5. The Art of Yelling

My twin sister and I were known as the “Temper Toffles” while in grade school.  Why, you may ask?  Our voices carried very well.  We would get into shouting matches while playing touch football at the bus stop.  We would yell when playing roller hockey with our friends up the street.  It wasn’t always yelling due to anger.  We just simply yelled.  

I blame hockey.  While playing you had a difficult time hearing everyone with helmets on and the bench being so far away.  To compensate you would yell.  Teammates would yell.  Coaches yelled.  And yes, parents yelled.  When I started to transition to soccer my yelling continued.  I soon realized I was one of the few on the field doing this, and I have vague memories of being benched early on from the way I used my voice (not always in a positive way).  I had learned that yelling while playing sports was normal, but failed to realize that it was not normal for EVERY sport.  

The art of yelling is more of a habit, which coincides a lot with operant conditioning.  Typically this focuses on a situation leading to a stimulus in the brain that then leads to a response in order to gain a reward or negative stimulus. If you commonly yell in certain situations, say, with your kids, and those first few times your kids STOP doing what they were doing, you get positive reinforcement to your brain that it works.  Soon yelling becomes normal, both to you and your child.  The effectiveness of it wears off, and you need to be louder and louder to get any sort of response (that’s another form of conditioning we won’t get into here).

So why do we keep yelling when we know it isn’t working?  Some studies have shown a chemical release in the brain when yelling swear words after being injured. Ever notice how yelling “Fudge!” just doesn’t give you that same response?  The use of the swear word actually leads to the release of “anti pain” chemicals that decreases the pain you feel.  In the same way we get the same response with yelling. Imagine a time your child did something that frustrated you enough to raise your voice.  How did you feel before you yelled?  How did you feel after?  Sometimes the act of yelling leads to a quick release of dopamine or other substances to give a brief, if only for a moment, feeling of relief. But like any habit, addiction, or other action, the more this tactic is utilized the less effective it becomes, leading to more problems with parenting and how our children react.

Face it – our children are blank slates waiting to be filled with the experiences we provide them. When your child sees you yell at them when frustrated, what are we teaching them?  We are telling them it is ok to yell at someone who frustrates you.  When has yelling ever actually solved a disagreement or behavioral issue at home?  Typically it leads to worsening behaviors from both the parent and the child.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have yelled at my kids plenty of times.  As this blog points out, I am not a perfect parent.  Nor do I expect anyone else to be perfect parents.  But recognizing that failure with yelling and trying to adjust is not only good for you but for your child as well.  

Children utilize us as a role model and how to act in certain situations.  My 3rd blog post discussed how your kids respond to your stress, anxiety, and fears, and then internalize them and make them their own.  They also do this with how we respond to certain situations – driving in the car, eating, sleep, electronic use, or other daily activities.  So when we respond in a negative way to a specific circumstance, we only reinforce the use of negative responses in our kids.  

The other day I couldn’t find my keys.  Ask my wife.  This is a common occurrence in my household.  Yes, I have somewhere to hang them, yet somehow this habit of putting them away every day still evades me.  As we were getting everyone ready in the morning, and I was trying to get out the door for work, I became frustrated with the lack of knowing where my keys were.  I searched upstairs.  I searched the main floor.  I searched outside in the yard, convinced I lost them the day prior while doing yard work.  My frustration and anxieties built and built because I allowed them to do that.  Sadly, my kids noticed this, too.  Our older son simply told me, “Dad, it is ok.  We will help you find them.”  We didn’t find them, and I had to use a spare key; but you know what he did while I was at work?  He spent the morning with my wife searching for my keys.  He did this because he saw my frustration and anxiety about having lost my keys and felt it was important to help fix this.  

Why is this response in my child important to discuss?  He didn’t act out.  He didn’t yell or act frustrated about my keys being gone.  But he NOTICED me acting this way.  So in the future when he can’t find a favorite toy or book, how might he act?  Will he be like Dad – acting frustrated and stressed he can’t find them?   Or will he respond the same way he responded to me, stating simply “It is ok.  We will find it.”  I hope for the latter.  I praised him in his search for my keys, telling him his actions were the right one.  Hopefully that sticks.

The next time you are getting frustrated with your kids, first acknowledge in your brain what is happening.  Slow the retort.  Sometimes it just takes a simple change in thought to completely adjust a habitual response.  It may not feel “right” the first few times you do it; but stop yourself, and then try a different tactic.  Keep calm.  Speak so your child can understand you at their cognitive level.  And then keep practicing this.  Trust me; as parents we get a LOT of practice when dealing with frustrations.  Hopefully it doesn’t take long for the new habit to stick.

When is the last time you yelled at your kids?  Don’t feel ashamed.  Just simply own it, and then think of a way to handle that frustration.  Feel free to comment below on the blog or subscribe to hear more about my failures.  As parents we can only grow by first admitting we are imperfect, that it is ok to be imperfect, and we want to get better every day.  Even if that better is 1% a day, over time that change compounds greatly.

Embrace the imperfection.  After all, we are only human.

Imperfect Dad, MD 

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