Yelling at our children is problematic for a few different reasons. First, it disrupts our connection with them. This is one of the quickest ways to ensure that they won't listen to us. It also teaches them that it's an appropriate behavior to accept from others. Even if this doesn't show up in childhood, it will likely show up in their adult relationships. So what are we teaching our children when we yell?
This is an effective way of getting our needs met (which will show up in adult relationships AND in the form of them yelling at us)
Not to listen to us (of course they are going to drown us out!)
Let's talk about not just reacting to your child less, but, actually approaching them from a perspective that causes you to feel less angry towards them in the process.
Recognize When You Are Triggered
This is huge. Your first step in addressing your children and the anger you feel towards them is to practice awareness of what is happening to you in the process. What do you feel like when you are triggered? How does it feel physically? Is it a certain thing your child says or does?
Next, why does this trigger you? Does it remind you of something from your own childhood, or some other relationship that you have been in? Are you worried that what is currently happening is saying something about you and your abilities as a parent? Do you hear your childhood caregivers as you attempt to guide or discipline your children?
This topic is one of the most powerful ones to unpack in therapy. Healing is possible. When we understand ourselves and begin the healing process, we immediately show up as different parents. We are less reactive to our children as they are learning how to navigate the world.
Once you have mastered knowing when you are triggered, let's talk about some practical tips to practice when you are in that state of mind:
1. Don't speak
Don't say anything. Just focus on observing- observe your child, and simply notice the anger
you experiencing. I promise anything that comes out of your mouth will be counterproductive.
2. Go to your happy place
This will be different for everyone. Whatever makes you happy, whatever thought you can
distract yourself with. Whatever gives you a sense of calm.
3. Walk away if you need to
If you can't control yourself around your children, take a moment to walk away from them.
Sometimes a moment of physical separation can help snap you out of it so that you can come
back and show up as the parent you want to be.
4. Do deep breathing or a quick body scan
Breathing is a very effective way of decreasing stress and anger while triggered. Doing a body
scan and simply bringing awareness to where tension is being held can help dissolve it quicker.
Accept Your Kids For Who They Are
Kids are messy, loud, clumsy. They make mistakes. They are never going to be perfect. They are little beings leaning how to be and who to be in our society. No matter the parenting style, your child will have temper tantrums. We can practice acceptance of this and lovingly approach their learning process so that it can be just a little bit easier for them to grow into emotionally intelligent adolescents and adults. Be there for your child during a tantrum, and then talk about it after. This will pay off in the long run.
If we practice a realistic perspective when approaching our child, by nature of that perspective we will be triggered less because we will understand more. Chances are, your child is too young to be able to effectively communicate what it is they are going through or even understand what emotional process is causing them to act radically during a tantrum. Your child is doing the best they can. They haven't yet learned the skill of emotional regulation- a skill I would argue that many adults haven't yet mastered. A big step in the process of creating more peace in our homes is to approach our children with curiosity and a safe space to express and experience these emotions. Practicing acceptance of these moments as things that will inevitably happen makes navigating these parenting struggles much more manageable.
But I don't Want Them to Manipulate Me
Many of us were raised with the mentality of "children should be seen and not heard". This is unrealistic and not only sets our children up for failure, it sets us up for failure as their parents. Children are meant to be explore and learn. A common belief from this time in parenting is that children, especially babies and toddlers, are manipulative. This is unlikely and when it comes to babies, impossible. Manipulation is a complex psychological planning that babies, toddlers and most children are incapable of. Most children have tendency to engage in pro-social behaviors (the opposite of what a manipulation is). The pro-social behavior is that they are seeking out connection with their family members and caregivers.
In the process of doing so they are learning to navigate what they don't understand yet- intense emotions. To assume the child is being manipulative is to assume that children are not biologically wired to seek attachment, bonding and social connection. This is completely false. The lack of emotional intelligence is what causes a child to misbehave. It is our job as parents to teach and guide on the path of emotional intelligence and to help our children practice this in a safe setting. We must practice patience throughout this process. Children have a social and biological need to belong. They actually have the desire to please you so that they can connect and attach. These are where we see those prosocial behaviors. Human attachment is completely necessary for survival. This is hardwired into your child.
Approach Your Child With Curiosity and Respect
So now you know to look out for ways in which your child is triggering you, and, to think about how hard it is to be small and have to learn about big feelings in a big world. Another tool I find effective in working with an emotionally dysregulated child is to stop commanding and start asking questions when troubles arise.
Some examples of questions to ask:
"What is your plan here?"
"What do you think will happen if you ____"
Making constant "don'ts" "no" and "should" statements is going to trigger your child who by nature of being a child, already has many of their choices and autonomy taken from them. I suggest instead saving these statements for what I call "biggies". An example of a biggie is anything that can cause harm to themselves or others.
These types of questions create thought about potential consequences that may occur if a child makes a particular choice. Other than these questions, simply stating what the consequence is can make a child stop and think. These are ways you can direct your child while still remaining calm about your requests.
Another important question to ask yourself is:
"Why do you think your child is engaging in this behavior?"
Chances are they are attempting to learn about their environment. They are not trying to upset you, manipulate you, or cause problems. They may also be overtired, or hungry. Remember, you are talking about a small child doing their best to manage big feelings. Your child is always trying to communicate one of these things to you, they simply do not yet have the words or emotional intelligence to be able to do so.
Model Calmness To Your Child
Our children spend much of their childhood looking to us as mirrors. It's one of the ways they coregulate. We are contagious whether we like it or not. Try an experiment. Act very energetic and loud around your child and see how they act. Act very quietly around your child and see how they act. I bet in both circumstances you find your child matches your energy level.
What happens then when we respond to our dysregulated child with anger? They get more angry! If you have ever yelled at your child while they were angry themselves, you know this generally leads to a vicious cycle. You're responding to their anger with anger, and then they respond back to your anger with even more anger. At the end of this interaction feelings are hurt and the parent-child relationship feels ruptured and needs repairing.
One of the most effective things you can do when your child is screaming is whisper or talk quietly. They will have to pause what they are doing to listen carefully to be able to hear you. Over time, the more they see you keep your cool when they are activated, the more they will be able to model this behavior after you.
Practicing calming techniques with your child can be very effective too. When you're both triggered say something like "Let's take some deep breaths together" - and then take them. I promise this one will take practice. No child is going to do this with you on the first try, especially when they're upset. Eventually they will join you, and it will be such a useful tool for them. For small kiddos one of my favorites is holding a finger up to my nose and as I breathe in saying "Smell a flower" and on the out breath, "blow out a candle".
Your Kids Can't Hear You, but They Can Feel You
Your kids are not intentionally ignoring you. During these high stress moments, your child does not have access to the left side of their brain (the logical side). The right side is what is activated (emotional side). So what is the quickest way to get to your child? Physical touch- either loving affection, simply placing a gentle hand on them, or playful touch, like tickling. Talk quietly and calmly. This is one of the easiest ways to redirect your child. Connect before your correct (Siegel & Bryson, 2012). We teach this because it is the only way that your child is going to really hear what you are saying.
What does touch do? It biochemically calms our children down. When we are touched, BDNF is released. This is a chemical that helps the brain mature and grow. Oxytocin is also released, which is the chemical that makes us feel loved and safe and helps with attachment and bonding (Doucleff, 2021). You will notice an almost instant difference in a child receiving loving touch during a difficult moment. This is when productive conversations and lessons can happen. This is when they will be receptive to what you have to say.
Quick Tools for Meltdowns
1. Use physical touch- loving affection or playful touch
2. Redirect your child- "I know you're upset that we can't go outside right now, let's color some pictures instead"
3. Distract and discuss later- "I know you're sad that Sally has that toy right now, here's a cool toy you can play with instead"
4. Teach mindfulness- "Look at the beautiful colors in the sky", "Look at the way those leaves are blowing in the wind" (show small details in physical environment)
5. Model relaxation techniques- "Let's take a deep breath together -hold up your finger to nose- Let's smell a flower -breathe in- and Blow out a candle -breathe out-
6. If you can, take them outside. The outdoors nearly always will calm a baby or toddler down.
Don't forget: Apologize to your children when you mess up. You are human and you will never be a perfect parent. And that's okay. It's okay to learn and grow and make mistakes in the process.
References: Doucleff, M., & Trujillo, E. (2022). Hunt, gather, parent: What ancient cultures can teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans. Avid Reader Press.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, P. H. D. T. P.(2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.
At Root Counseling, we understand how parenting struggles can impact the whole family. We support you in your journey of creating togetherness. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.