I used to yell too much at my own children. One day, in the middle of one of my screaming bouts, I switched my mindset from "demanding parent" to "supportive coach". This was a wonderful, life-changing experience for me. In my 23 years as a child and family psychologist, I have found that when parents control their own emotonal reactivity, their children usually follow with more respect and less defiant behavior.
I am in no way saying that you should give up being THE parent. Rather, I am suggesting that you will be listened to more as a parent when you don't let your emotions get the best of you. Taking on a coaching mindset can give you the emotional calm and space to get more respect. Here are some tips how to do this:
1. Be an active listener.
If you are in a conflict, draw your child out to see how he genuinely feels. Avoid being overly judgmental, which leaves your child feeling criticized, and will cause him to become defensive. One of my clients, Ken, shared with me how he found it helpful to ask his twelve-year-old son, Troy, to “Please help me understand why you seem upset.” Just that simple question helped Ken remember to listen to rather than lecture his son. Even if Troy did not give Ken an immediate answer, Ken realized that by asking this question he left the door open for Troy to share this thoughts and feelings later on. This question also helped prevent Ken from going into what Troy referred to as, “lecture mode.”
2. Use understanding to slow yourself down.
Listening as described above helps you to dig deeper and understand what's really going on with your defiant child. This is perhaps the best antidote to yelling. While understanding alone may not stop you from yelling, it will help. Try to analyze what it is that you'd like your child to change, and then rationally explain it to him. For example, in the case of a messy bedroom, ask yourself what is okay and what you'd like him to stop doing. Kayla, the mother of thirteen-year-old Gordon, realized that she could live with some clothes on the floor but not with two-week-old potato chips in the corner. As another example, is it possible that your son refused to get ready for school because he has a test he is not ready for? Or, is your daughter scared of being rejected by her new group of friends and she is taking it out on you? Stay mindful that understanding what is going on with your child will help slow you down emotionally. The more you slow down, the less emotionally reactive you will be and the less likely you are to yell.
3. Ask yourself whose problem is it?
Maybe your teen is playing music too loud or your preschooler is playing a favorite Let’s Go To The Zoo tape for the hundredth time and you have a headache. Unless you indicate to them that you have this headache, your children will not know this. Yelling at a child for something that is affecting you will not get your problem resolved. One mother I worked with, Colleen, realized that she never told her five-year-old son Ryan how much it bothered her when he tugged on her coat. At first she thought it was cute when Ryan did this, but over time it started to annoy her. Colleen calmly told Ryan to stop tugging on her coat and this prevented her from yelling. Children need parents to describe what they are feeling in order for them to understand. If you yell at your child because he is showing little or no appreciation for a gift you have given to him, your child will not understand that you are feeling unappreciated or rejected by his reaction. Be aware of how you interpret your child's behavior or reaction. The truth is that defiant children do not always understand how what they say or do affects their parents. Let your child know what you expect and what you want—your child can’t guess.
4. Recognize anger as a signal.
It's okay to feel anger—what matters is how you handle it. Anger does not have to mean “I must yell.” Yelling, for many parents, becomes a conditioned parenting reflex. It’s more helpful to view anger as a “signal” to resolve a problem. While people may vary, the common warning signs of rising anger include:
Tightness/pounding in the chest
Negative/toxic thoughts (e.g., “This child is ruining our family!”)
Clenching of fists
These signals of the urge to yell can be used to help you stay more constructive and logical and less likely to yell. For instance, if your son is making a mess in the family room, don't wait until you're going to explode before you mention that he needs to pick up some of the clutter. Should you become angry you can say both in your head and out loud, “I'm really angry about that now, I'll deal with you when I've calmed down.” The main idea is to let the emotional overloads simmer down before communicating and also model good anger management.
5. Don’t take it all so personally.
In his book The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz writes, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you…” This is valuable wisdom to keep in mind. If you stop and think about it, most of the time you yell at your defiant child, it’s because you are taking her behaviors too personally. Realize that your defiant child, even if trying to provoke you, is really behaving in this manner because of her own struggles, not yours. Remembering this will help you not get so frustrated and your risk of yelling will be much lower.
Dr Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist, personal and executive coach, and motivational coach in the greater Philadelphia area. He has been on the Today Show, Radio, and has written four popular books, including 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.