Why Losing Your Temper and Yelling at Your Kids Isn’t Cool

“My mother yelled at me because of my behavior, grades, or even when she struggled with her personal challenges,” says Wyatt, a motivational coach and mother of two who lives in Chesterfield, Virginia. When Wyatt became a mother, she found herself repeating this pattern with her son. “Having endured this screaming technique as a child should have been more of a reason for me not to do it,” she says. But it took some time to understand that screaming is harmful. “By the time I had my second child, a girl, it was obvious that change was needed,” she says. It didn’t happen overnight, she says, but she found a way to break the cycle and stop screaming. You can too.

See the signs

The first step is to recognize when you are about to lose your cool. You may feel irritated, anxious, or out of control. The key is to be aware of what your body is feeling.

Look for physical signals such as:

  • clenched jaw
  • tight chest
  • Stomach upset
  • Your heart rate is accelerating
  • Your breathing pattern is changing
  • Your skin literally starts to feel warmer

“Once you are aware of your physical signs, you can move on to quick reset tools,” says Amy Hoyt, Ph.D., co-founder of Mending Trauma in Monetta, Missouri.

Try a physical reset

When you notice these signs, try these quick-acting strategies to make a difference.

Double breath. Take two breaths in a row through your nose without exhaling. After the second breath, exhale with a sigh through the mouth. Repeat one to three times.

“It’s a tool to quickly get rid of carbon dioxide and increase oxygen, which helps calm your nervous system immediately,” says Hoyt.

Mindfulness exercise. Pay attention to three things in your immediate environment. What do you see, hear or smell? Focus on it. It puts you in the present moment to reduce anxiety and calm your nerves.

Bilateral stimulation. Tap your opposite feet or big toes in an alternate rhythm while silently repeating a key calming phrase such as “I’m safe.” It regulates your nervous system so you don’t get out of control.

“These strategies are invisible, so they also work when you are in public,” says Hoyt, who uses them with her five children.

Devin Sabrow, a blogger who writes about Airbnb, coffee, and gardening uses a similar strategy with his 2.5-year-old son. “When I feel like screaming, I release my anger by focusing on my breathing,” he says.

Sabrow, who lives in Calgary, Canada, pays attention to his chest as it rises and falls. He learned this by practicing meditation, a relaxation technique that can also help you stay calm.

Know Your Triggers

You are more likely to scream when something pisses you off. These are the so-called triggers.

“Triggers can include room clutter, whining, work deadlines approaching, and a recent fight with your partner,” says Pauline Yegnazar Peck, Ph.D., psychologist in Santa Barbara, California.

Try to identify your triggers. Simply knowing what they are makes it less likely that they will provoke you, Peck says.

Create a calm mirror

Model the tone you want your child to follow. Remember that emotions are contagious.

“If you stay calm, your child will also be more likely to stay calm,” says J. Stuart Ablon, MD, director of the Think: Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit.

This may be the opposite of what you want to do, but using a soft, gentle voice may get your child’s attention better than yelling. You can even try to whisper. Do not call the child from another room.

Make eye contact

Get down to your child’s level. Get on your knees or sit down. Look your child in the eye. If you need to get his attention, gently touch his shoulder or arm. This can help both of you stay calm and suppress the urge to scream.

Be a detective

When Wyatt was on the verge of screaming, she tried to change her mind. It allowed her to think about what her daughter was going through rather than just react.

“Be curious, not angry,” says Ablon. “Ask questions without jumping to conclusions to find out what is happening with your child. Be a detective.”

Remind yourself that children succeed if they can

It’s a good mantra when you’re about to raise your voice, says Ablon. “Just like us parents, our children do their best to cope with problems using the skills they can develop at the moment.”

Remind yourself that they are not trying to push your buttons. They are upset, just like you.

Give yourself time to think

Sometimes you just need a break. Tell your child that you need a moment for yourself. Step out into another room, take a few deep breaths, and come back feeling calmer.

Wyatt says that thinking helped her break the cycle of screaming. Thinking about her upbringing and reminding herself of how screaming made her feel helped her stop once and for all.

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