This week’s podcast was an impromptu record on “why we choose not to yell at our kids”, so I thought I’d be a little more concise here, in written format.
I grew up with yelling and being yelled at, and I turned out ‘fine’, so what does it really matter?
If my child has overstepped my boundary, don’t they ‘deserve’ to know so?
Sometimes, the only thing that works to get their attention is yelling.
Let’s start with our children. Being yelled at sends our nervous system into “fight, flight or freeze”. During this stress response our body is flooded with hormones designed for survival. All conscious brain activity slows or disappears, making the reflection and conscious decision making you’re seeking for your children to actively pursue, biologically near impossible. Yelling is literally counterproductive.
You’ll see children go into “fight” when they ‘fire up’ and back at you. They go into defensive mode; they deflect, talk back, yell back, etc. These children (and adults) have learnt that it is far ‘safer’ to get you first, before you get them. They are the bull in the china shop.
Children who go into “flight” mode will literally run. They’ll exit the scene, they’ll do whatever they have to do to get the heck out of there, because being ‘here’, being with the person they love in this moment is more painful than being away from them.
“Freeze” mode looks like presence, but it’s not. These children stand still, stiff. They can emanate looking like they’re listening, but they’re actually ‘vacant’. These children have learnt how to make themselves invisible, how to stand so still and be so ‘inoffensive’, that sooner (preferably) or later you’ll stop paying attention to them.
All of these are anciently programmed biological responses to stress and survival and form the basis for our adult relationships. So, ‘fine’, is also not fine. How we internalise the messages from our family of origin will unconsciously set us up for how we respond to intimacy, vulnerability and conflict as an adult.
When we flip the mirror of yelling back to ‘us’, instead of our children, we can also see it as a red flag of a trigger of our own.
How did we get here? Why are we yelling right now?
What happened the moment before ‘I snapped’?
What is our internal dialogue?
Are we ourselves stressed?
Are we expressing how we’re feeling on the inside?
Are we unconsciously ‘releasing’ the stored emotions of how we ourselves were treated as children?
Yelling is usually the result of stress. We’ve been pushed too far, our children have hit a button for us, we feel as though we’re resourceless and have no options for handling ‘things’, or our children. So we yell. We ‘release the beast’, because at least then someone will listen, we get to be the powerful one and we get to feel in control, even though by virtue of yelling we are completely out of control.
Our very motivations for yelling; to gain control and power over a situation, is where our focus should be. Yelling is a sign that we’ve hit a button, perhaps an old memory, and we’re feeling unsafe and without any options. If we took a moment to check-in with ourselves, we’d notice how out of control, powerless and vulnerable we feel. These are the triggers for yelling, not our children and this is where the work lies.
It’s worth mapping out the occasions that are a sure-thing to get you yelling:
What do they have in common?
What are your key triggers?
What are the situations that have you feeling like you have no options?
Then ask yourself:
What could I put in place, say or do,’ earlier in the piece’ to promote cooperation and understanding with my children, rather than feeling ignored?
What can I do for myself to tame my beast and handle my own inner child trigger?
For me, I know my triggers are when I’ve spoken and I feel as though no one is listening, I feel ignored, which is ironic because my programmed response to yelling is to freeze; to wait to be ignored.
I know I need to listen to myself when I’m feeling stretched and change my triage decision making processes:
What can I scale back? What is urgent and what does not need to get done?
What am I feeling? Why?
What do I need to voice in order to feel as though I am listened to? What do I need to listen to and act upon for myself?
Ensuring I slow down is a very deliberate act of staying in my body. When we go into a stress response we are anywhere but present. Our triggered state takes us to all our past hurts and feels and our flooded cortex takes us to all the future danger we perceive we need to avoid. By slowing my movements and my speech down, I am able to practice staying present in my body and when I can be present in my body, I am not living in my past or projecting into the future.
I can calm ‘my beast’ by remembering I am the adult, I am not the powerless defenceless child I once was. I have the power and the toolkit I never had as a child. I remind myself I am not under immediate threat, I am not without resources. In many ways, I hold onto my ‘true north’ for parenting; my why for consciously choosing the growth and I remind myself it all begins with me.
And then I smile.
Sometimes it’s forced. Sometimes I have to fake it till I make it, knowing that when I invite playfulness, when I ‘laugh’ at all the irony embedded in our parenting, I find a genuine wellspring of love that cuts past all the pain and keeps me in connection.
Other times, it’s a smile born of love. Sometimes this love sounds like “wow, you’ve grown up, look at you, I’m captivated” and sometimes it sounds like “wow, that was gutsy/ballsy/possibly stupid” and in a way I see my own life flash before my eyes, all the times I’ve pushed the boundaries and I’m genuinely humoured.
After the smile comes my boundary.
With presence, unencumbered by own past, I can see my child and what needs they are trying to get met. I check in past my own trigger and ask myself what needs I need to get met and have honoured right now and then I meld the two:
“I can see that you are trying to….”
“I understand that you want……”
“I wonder if you can check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling? What are you feeling right now? Why?”
“So you want to…..and I need to…..how can we do both?”
If they are still stuck in fight, flight or freeze, it becomes about bringing them back on line, letting those brain chemicals have time to dissipate and calling in anything from their “way back to balance” list to help them bring their body back in line with their mind.
If they’ve been really disrespectful, I’ll pull them up on that. I don’t need to yell and fight for my worth, I know that I am worthy of respect, so I stand my sacred ground, I firmly plant my roots and ‘say’ with my body and my tone “you’ve overstepped a boundary and I won’t let you do that”.
My sentence will begin with sharp eye contact and something along the lines of “I won’t let you….speak to me like that/do that…I feel really disrespected, hurt and angry….”. Then I’ll begin with any of the sentences or strategies used above.
Later on, if everyone is in connection and we discuss what worked and what didn’t, we may discuss repair. Acts of service will become applicable if the damage created in relationships during the ‘episode’ was greater than an apology, if extra love needs to be put back into the ‘tank’ of that relationship, or if deeper accountability and ownership of the damaging actions needs to be received.
So why don’t I yell at my kids? Because I am not powerless, I am not optionless and I have a toolkit for my ‘inner beast’ beyond releasing it unconsciously. I also know that if I’ve gotten to the point of yelling, I’ve missed the signposts to my own needs and boundaries waaayyy earlier, and it is my responsibility to listen my own needs and find my voice and my action to honour them.
Triggers is one of the hardest challenges of parenthood; being able to be present, careful in our action and our word and staying in connection. It's why we created Aligned Parenting as an easy-access online toolkit to give you the insight, the understanding, and the parenting options to know what to do next with our children, but also with ourselves. We are the centre of the family and how we feel, is how the family rolls. Nourish the mother to rock the family!
Julie Tenner is Co-founder of Nourishing The Mother and is The Pleasure Nutritionist. Julie is a Naturopath, specialising in women’s and children's health, with specific focus on awakening women to their full potential – health for the mind, body and soul – creating lasting life change for you and your family by “coming home” to your magnificence.