emotional "fight or flight" response while shutting down his logical thinking. "If I yell at a kid, he's going to stop processing information, and if I want him to learn why his behavior is inappropriate, I need him to be able to understand what I'm saying," Dr. Hutt explains. When parents raise their voice, all it teaches kids is to do the same when they're upset. "If we hit, they hit; if we yell, they learn to yell. If we are calm, they learn how to be calm," Dr. Hutt says.
Of course, given the right triggers, even the most Zen parents lose it sometimes. When you do, it's important to apologize to your kid and admit that you should have handled things differently. "Parents can't preach that it's okay to make mistakes, then neglect to admit their own mistakes and, worse yet, fail to apologize," Dr. Hutt says. It can also help to identify the situations that most frequently get you shouting -- that way you can plan ahead about how to react, so you're more in control of your emotions in the moment. We went to the experts to get better solutions for three of the most common scream-inducers.
1. The Power Struggle
Your daughter wants a cookie for breakfast, and she won't take no for an answer. She's probably thinking, "If I cry and scream, maybe Mom will give in." As her demand escalates into a full-blown battle of wills, you lose control and end up yelling at her.
Why parents lose it: When kids undermine our authority (doing things they know we disapprove of or ignoring what we say) it leaves us feeling helpless. When you find yourself screaming, it's probably not even about the cookie anymore; it's an attempt to take back control. "The power struggle is a contest about who has the upper hand in the moment," Schafer says. "We want to impress upon our kids that we are the one in charge."
The no-scream solution: To keep a power struggle from escalating, make a conscious effort to get out of fight mode. Rather than focusing on winning or losing this particular battle with your kid, try to work together to find a better solution. First, state your position simply ("We don't have cookies for breakfast"). Then offer some choices ("Would you like to have yogurt or cereal?"). This will make her feel like she has some control over the situation, Schafer says. If that doesn't work, you might try defusing the tension with humor. Doing a silly dance out of the blue may be just the trick for putting your child into a happier mind-set, one in which she's willing and able to find some middle ground.
2. Running Late
The hardest part of the day for many moms is getting the kids out of the house. You ask them to get dressed and put their shoes on; they ignore you. You finally find your keys and are ready to go; they run off and hide. It's all fun and games -- until you unleash the scream beast.
Why parents lose it: It's extremely frustrating when you're in a rush to get out the door and no one is taking your concerns about staying on schedule seriously. You can't help but feel insignificant, out of control, and burdened all at the same time -- you're obviously going to have to drop what you're doing and force your kids' shirts over their little heads yourself.
It's easy to forget that young children have no concept of the consequences of running late. But repeating yourself over and over isn't the solution. "It teaches them that they're too stupid to get it or that they don't have to respond the first time," Dr. Hutt says.
The no-scream solution: Rather than nagging your kids until you're at the point of shouting, just tell them it's time to get ready once -- and then don't give any more reminders, Dr. Hutt suggests. Say, "We're leaving in ten minutes. I hope you'll be dressed and ready." If they aren't, pick them up and put them in the car firmly yet gently -- in whatever they're wearing. If your kids have to go to school in their pajamas, they'll know you mean business next time.
3. Sibling Squabbles
Your daughter borders on genius when it comes to pushing her brother's buttons. In the car on the way to the park, she leans over and touches his beloved blankie with one graceful finger, setting off a full-on battle. Your temper goes from zero to 60 in three seconds or less.
Why parents lose it: No matter who "started it," it's almost impossible to play referee when both kids are screaming and kicking -- and the situation becomes flat-out dangerous if their fighting is distracting you while you're driving.
The no-scream solution: When things are already heated between your kids, having a strongly negative reaction is like adding fuel to a fire; it will only escalate the situation. Especially on the road, where you can't really shift your attention and get involved, your initial instinct might be to yell -- but try to be responsive rather than reactive, Schafer recommends. After pulling over, matter-of-factly let your kids know it's unsafe for you to drive while they're fighting, saying something like, "I understand you're upset, but I can't go anywhere until you calm down. When you've worked it out together, I can drive again." Then sit quietly, read a book, or IM with friends until they've chilled out. By staying collected, you make it clear that you're not going to take sides, and you set an example for how your children should behave with each other. The immediate lesson you're trying to impart is this: Calm cars move; fighting cars stop. But the bigger message goes beyond driving. When parents respond to children in ways that make them feel heard and understood are going to learn to treat others that way as well.
This article first appeared in Parents magazine.