Everyone loses their cool sometimes

Everyone loses their cool sometimes
(Creative Commons License Photo by Vic)

Do you yell at your kids sometimes?

Over the past few weeks I ran across a number of magazine articles and blog posts declaring how harmful it was for your children when their parents yelled at or in front of them. According to the Wall Street Journal, one in four parents do not yell at their kids at least once a month. Really? I’d like to meet one of these parents who never yells at their kids. In our family we have a word to describe these kinds of super parents — liars.

Everyone Fights

Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. Right from birth, your needs and desires have to be met by or denied by other people - as long as you are alive you will not always get your way, and you will clash with other people over ideology, resources, attention and any number of goals.

Most of the time, we can and should “use our words” and talk through our differences to resolve problems. We do this all the time without ever realizing it. We teach our kids to put down their fists and “work it out” with their friends - who gets to play with that toy, use the swing, whatever.

Sometimes talking doesn’t work right away. Sometimes we can’t compromise because we feel passionate about our position, we’re in danger, or we need to be heard. We yell. We stomp around.

Learning how to deal with conflict constructively defines us as people and separates us as adults from children. Teaching kids how to handle their emotions so they can interact with the world in a positive way is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of parenting.

Fighting in Front of Kids

Some parents believe that when a child sees their parents fighting, they feel less secure in their home. This can undermine their emotional development because we count on having a strong home to retreat to for recuperation and support.

We don’t subscribe to that belief. I try my best to speak my mind and confront issues right away before they can fester. Sometimes that means we bicker in front of the children. So yes, the kids see us “fight”. But when the fight ends, we don’t storm off angry, we make up and solve problems together.

We model to our children the reality that people disagree and people fight. More importantly, we are teaching them that arguments, while unpleasant, lead to positive outcomes. We want our children to embrace the reality that uncomfortable/stressful moments will happen in life, but this can be manageable stress. Life goes on.

Fighting With the Kids

Modelling constructive arguments with adults is one thing, but dealing with kids is an entirely separate category of nastiness. We want our kids to express themselves but they don’t yet know the difference between advocating for themselves and talking back. Children are manipulative in the sense that they learn to get want they want by crying, lying, throwing tantrums and acting up long before they master vocabulary and learn to express themselves with words.

Because they live with you and have spent their whole life getting their needs filled through you, they are in a great place for knowing which buttons will set you off. I don’t care what anyone claims; your kids are bound to push you over the edge and turn you into a screaming maniac. And if you’re like most parents you will probably feel terrible afterward. This kind of screaming is inevitable but it definitely isn’t healthy, which I assume is where the “perfect parent who doesn’t yell at their kids” lie comes from.

Problem Yelling

We contend that losing it and yelling at your kid once in awhile doesn’t make you a bad person; but it does become damaging if it becomes a pattern. Yelling functions like a fire alarm - it gets attention fast. If you are having a difficult time getting your kids to listen, but yelling at them gets results, you’re likely to yell again. And again. When parents resort to shouting too easily, children learn to ignore the parent’s initial calmer requests as “less important”. This becomes a perpetual cycle of aggressive and loud yelling that has less and less effect.

Breaking the Cycle

If you’ve fallen into the yelling trap it’s up to you to get out as fast as possible. Slow down, turn off the TV, and start to use positive language to re-establish a calm environment.

Calm Discipline

So we don’t want to yell at the kids. What’s the alternative? Certainly we don’t “let the inmates run the asylum”. As adults we make rules to protect our children, and when they break those rules there have to be consequences. So depending on the severity of the problem behaviour, there are a lot of tools at our disposal.

  1. Quiet Discourse: Sit down next to your child, explain what your expectations were, and what they did to fail those expectations. Make them a part of the discussion and have them repeat in their own words the correct course of action. When kids feel like a part of the decision process they are more invested in “doing the right thing”.

  2. Time Outs: The single most effective tool we’ve used is known as the time out. As we’ve written before, time outs are not meant to punish, they are a way of separating the child from the stressful situation so they can disengage from their emotional behaviour and see things in a logical “grown up” way. Once our kids are calmed down, they are almost always ready to get back into the thick of things in a much more behaved way.

  3. Praise Good Behaviour: It’s really easy to pick on bad or irritating behaviour. Often we don’t make as much time as we should to stop and appreciate our kid’s good behaviour. The problem, of course, is that taking two seconds to notice and praise them when they behave well is more effective than hours of handling bad behaviour. Everyone wants to do well and be recognized for their achievements and children are no different - close the laptop and compliment your kid for playing nice with their siblings.

  4. Look at me, I’m a diversion!: Our kids constantly have what I call “flare ups” - they go from playing really well, to screaming and throwing toys because someone has something that the others want. Often the situation can be diffused by putting another toy into play or redirecting the action to a different activity. In these cases it doesn’t take long to restore calm.

  5. Ignore: When the kids are doing something that is extremely irritating, like making noise or bickering with their siblings, we want to step in and change the behaviour. This is a classic case of “pick your battles” - instead of imposing order from above, let the kids self-organize and practice their social skills. This is how they will learn to conduct themselves when you’re not around - it’s great to be around for the extra support.

Try to Relax

It is said that the days are long but the years are fast. Try to take a moment to slow down and enjoy each other’s company. Nothing causes more joy than a well-timed joke and a bit of laughter. It won’t be long before the kids want to spend more time with their friends than with you; or worse, before they move out to start their own lives.

I’m trying my best to separate the really important things from the “right now” things, and like everyone else I’m not perfect, but I do the best I can. We created a calm inclusive environment that we want to maintain, even though having kids means it will never be truly quiet.

What strategies do you have for keeping the peace in your household? How do you feel about having scuffles in front of your kids - is it helpful, or should it be avoided? Have your say in the comments!