One of my co-workers had to put on her “mom voice” today at work when addressing the kids, and it got us to talking about tone of voice, and how to effectively get through to kids when they were engaging in problematic behaviors. The topic of yelling came up briefly, with us both agreed that it was generally not a great approach, but with her admitting that, in moments of fear or shock, she’s done it without even thinking.
I yell at my kid sometimes. I’m not one of those old-school parents who are like, “yeah, instill the fear of God into them!” I generally think yelling is ineffective and there are about a dozen ways that are more effective and more helpful than screaming at your kids, but… I yell, sometimes. I generally don’t mean to. As someone who experiences intense emotions and is frequently overwhelmed, it’s more that my brain sometimes doesn’t know how to process something without, just, making a racket.
As I’ve said before, it didn’t take me long as a parent to get really sick of the mommy-shaming and the holier-than-thou parenting, so while I used to feel really awful every time I yelled at my kid, I’ve since made peace with the fact that it sometimes happens, and I have to roll with that. If you’re a parent, especially a neurodivergent paren, who gets overwhelmed easily and sometimes finds themselves raising their voice, here are a few things I’ve set as ground rules.
I don’t yell as a de facto parenting strategy. Yelling is not part of the plan. It is not my A Game, and it is not my Plan B. It’s just something that happens, sometimes, and as long as it’s not happening all the time — and I’m not looking to it as a solution to my problems — it’s not a big deal.
I tell my kid exactly what made me yell, and the reason can never be “you’re being a brat!” The last thing I needed as a kid, especially when I was already in a tizzy and feeling untethered and emotionally out of control, was my parents telling me what a horror I was. That’s not to say that sometimes I’m not yelling because my kid is acting terribly, but that’s not how I frame it. Sometimes it’s, “I yelled because you were doing something dangerous and you scared me,” or “I yelled because I feel like you aren’t listening and I need to know you’re hearing what I’m saying,” or “I yelled because I got very frustrated and lost patience.” As a young kid, he’s not always able to intuit cause-and-effect (“Ohh, I was standing on the counter and that’s dangerous, and that’s why mommy yelled!”) or understand that I’m not simply screaming at him for no reason, so I have to explicate that in very, very simply terms, even if it’s something that would be totally obvious for an older kid or an adult.
I apologize, especially when it’s evident I upset him, or to reassure him he’s not the reason I’m upset. Sometimes I yell and I know it was an over-reaction, not just a gut reaction (i.e, I yelled because I’d had a bad day and was at the end of my tether, rather than yelling because he was doing something dangerous and I got frightened). I make sure to apologize, because you know what, he’s going to learn some day that I’m far from perfect, and I would rather he see me own up to that early and often than see me try to posture and pretend. I know I have a lot more respect for people who own their mistake than those who refuse to cop to them. “I’m sorry I yelled, I’m feeling very frustrated today. That’s not your fault, I’ve just had a hard day and shouldn’t have yelled.” It happens. I would like it not to, and I try not to let it happen often. But again, if and when it does happen, I feel like it’s better to be totally honest with them and let them know it’s not something they did that upset me — mommy has bad days sometimes, too, and it’s not thier fault.
If you feel like you’re going to snap, let them know you need time alone. We try to get out kids to count to five when their emotions are escalating, and put them in time out (or time in) when they blow their tops, and yet we don’t allow ourselves to do the same (note: I realize that in some situations, and especially if you are a SAHP or a single parent, this is very, very hard to do. I get that, this isn’t a judgement on you, just a general observation). But if we are always telling them to take time out and regroup, but we just allow ourselves to get more and more riled up, are they going to put any stock in our suggestions? Or are theygoing to figure we’re just serving up BS? “Mommy loves you lots, but she’s getting very frustrated and needs to take a minute to calm down.” I’ve said literally this to my son before, and then I tell him that daddy would love to hang out with him for a bit while mommy cools off. I feel like, so long as I reassure him that I love him (and I remind him all the time that even people who love each other can get mad at one another or need time apart, and it doesn’t mean they love each other any less) and that I will be back, he will appreciate — as he gets older — a mom who makes it a point to interact with him with her head on straight instead of flying off the handle.
I know that anecdotes are not unbiased, objective reality, but — the fact that my parents yelled at me? Is not something that bothers me. What they said to me, habitually, is what stuck with me. Isolated moments, for the most part — especially if handled with care — are not going to be the defining moments of my son’s childhood. It’s going to be the consistent, collective, cumulative way in which I conduct myself. When I yell at him, that’s not great, no — but if I’m transparent, honest, and respectful towards him, especially in following those moments where maybe I didn’t handle things ideally, I think he will be grow to be confident in knowing that while mom may not be perfect, she loves him and will try to do right by him.
Parenting is hard, parenting when you have your own internal issues is harder still. The last thing we need is to beat ourselves up over the inevitable. Just treat your child with respect, admit when you have messed up, remind them that you love them, and move on, trying to be your best every day (and forgiving yourself when you’re not).