05/15/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Do You Yell at Your Kids? Do You Think They Deserve It?

Do you feel like that's just the way it is? If your kids don't do what you say and you've asked nicely more than once and they continue to "push your buttons" and "test your patience", do you feel justified in your yelling? Or threatening? Your counting down? Your infliction of pain on their bodies (aka "spanking")?

Or do you sense there's another way?

From what I can gather, this is what parents seem desperate to know:

How can I get my kid to clean up the playroom?
How can I get my kid to brush his teeth?
How can I get my kid not to hit me?
How can I get my kid to "listen" to me?
How can I get my kid to cooperate?


How can I get my kid to DO WHAT I SAY ... that I don't get upset and yell at or threaten to take away toys or hit my kid. And then regret it. Or not.

(It continues to shock me that parents think hitting a child will teach the lesson that they shouldn't hit. Am I missing something?)

If THEY would only listen, all would be well with the world.

Here's my message. Be forewarned: You're not going to like it.

It's not your kids. IT'S YOU.

You can't self-regulate.

You can't self-regulate because your parents couldn't. You were not given the tools. You don't know any better. I'm not blaming you, but it is still you. And you are the adult in the relationship and so it is up to you to calm yourself so that you don't take your anger (likely derived from fear, fear of being late, fear of being disrespected, fear of whatever) out on your kid.

You want them to stop and clean up. You want them to stop and put their shoes on. You want them to do this and do that because you said so and yet YOU can't stop and breathe. YOU can't say "Honey, I need a minute. I'm getting flooded. My brain has too much cortisol in it to respond to you in the way that you and all humans deserve. I need to get a glass of water."

And I get why.


You have to become aware of your triggers. You have to do some work.

As my friend Michelle put it:

"Yelling is an addiction. It gives me a sense of how hard it must be to break patterns of drinking drugs etc... Your body just goes there."

Michelle no longer tries to justify her yelling. She knows that when she can self-regulate, that when she can make time to be with each of her children, that when they are struggling, she empathizes, there is no need to yell.

But it is still a struggle.

Struggles are great. We all struggle when we try to make changes in our lives.

But I just so desperately want parents to move on to the struggling to self-regulate part of parenting and to give up the justifications for yelling at and threatening and hitting their darling, young children who so desperately need to express their feelings and to be heard and loved.

If you think a child stopping playing and cleaning up on a dime is the be all to end all, I'd like to share with you a different perspective.

Compliant kids are kids who don't stand up for themselves. Their need for love and approval is so strong that they just do what they are told. I know lots of people who do what they are told regardless of what it is.

I don't want a child who isn't passionate about their lives. Their friends. Their buildings. Their playing. Their love of staying awake and living life. Or their need for autonomy. I wouldn't want a kid who doesn't try to stick up for themselves and their point of view. Their joy in what they're doing should be a good sign, a sign of total engagement, not a bad one.

That doesn't mean I don't have limits.

But if we can focus on their feelings, remarkably the limit that we're trying to set (no hitting! no name calling!) dissipates.

Not allowing your child to express their feelings for as long as they need to, to get them out of their bodies is not healthy and borders on abusive. Why? Because stress leads to anxiety, depression, heart disease etc.

What our kids need is to EXPRESS THEIR FEELINGS.

Many many many parents worry that their empathizing will go on forever as if their children have an endless ability to wallow.

Okay, I've empathized. I know you're upset. I'm sorry you feel that way. Now let's get in the car. Enough is enough. I've got to get to work! You're gonna get me fired!


I love how Teresa Brett, author of Parenting For Social Change talks about this:

In a culture that normalizes power-over and control of others, especially children, how a child communicates and expresses herself can become a battleground... Even when we accept the need for the expression of emotions, we may want to limit its length. At some point we think the child should feel better or that the expression is no longer authentic. I have often heard adults tell a child who has cried for a period of time, "Okay, you've cried enough; it's time to stop." This is another form of trivialization. The root of trivialization is anger: we are angry that the child is burdening us with her emotional expression "for no reason at all." Notice that all of these reactions are based on the feelings that are triggered in the adult by the child's emotional expression. We feel sad, uncomfortable, or angry, and our response to those feelings is a desire to control the emotions of the child so that we ourselves can be more comfortable. In fact, we make the child responsible for our own emotions.

I repeat:

"We make the child responsible for our own emotions."

The buck has to stop with us.

We have to take responsibility for ourselves. We have to learn to self-regulate. We have to be empathetic. We have to let our children express themselves. We have to make sure they feel heard and understood. Again, we can set limits. But they don't have to take those limits lying down. They can scream and cry. (And if you have to be at work, let them scream and cry in the car!)

"You seem angry that you can't buy the toy....You love it so much. Your friend has one. You want one too. Me not buying it for you is making you scream and yell. It's hard, I know..."

If we can't stop the yelling, if we can't start empathizing, we must seek help.

Therapy. Echo Parenting Classes. Reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting. Googling "self-regulation."

You CAN learn to handle the screaming and the tears. You can handle their anger because you are their calm anchor in a chaotic world.

You can.

You can.

You are their Little Engine That Could.