Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yelling - can it be right?

Is yelling at your kids really so wrong?

The message out there in the larger culture seems to be yelling = bad. We can't abide yelling when teachers and principals do it to kids, unless they're in the inner city doing a tough love-style modern version of Stand and Deliver (see the excellent book "Work Hard Be Nice" about the KIPP schools.) But it seems to be something that primarily happens in the privacy of our own homes, when it is a parent disciplining their own child.

The reason for this post is I'd like to clarify my own thinking about yelling. Does it depend on what we mean exactly by "yelling"? DH and I certainly yell at our kids sometimes, and I'm not so sure our brand of yelling is always the big awful kid-harming problem society makes it out to be. But is that just my own self-serving bias talking because I don't want to have to change the way I parent? 

The first time I ever met somebody who had never been yelled at as a child by their parents I was like "Who are these mythical Zen parents?" I wondered. Honestly, how does one spend 18 years raising a child without ever raising their voice or losing their shit even once? For real? I'm in awe.

I so often read about (mothers, always mothers) on the internets feeling guilty for even occasionally speaking harshly towards their kids. There are even webinars you can take to supposedly teach you how to stop yelling at your kids. I recall something in the NYT about yelling being the new spanking. (Um, nice try, but no.) Some folks say they feel guilty for having to do even basic, garden-variety discipline. I guess despite my own Catholic upbringing, guilt is an emotion I hardly ever feel. I yell at my kids, and I never feel guilty about it. The times I felt my own yelling went too far (2 occasions), I've immediately apologized to my kids and we've talked about my triggers (when the kids fight physically, break things, and won't stop whining), and how we can all make better choices next time. Perhaps that helped me avoid feelings of guilt.

Whenever I think of yelly parents, I'm reminded of when Alec Baldwin got called a Bad Dad for getting caught on tape yelling at his then 12-ish-year-old daughter who IIRC did something I would have possibly yelled at my kid about, something like not showing up somewhere and not calling. My first thought was how as a kid, I was treated to a lot worse by my folks for doing a lot less. Certain name calling on the other hand, I'm sure that can be quite damaging. (Just to be clear, for me yelling and name calling are two entirely separate behaviors that might sometimes intersect.)

I was raised by two loving (slightly-fucked up but still by all measures wildly successful) parents who are yellers. My mom would yell maybe twice a month, but only ever at my dad and/or me, never, ever, ever at anyone else on the planet. The Dr. Phil term "rageaholic" just might describe her perfectly - she would let things boil up inside her, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at us (the exact opposite of what communication in healthy relationships is supposed to be like.) By negative example, she taught me the importance of proactively naming and speaking the truth of my emotions. A well-placed "I'm really starting to feel irritated about this..." before the shit hits the fan, whether at work or at home, is my lifeline.

As an adult, my personality is much more like my dad's. He would yell maybe twice a year, usually in response to being yelled at for too long by my mother and always over something he thought was a ridiculously petty to argue about like housework, for which he definitely pulled his own weight -- and this, by the way, THIS is why DH and I see the outsourcing of our housework as an essential, nonnegotiable expense for which we'd gladly go into debt to preserve and we'd never drink another $4 latte to maintain. Seriously.

Here's the thing, I feel I had a very happy childhood. And I've actually analyzed my childhood probably more than is necessary, so we're not talking Drama of the Gifted Child here. I felt extremely loved and cherished. I'd even say my parents are really, really good ones in most respects, but my mom has some real personality issues that mostly now just affect her. They are absolute superstar grandparents who have perfect boundaries. Ever since I entered my 30's and they their 60's we've gotten along so well, I even catch myself daydreaming about having them live in a cottage on our property someday, if they ever both retire.

The childhood yelling baggage I'm carrying seems to tell me there are some kinds of yelling that should be avoided (the kids will have bad memories if they see mom and dad fighting but never making up, I think NurtureShock confirms that), but it is not always this awful end all, be all thing. Sometimes yelling is simply the truest reflection of one's authentic voice at a particular moment. What I appreciate only in hindsight about the yelling in my family-of-origin was that they always kept it real - I was given the freedom to truly express my emotions. It was only later, when I experienced other families secondhand where no one was ever allowed to be angry, anger was not tolerated, anger was not seen as "ladylike" (a friend's mom had a padded "angry room" in a crawl space she would hide herself in whenever she got mad, where so no one in her family could see and I saw the result of that was a whole lot of passive-aggressive crap I wouldn't wish on anyone. We've got to be able to express anger. We don't need to yell to express anger, but sometimes yelling is what we choose. I think it's ok to honor that.

Talk to me about your yelling, your lack thereof, your childhood yelling baggage, etc. I'm all ears.


Maria said...

I yell. I even scream. And I feel terribly guilty about it. I think it's because I don't feel in control when I do it, and because I know it upsets my daughter terribly. I would love lessons on how to yell appropriately, or non-damagingly.

Anonymous said...

I snap at my older kid occasionally, and sometimes at my husband. Very rarely my husband snaps at my older kid. The kid seems to take it pretty much in stride, just like I did when my mom got irritable and snapped at me (or my favorite elementary school teacher when she got irritable and snapped at the class). Basically we seem to realize snapping means mommy or daddy is in a bad mood and to get out of her (or his) way for a little while. I think it's a good skill to have.

When I *really* feel like yelling, I just tell DC1 to go to his room. That seems to work pretty well for me and allows me to take back control of my emotions. So far he hasn't refused to go.

Anonymous said...

My family invented yelling - my mom was a huge yeller, she and my oldest sister fought all the time when I was young, and it's really hard to control my yelling with my kids. I try, but if I'm exhausted, and my older son is really grouchy, it's hard not to revert to how I was raised (though I had a happy childhood! My family just doesn't keep anger in. At all). My husband was raised with parents who not only never yelled, but also never argued in front of him and his siblings. So he had to learn that's it's okay to argue in front of kids. And of course, his family can never ever talk with each other about things whena they are frustrated,which makes for some interesting family dynamics...I would rather have my family, where things can just be said. Though the yelling aspect, I could do with less of! But I generally don't feel bad about it, it's just sort of how I parent and deal with life.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and yes, I just say stuff to my family (though I like to think my sister and I have gotten more polite to each other now that we're adults...). DH is more distant with his. Except he's also a lot closer in that he talks with family members every weekend and has to go home to visit once a year or he gets all mopey. I talk with my family on IM more, phone not so much.

the milliner said...

I've been thinking about yelling a lot lately, specifically because I've been trying to reduce my reacting tersely to everyday annoyances related to having a four year old, and all the emotions that come with that.

DS is ultra sensitive, as am I, and also as DH is. Mostly ultra sensitive in that we are keenly aware of others' moods, feelings and body language.

After thinking about this a lot, my newly formed view is that daily expression of anger in the form of yelling or talking harshly to another family member because they are doing something we don't want them to do wears on us. And for DS, it's overwhelming. Generally, we are less happier for it.

For DS I've basically decided that I'm going to approach the majority of his behaviour 'infractions' or 'annoyances' with the idea of looking behind them to see what is there. And also to empathize with him even if I'm not going to give him his way. Essentially a quiet sticking to the rules we set and truly feeling empathy for where he's coming from. I think he senses that empathy (even if I don't say anything about it sometimes...other times I'll verbalize it). And honestly, the results it gives are amazing. DS is just so much more relaxed and cooperative at home.

Do I lose it now and then when it's just too much or I'm having a bad day or moment or I'm exhausted. Of course. But overall, shifting my mindset and how I react around these situations has made life much more harmonious and enjoyable at home. Even DH, who has a harder time than I do of not reacting, has been following my lead and life has been smoother.

My parents yelled when we were kids (and they still do at each other, but not really at us - bro & I). In many ways I don't feel like it was damaging or traumatic. I used to SCREAM when I was a kid at my brother when I was sooo frustrated it was all I could do. I can even remember instances as a kid when my brother and I knew we had just pushed my mom too far by being PITAs. We had a sense even then of when the yelling was related to frustration vs. anger. We were probably around 6-9 years old then.

The one thing that drives me batshit crazy is when DS runs away from me (in the play yard) at daycare when it's time to leave. I will not chase him. But when I do manage to get a hold of him I do tell him that it makes me very angry when he does not come over when I ask him to. My voice is not happy when I say it, but it's not accusatory either. I think he understands that I'm angry, but I don't feel like I'm's much more controlled. It feels more appropriate when I'm expressing anger that is not reactionary.

That being said, I don't think it's bad to lose it once in a while either. The other day we were a bit late arriving at an eye doctor appt and DS was fooling around when we go out of the car. I snapped at him (probably with a bit too much of intensity for the situation). I immediately apologized for my harshness and explained why I was frazzled. Without skipping a beat, he just said 'That's OK Mommy.' This, from the kid that is wounded if you as much as have the tiniest bit of anger or frustration in your voice.

When the snapping becomes an exception instead of a rule, I think kids can make sense of everything and understand that everyone has bad days/moments. And then they move on.

One interesting thing that my therapist told me she experienced with her own kids is that there were things that she remembers that she thought would be traumatizing for her kids, or that they would not look fondly upon. But in talking to her kids as adults, they would pull out some grievance that she does not even faintly remember committing. And yet some of the things she was most concerned about, were no big deals for the kids.

the milliner said...

BTW, when I said this:

"After thinking about this a lot, my newly formed view is that daily expression of anger in the form of yelling or talking harshly to another family member because they are doing something we don't want them to do wears on us. And for DS, it's overwhelming. Generally, we are less happier for it. ",

I was specifically referring to our family. Not the general 'us'.

the milliner said...

@Maria, I found 'Betweeen Parent and Child' really helpful and informative regarding the effect of words on kids and how to express anger in a non-damaging way. Really changed my thought process, which I think helps change behaviour. Sharon Silver also has great stuff specifically on not reacting (she might even have an e-seminar).

Cloud said...

Ah, this is timely! I just said to my husband tonight that I need to work on my patience, because I've been loosing my cool a bit more than I like. It is a combination of too much going on at work (job description for junior project manager submitted today!!! So help is on its way... once I find the right person), the fact that Petunia is almost 3 so in the "why? why? why? why?" phase, the fact that Pumpkin talks almost non-stop, the fact that Pumpkin is irritable due to just starting Kindergarten, and the fact that we're all a little stressed while we try to settle into the new routines.

So yeah, I've got reasons. But I still hate yelling in front of the kids, particularly if it is AT someone (i.e., them or my husband). They always see us make up, I always explain why I lost it, etc., etc. But I don't like it. When I can catch myself and put myself in time out (i.e., come to the office, close the door and read Twitter for a minute or two), I'm much happier.

I think the thing that makes me hate it so much is that I hate seeing Pumpkin try to smooth things over, and I hate having Petunia as "Mommy not mad?" after I calm down. I don't want them to be afraid of my temper- even though as far as they know, the worst thing I ever do is yell or slam a door. Oh, and I'm not too proud of the fact that Pumpkin's learned the door slamming thing from me.

But, as you say, there was yelling in my childhood and I was not scarred by it AT ALL. My Mom has a long, slow fuse, but man when she yelled- it was sort of scary. My Dad exploded all the time (still does), but in a way that was obviously just blowing off steam. I'm somewhere in between, and trying to get more Zen all the time. I can live with the fact that I am far from perfect in this regard, but I still want to try to get better.

Cloud said...

Oh, also- I agree 100% that I prefer yelling to passive-aggressive nonsense, and I think it is good to allow everyone the space to express their real feelings, and if the price for that is some yelling, I guess that's OK.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

"Sometimes yelling is simply the truest reflection of one's authentic voice at a particular moment."

Yes, yes, YES.

I just want to say that this is highly cultural. Ever since that gimmicky book came out, I've been trying to analyze what does and doesn't make the French parents different from American parents, and this is part of it. Not only do the French not avoid yelling at their kids (or yelling at anyone -- there's definitely a get-it-all-out-there-out-loud trait here), but they certainly do NOT feel guilty about it.

With my French husband, I learned how to conduct a good screaming match, respectfully and healthily. It unleashed something in me, and now I not only yell at him, but I actually throw things from time to time. Once the initial storm has passed, we step back and calmly figure out what needs to be fixed. But only with him -- not with the kids, because I don't think it's the same kind of anger and frustration at all, and it wouldn't be fair to a kid to react that strongly to them, in my book. And I'm not always proud to lose it in front of the kids, but I do make sure that they see the negotiation and resolution. Sure, I think it's even healthier to show a calm approach to a dispute from the beginning to the end, but modeling perfect isn't healthy for kids: they need to see the 20% of the time you screw up first and then fix things.

I rarely yell at the kids, though, but I don't feel guilty about it when I do. I think that as long as you keep what you're saying honest and respectful, it doesn't hurt them more if it is yelled (although it may be less effective -- I can see kids tune things out when it gets too loud). My husband does yell at the kids, though, and I get after him about it because it just feels like too much sometimes... but I think that has more to do with my baggage from my family of origin that anything else.

In my family people rarely yelled, but they were often angry. Personally, I prefer a good honest screaming tirade to the silent treatment. That said, when there was yelling it was Pretty Damn Serious. So I tend to still get a huge knot in my stomach when I witness my husband's anger toward our kids (not toward myself, for some reason), even if it I know I'm overreacting and misanalyzing the situation.

So my husband has learned to tone down the yelling and find other methods, and I've learned that screaming things out everyone once in a while can be healthy.

I've been meaning to post something on my blog about all this, actually.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Just to clarify, when I throw things, I don't throw them AT anyone. And I usually choose something that won't break.

Claudia said...

I don't have any yelling damage, since my stepmom would just do her brand of swearing (damn damn damn, sevenTEEN damns!) and talk sternly to us when angry.
My dad never yelled. His style was totally different, and the one I model my parenting after. He commanded respect by being respectful. He expressed anger and disappointment when he felt it, but not in a loud or scary way.
I raise my voice only occasionally and I will state when I'm starting to really get pissed off, a la Between Parent and Child. Love that book.
I think it is the losing control aspect that is damaging, not the anger itself. And I will apologize when I've been an asshole.

ana said...

Oh what a coincidence. I had a big fight with my husband this morning about his yelling & rough handling at our almost-3-year-old (I thought the age was important to mention as it pretty much sums up the behavior that provoked said yelling/handling). He mentioned that I've snapped at the kids before & that sometimes you have to be a bit harsh to get your point across. I countered that there is a difference between "snapping" and "getting-in-their-face-and-shouting-as-loud-as-you-can" which is scary to a small child. I really like Claudia's description above of "expressed anger and disappointment when he felt it, but not in a loud or scary way". This is what we should strive for...not to keep it all in and never express our anger, but to TRY to do so in an appropriate way. I'll have to use that line tonight...
And yes, my parents both yelled; and we were good kids, just annoying in the usual kid way. I have memories of feeling really hurt (but never really scared) of my mom yelling, and actually scared of my dad.

Got It, Ma! said...

What resonates most for me in the comments above is the idea that yelling is both a cultural thing and, at times, an honest expression of how we're feeling.

I'm a yeller. Period. I'm animated. I wave my hands around a lot when I talk and have big facial expressions. I yell when I'm excited about something, when I'm really happy, when I'm feeling silly, and sometimes when I'm mad. I don't thing a raised voice is necessarily a bad thing. I think you have to examine the reasons behind it.

Uncontrolled rage is never good, and we all know that feeling of having let ourselves get too angry. It's important to know your triggers and try to communicate about them and manage them in a healthy way. But for me, this idea that yelling is bad has never had the ring of truth.

Families are all different. I'm sure there are people who might stand under my windows and feel shocked by the hooting and hollering that goes on, but that's just the color of the sky in my world. We laugh loudly and debate things passionately and occasionally we yell about something. But there is nothing abusive in any of our interactions. It's just how we communicate.

I think it's safe to say that yelling with the intention of frightening or intimidating is bad. But I guess I just don't believe all yelling has that intent. And false calm can be damaging, too.

ana said...

Let me clarify, its not the "loud" I objected to, but the intent to frighten and the seeming loss of control, as Got It, Ma! explains above.
I'm definitely one that rolled my eyes at the whole "yelling is the new spanking" nonsense, but now I'm thinking maybe "uncontrolled verbal rage can at times be just as harmful as a light-swat-on-the-behind"

Mrs. 5C said...

What a fantastic post!
Yelling - or actually, just fighting in general - was something I learned how to do AFTER I got married. My family was very WASPY. I never saw my parents fight until they got divorced.

I married into a loud, get-it-all-out-there Catholic family. It took some getting used to, but, MY goodness are we so much healthier because of it.

The baby's only 3 months old, so we don't do much yelling at her these days... haha... aside from the occasional, "Katherine! Will you please chil the eff out??" ...but I'm sure our day will come. ;)

paola said...

Oh yeah cultural. Italians learn how to shout before they learn how to talk, I 'm sure. And the kids tend to get loud with each other too, so it is a never ending cycle. That also means that shouting has little or no effect. In fact, it is when I lower my voice and slow down that I get the best result. They jump to attention.

Cloud said...

This has been a really interesting discussion! I feel the need to clarify- when I said that having my Mom yell was sort of scary, it wasn't because I was afraid of HER- it honestly never occurred to me as a child that a parent could hurt me (if only all kids had that). It was that it was scary that we'd done something to make her so mad. Although, looking back, I don't think it was every pure anger that made her yell. I think it was that we were the last straw that exhausted her patience. Now that I'm a grown up I can TOTALLY understand that.

Anonymous said...

I wish our 2 month old would stop yelling at us.

Haley said...

My parents didn't ever really yell, but they sure used loud angry voices when I deserved it. I think the fact that my parents were also VERY affectionate and constantly telling me how much they love me made it so that I was not scarred by it. As a result, I was a very obedient child and never felt like it was acceptable to misbehave at school, although their "no empty threats" philosophy probably influenced that more than anything.

I think in some cases, like if a child runs away from his mother in the Target parking lot and almost gets hit by a car (as I recently saw), it could be totally warranted to yell at the child for disobeying in order to get your point across. An almost 4 year old may not understand that something like that is completely inexcusable if you calmly say that mommy doesn't like when you run away from her and you could get hurt, so we're going to sit on a chair for 4 minutes later today.

/says the person w/out kids. :)

mom2boy said...

I think what frustrates me most about losing my own temper is that I know if it gets to that point, I've most likely neglected a bunch of my emotional stuff to get there. I never yell just about what's occurring right in front of me (go get dressed I've asked you three times now GO GET DRESSED!!) but because I can't manage what is occurring right in front of me.

Maria said...

So today is a new day. After a rough week culminating in a really rough day yesterday in which I yelled, cried, pounded my steering wheel, and felt like an utter failure, DD had a fantastic day today. Her teacher was totally impressed, she got an A on her book report, demonstrated new skills, and was joyful, self-sufficient, and responsible at home. She kept saying "Mom, you're the best."

I talked with a friend about this turn of events and she said "I know, it's awful and it just seems wrong. But really it's just called discipline." Now, I am pretty sure that technically you're not supposed to be out of control, but I'm wondering whether I just FEEL out of control. The truth is, I certainly have *some* control while yelling at her. I don't swear, I don't call names or make personal attacks -- my yelling is about the behavior not the child. I'm sure that's a distinction that's lost on a little kid but I hope it will at least be helpful in therapy that she can't say "And my mom said I was a useless brat"

There has got to be a line in here somewhere, and I spend some time on both sides of it. I may be coming around to the idea that engaging in the endless debates and negotiations with my daughter is less helpful and less healthy than a well timed authentic expression of what will just not be tolerated.