My kids used to love to play with balloons when they were little. They’d chase them, and bop each other over the head with them, and draw funny faces on them. One afternoon, while drawing a face with wide eyes and bared teeth on a bright orange balloon, my son stopped and looked up at me earnestly and said, “Mommy, this is what you look like when you’re mad.”
That moment was a wake-up call. It was a moment when I realized when I yelled it wasn’t just a brief interlude of upset. I was having a profound impact on the emotional well being of my kids. Sure, it got them to do, or stop doing, what I wanted them to—at least in the short-term, but what was it doing to our relationship long-term?
The reality is that when we yell at our kids, we are training them to yell back at us and at others to get what they want. Yelling is a tool to gain power, but it damages relationships in its wake. And ironically, the result of that damage is that our kids ultimately become less likely, not more, to want to behave. Whether or not they show it, yelling pushes our kids away from us. And if that’s not enough, the way in which a parent manages their own stress has been shown to be one of the most important factors in their children’s success and happiness.
Nowadays I consider myself a recovering yeller. Its not that it never happens, but it’s rare. And when it does happen, its because I haven’t been practicing one of these skills:
Mindfulness: Have you ever been surprised by your own reaction? When we practice mindfulness we creates the cognitive space we need so that we can have that moment to self-observe before we react. In addition, when we are mindful and being fully present to whatever we are doing in that moment (i.e. not multi-tasking), we become more engaged, less distracted, and less irritable.
Unplugging: Similar to multi-tasking, constantly checking texts, email or social media has been shown to increase stress. In a study where participants’ emotional wellbeing was tracked against their frequency of checking email, those who were limited to checking email 3 times per day experienced significantly lower daily stress.
Sleep: When we don’t get enough sleep it impacts our executive functioning and we become more inattentive, more impulsive, and more moody—a perfect storm for the parent who’s working on their impulse to yell.
Breathe: It may sound cliché to suggest breathing, but when we become stressed oxygen moves from our brain to large muscle groups designed for fight or flight. This lack of oxygen in our brain impedes our ability to take pause before we react. Taking deep breaths has a physiological effect, returning oxygen to the brain, helping us to relax and to think clearly again.
Meditate: There’s a huge body of research emerging about meditation and its plethora of benefits including an increase in compassion and in overall positive emotion, enhanced memory and attention, and reduction of stress. In fact, a recent Harvard study utilizing MRIs showed that meditation can alter the brain’s physical structure in just a matter of 8 weeks, leading to cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.
Empathize: It’s difficult to be upset with someone when we’re empathizing with them. Take a moment to consider why your kids are acting the way they are. Are they bored, hungry or tired? Are they trying to get our attention, or gain some personal power in a negative way? Or are they just an innocent victim of crazy teen hormones and an undeveloped frontal lobe? It’s much easier to remain calm when we’re feeling compassion for our kids.
Simplify: As parents, we often “lose it” at times when we are trying to do too much or we are feeling pressed for time. However, if we take an honest look at our commitments, there are likely to be things we can let go of to make our lives more manageable. Removing even one thing can make a big difference.
Gratitude: Feelings like anger, bitterness, and resentment are incompatible with gratitude. When we actively practice gratitude we experience less negativity and more positive emotions. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis for the blessings in our lives, including the health and wellbeing of our children, can be enough to help us to take pause, to breathe, to empathize, and to react calmly.