I don’t change my sons' bad behavior when I yell at them. I just hurt them.
“Mama,” my ten-year-old son said one Sunday night not long ago as I tucked him into bed, “I’m sorry I’m not the kid you want.”
He shocked me with his words. “Of course you’re the kid I want,” I said. “I love you.”
“But you act like you don’t want me,” he said.
“When do I ever act like that? I love you so much.”
“You yell at me.”
My son’s words horrified me. I felt hurt and embarrassed by what he said.
“I’m sorry, sometimes I get angry,” I said.
“You’re really mean when you're angry. Then later you say, ‘I love you.’ It’s confusing. Why can’t you just be nice to me all the time?”
I definitely didn’t want either of my sons to believe they weren’t the children I wanted because of my anger. I didn't want them to feel like I don't love them. That night, after my boys fell asleep, I wrote down on a piece of paper: “No yelling. Control your anger, Elle.”
I put that piece of paper on the kitchen counter and now, each morning, I look at it to remind myself not to yell. Yelling doesn’t achieve what I want from my sons. It never stops their bad behavior. And, no, I still don’t have a fool-proof means to instantly transform my boys into perfect model citizens, but I now know that yelling definitely doesn’t work either.
Studies show yelling at kids is damaging.
Parenthood is not easy, but I knew this going in, didn’t I? I’ve also always known that yelling isn’t good for children. I knew this, and still, I did it.
Even after a quick skim of the Internet, I found a myriad of studies and articles condemning yelling at your kids. Parenting experts such as Dr. Laura Markham, a Clinical Psychologist, declares that yelling at your children teaches them to shout right back at you. Dr. Justin Coulson cautions that yelling leaves children feeling worthless, damaging your relationships with them.
So this, and I also know that yelling doesn’t get me what I want: disciplined kids.
My kids tune me out when I yell at them. They often yell right back at me. And already I have one son doubting my love for him. What isn’t my other son telling me? As if I need any more prodding to stop.
What happens when one of my sons brings home a girlfriend who yells at him? What happens when he marries a woman who engages him in shouting matches? What happens when I see one of my sons perpetuating the same cycle, yelling at his own children?
Don’t I owe it to my sons to nip this cycle in the bud? Yes, parenthood is difficult, but I took this job, and now it’s my job not to mess it up.
I yelled at my sons a lot that Sunday because they were particularly annoying.
I’m not condoning only being “nice” to children. I’m not asking for parents to sugar-coat their every word. I’m not calling for parents to lie down and be their children’s doormat. I have two boys, ten and twelve years old, eighteen months apart. One has ADHD and the other one is on the spectrum. Life is often unruly in my household, and even more so if I’m not intervening.
I have to discipline my boys. I have to be strict. There’s chaos otherwise. But, still, after my son said this to me that night, I vowed I’d stop yelling at my kids.
I’m also not going to try to pretend that that Sunday, when my youngest said what he did, had been an easy day. It hadn’t been. It hadn’t been an easy Sunday afternoon, or an easy Sunday morning, or an easy Saturday night, the night before. The whole darned weekend had been difficult, as it so often is with my sons. But this particular Sunday seemed more annoying than usual.
Earlier in the day, to try something new, my boyfriend and I drove my boys up to Ballona Wetlands, a natural wetland area in western Los Angeles. We did this because my ten-year-old loves birds. He wanted to take photos of the birds of these wetlands in their natural habitat. But after arriving, we realized the wetlands were protected. A fence around them didn’t let us penetrate the area.
Ballona wetlands, in Los Angeles, California, photo by Downtowngal.
We were restricted to the perimeter, and the birds were all over the water. Restrained to the edges of the wetlands, we’d hardly been able to see the birds from behind a curtain of trees. My son hadn’t captured a single bird in his photos.
This prompted a lot of whining. I'd already been listening to whining all morning. We'd also tried to make it to the Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach, which we discovered was closed on Sundays.
To make matters worse, it was hot. The sun beat down on us as we walked around the perimeter of the wetlands, all of us frustrated we couldn’t see more.
My sons began to argue. My twelve-year-old who has ADHD was doing what he does — agitating his younger brother.
He agitated me as he poked and prodded his younger brother, causing my ten-year-old to scream.
I listened to the cars rush by on Lincoln Boulevard in Playa del Rey, blowing exhaust and dust into our not-so-natural scene.
And it was so hot. We hadn’t brought along any water. Everyone was thirsty. There wasn’t a drinking fountain in sight.
This, of course, was after driving close to an hour through Los Angeles traffic (yes, we even have traffic here on Sundays!). Almost the entire ride, the boys had bickered in the backseat.
We finally pulled over to separate them — which had seemed like the sane thing to do. We successfully split up my two kids, which meant my youngest son remained inside the car. But then he locked the car doors from the inside. My eldest, outside the car, began banging against the glass car window.
The day went on like this. I finally got my youngest to open the car door. We got back into the car. The fighting continued. More yelling from me.
We found our way to the wetlands, only to face disappointment on that hot day, after all the problems we'd already had getting there. We couldn’t even see the birds I’d promised my son he could take photos of.
Green Heron, Ballona Wetlands, photo by Steve Voght.
I know. This sounds so petty. Listen to me complain about my First World problems. But after hours of enduring children and their arguing, emotional attrition occurs. It’s enough to drive you crazy, and sometimes that’s exactly how I feel. I feel like two small humans are vying to drive me over the edge. In an attempt to regain control, I start yelling.
“Stop it! Keep your hands to yourself! Stop fighting! You’re in a time-out! No more computer today! %$@#!”
I yell, but it does nothing, so I yell louder. And when I yell, yes, I do feel better. Kind of. It feels good to let out my anger. It’s a momentary relief.
All that tension that’s built up inside me is released. I feel momentarily better, but I’ve also raised my voice and my blood pressure, so now I have a headache.
So I yell more, trying to recapture that momentary relief, which I get for a second until it disappears. So I yell even more. That, and my kids don’t even stop their fighting. My yelling just seems to whip them up, exciting them.
That Sunday, I wasn’t even successful in getting my sons to cut out the whining, the bickering, the needling of each other. That and now my youngest son is doubting he’s the son I want all because of all my ineffectual yelling.
My yelling isn’t good for my sons. It isn’t good for me.
So that night, after my sons fell asleep, I wrote what I wrote on that piece of paper. I vowed to my son that I’d stop yelling. I vowed this to myself. Cut it out.
I'm working on controlling my yelling more.
It’s my responsibility now to follow through, and I’ve been doing a pretty good job. Again I’m not claiming to be perfect. Sometimes I still raise my voice. But I’m controlling myself more so that I don’t yell for the sake of yelling, as a means to make myself feel better while my sons are just being what they are: children.
I’m doing this because I don’t want my sons to learn that this is what relationships consist of: yelling, screaming, stomping feet. I want to bring up two emotionally healthy and intellectually productive boys, who go on to become successful young men.
Like I said, my solutions aren’t fool-proof. It’s not like my kids never act up anymore. It’s just I’m doing a better job of controlling my reaction. I’m trying to do a better job of disciplining my kids calmly.
If we’re driving, I pull over. I separate my boys. I follow through on taking away their devices. I do what I can to dole out time-outs.
I’m also making sure that they get their energy out before we ever get into a car. For us, this means making sure I’ve planned time for a brisk, two-mile-long walk before a long car ride. I know this isn’t always realistic, and if you’re in a rush, it’s not. This is why I plan for it now. We live near a candy store, so our two-mile walk often incorporates a stop there as a reward.
I’m also trying to take better care of myself so that I’m calmer as well. More exercise, a more positive attitude. The happier I am, the calmer I will be with my kids.
Though sometimes, it’s just gritting my teeth and telling myself to hold on until they grow out of this, till they’re more mature and have better impulse control. Whatever I have to do, but no more yelling. Period.
“Control your anger, Elle.”
Thanks, I will.