Rebecca was running late and told her 3-year-old that there was no time for another snack. But the toddler ignored her, popped open a can of almonds and spilled nuts everywhere. She also stepped on Rebecca's foot, maybe on purpose.
Rebecca cleaned up and asked her daughter to "go potty," before they walked out the door. Her daughter refused. Rebecca was going into her third trimester of pregnancy. She was tired. It was hot. She lost it. She shouted in her daughter's face – not exactly the kind and consistent approach she had been striving for during potty training. But it happened.
Moms and anger
We all get angry. Sometimes we lose our temper. "Parents are not intentionally going into a situation and saying if my child misbehaves, I'm going to blow up at them and yell uncontrollably," says Karen Bridbord, PhD, a psychologist certified by the Gottman Institute, who specializes in relationships. But it happens, says Bridbord, because we hold so tightly to patience, winding ourselves up, until it eventually escapes and explodes.
"I didn't know that I had this monster inside me," confesses Megan, mother of a 3-year-old daughter in Baltimore. "I had these ideas of who I wanted to be as a mom: 'I'll be perfect. I'll be in control.' But there's so much that goes out of control with a kid."
And when it happens in social situations, Megan finds that her temper rushes in. She feels exposed, like "I've done something wrong to make her 'bad' at a particular moment. That there's something wrong with me." And before she knows it, Megan has cornered her daughter for a furious scolding, only to feel overwhelmed by guilt minutes later.
Why we yell
The obvious answer is frustration, often sleep deprivation, and the general stress of life. There's also the sometimes overwhelming sense of responsibility – the to-do list divided among the needs of children, spouse, work. Maybe you just missed the bus, or the sitter didn't show and you're on a work deadline. Or maybe you forgot to cut the crusts off the sandwich and simply can't take the ensuing tantrum. There are bills. There is loneliness. There is what we expected, and what we get, and what we miss.
But, it's also how we're programmed to respond. "We call it an 'amygdala hijacking,'" says Bridbord. "Our emotions overwhelm us, and our heart rate is escalating. Our bodies experience the situation as if we are in fight or flight mode." But this natural response evolved to save us from saber-toothed tigers, not to negotiate the subtler challenges of modern parenthood.
When it is harmful
Experts acknowledge there are times in parenting when you must sound an alarm. When my daughter Lola is skipping toward the street, a quiet request to “make a better choice” won't keep her out of traffic. That's not the problem.
Yelling becomes problematic, says Dr. Bridbord, when "it is compounded with a message, usually one of criticism, humiliation, or even ridicule. Instead of targeting the child's behavior, it becomes a personal criticism." For example, instead of stopping with a quick reprimand to "quit kicking the table or that glass is going to fall," we add phrases such as “you never listen to me.” Or one of the worst: "What's wrong with you?"
When children feel shamed, they "learn that they are bad – and then they often try to live up to that expectation," says Lawrence Cohen, MD, PhD, author of Playful Parenting. "The angry voice becomes a dominant inner voice of that child."
And unfortunately, "yelling is usually a learned behavior," says Dr. Bridbord. "Often, people who come from families where there was a lot of yelling tend to yell unless they really make a conscious effort [not] to perpetuate the cycle."
How to stop the screaming cycle
Dr. Bridbord coaches parents to become aware of the physiological signs of emotional flooding, when our nerves run "off to the races." We can learn to tell the signals our bodies give in a split second: the tightness in the throat, the rapid breathing. When you feel that response rising in you, take a moment to breathe and get centered.
Carla Naumburg, PhD, author of Parenting in the Present Moment, recommends using a common mindfulness acronym: STOP. "S is for Stop, T is for Take a breath, O is for Observe, P is for Proceed," says Naumburg. "The idea is to stop whatever you are doing, take a deep breath, and notice what's going on around you. You can get a little headspace before responding, so you can be more thoughtful instead of knee jerk."
When she's at home, Naumburg actually puts her hands on the kitchen counter or takes a minute to concentrate on the feeling of her feet on the floor. These little actions ground her and bring her body and mind back from the fight or flight response.
It helps me to consciously practice thinking about what I love most about my daughter – a strategy recommended by renowned marriage therapist John Gottman. Many of us share a tendency to ruminate on grudges, to see and then replay the worst intentions in others, even our own kids. So I keep a few specific memories on file, like an image of Lola pointing at a block tower with pride, or a phrase I love to hear her say. ("Mama, I missed you!")
Then I repeat these moments in my head when I am calm – like when I'm lying on my daughter's floor in the dark at bedtime – so that I can recall them (with effort) in those moments when I feel my chest tightening and my blood pressure rising.
Figure out your triggers
Just like hunger primes a toddler for a tantrum, parents have triggers too. Sometimes, like Megan, our insecurities undermine our best intentions. We identify with our children, and their faults make us more furious when they feel familiar. We may worry their actions are a reflection of us.
At other times, we can view our kids' behavior as malicious. "Parents can take very personally their children's misbehavior or rebellion," says Dr. Bridbord. She remembers a father who yelled at his children at bedtime after a long day at the office. Yes, his kids were delaying bedtime (something all kids do), but his anger really came from a lingering sense of disrespect from colleagues. Children "want boundaries and structure, but they're going to push at times to see how far they can go," says Dr. Bridbord. That's normal developmental growth, not that they are out to get you (truly).
And adults fall prey to the same triggers – hunger, exhaustion – that set kids off. Anna, mom of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old (and pregnant with number three), in Brooklyn, says she "loses it at least a couple times a week." For her, the episodes come at then end of the day, "when we're all exhausted." During a recent incident, her older son was screaming and hitting her so that he could get inside the door ahead of his brother. "I tried to calm him down with words, then resorted to threats (no milk, no dinner, going to bed right away, etc.), then finally just screamed at the top of my lungs."
Transitions are often a pressure point, especially in an overscheduled day. Dana Rosenbloom, MSEd., a parenting educator in Manhattan, asks parents to continually "assess and reassess what's working for them and what may no longer work and require new strategies."
Seleni editorial director Kate Rope realized that taking her two kids across town for swim classes every Tuesday often led to meltdowns for one or more of the three of them. So, even though her eldest loves swimming, she dropped the activity to have calmer and more enjoyable Tuesdays for all.
Find an outlet for your emotions
As you probably tell your kids, "It's OK to be angry, but it's not OK to hurt people." Feeling anger at your children or anything else in your life is a natural, human emotion. Dr. Cohen recommends talking with a friend or therapist about what's behind your angry outbursts. "Choose someone who can tolerate you talking about angry feelings without judging you," suggests Dr. Cohen, and then "talk about what triggers you, about how you were treated as a child, about what kind of nurturing you needed then, and about what values you want driving your own parenting."
When all else fails, walk away
Sometimes it's you who needs the time out. If your child is not in imminent danger, walk away. Close the door. And, in really rough moments, Dr. Cohen suggests you “Lie on the floor and declare a surrender." This idea, from Patty Wipfler's Hand in Hand Parenting, is "a way to give up the impossible demands for perfection and control, which then allows you to get up committed to what really matters – connection and compassion."
Dr. Bridbord urges her clients to try meditation. "It increases your ability to not be reactive but rather be reflective in responding to your environment," says Bridbord. She recommends taking five minutes a day to breathe deeply and focus on what is happening inside you.
What to do after you yell
When your best efforts at staying calm fail, Dr. Cohen says the next step is simple. "Apologize. Children are very forgiving when we acknowledge our mistakes and make an effort to do better." Rosenbloom agrees, "Young children have an incredible ability to let it go and move on. When the situation is over, make a concerted effort to move on to the next."
"And don't bother with the guilt," recommends Philippa Gordon, a pediatrician in Brooklyn. Or "you’ll spend your whole life feeling guilty. The important thing is to model regaining control. Let the kid know that things are back to normal."
Try to do better, not be perfect
Guilt feels like an action – a way to pay penance. But it's paralyzing and doesn't lead to anything productive for you or your child. Instead, model working through your emotions. Dr. Bridbord recommends "actually sitting down, taking a few deep breaths, and modeling to your children at that moment what to do when they’re frustrated. We hear parents say this to their children all the time: take a few deep breaths, take a time out. You're giving yourself a time out in front of your child."
"Children are resilient, and they have a deep capacity to forgive in a way that some adults lose over time," says Dr. Bridbord. "Saying you're sorry, sharing what you're feeling, that's important – you're emotion coaching. Your role is not to be perfect. They're not going to love you less because you're imperfect."
I've been practicing this approach with my daughter. I tell her "Mommy got angry, but she is going to take a deep breath now. She is going to say she's sorry." I put my hand to my breastbone as I inhale. Lola also inhales in an exaggerated way. Together, we can start over again in the new moment.
Some helpful reading:
Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen
This book has helped me on a daily basis, just thinking of the title helps me recast a tense moment as a chance to play (instead of panic).
Screamfree Parenting by Hal Edward Runkel
One of Dr. Cohen’s go-to books.
Hand in Hand Parenting
This is a rich and diverse resource site, which can help with anger management and many other parenting concerns.
Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild by Mem Fox and Marla Frazee
This charming picture book is about a mother who loses her temper after a long day.