I yell at my kids because

… they won’t listen!

… I’m frustrated!

… they’re making a mess!

… we’re trying to leave the house!

… they’re putting themselves in danger!

… I need to get this one thing done!”

abuseAnd so on and so forth.  Those of us that have had to admit to yelling at our kids will typically come up with one of many reasons why we did it.  We may not like that we did it, but we did and we have a reason.  I would argue that the most common reason is actually a mix of kids not listening and parents getting frustrated.  However, I think this ignores the main reason why we yell and why we can be the ones to change this behaviour.

I yell at my kids because I’ve lost control

I firmly believe it is as simple as that.  Whether we have lost control of our emotions or our children’s behaviour, the short is that we have lost control.  But the types of control we lose say much more about our responses than anything else and I see three main types of loss of control that we have to contend with.

Loss #1. I’ve lost control of my children’s behaviour.

Unfortunately this is probably a relatively common one.  Parents yell and even just get in the habit of yelling (without anger) in order to get their children to be obedient.  Somehow we have established that we must have control over our children’s behaviour, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s to be a good parent, to stay sane, to be perceived as competent, or some other reason.  Even in peaceful parenting circles, you see parents who want to control their child’s behaviour.  They may not yell immediately to achieve it, they may negotiate or gently guide, but control is ultimately what they are after.

I know I’ve been guilty of this too.  I have days where I want my daughter to be on my schedule and do the things I want her to do, however I can get her to do them.  The problem here is that our sense of control is a complete illusion to begin with.  We can try to control our children.  We can make them afraid, we can negotiate, we can even offer bribes, but at the end of the day our control is simply them deciding to acquiesce (for good or bad reasons, depending on how we’ve tried to gain their compliance).

In traditional cultures where there are no immediate dangers, parents often don’t try to interfere with their child learning and behaving[1].  The child will do as he or she does, sometimes listening to parents and sometimes not.  And with time and natural consequences they may learn it’s more advantageous to listen to their parents (or not, as the case may be).

Obviously we don’t live in a society in which our children can just do ‘whatever’ and so we are, in part, responsible for our children’s behaviour.  And this puts us in a crosshairs.  We are responsible for them and yet we also must strive to help them become their own person with all that entails.  But the immediate effect of “what will people think” often outweighs our long-term planning for our children.  And we snap when we lose this precious control.

What are we doing wrong?  I’m not advocating leaving your child to do as he or she pleases.  However, I firmly believe we are striving for far too much control and we need to learn to relax some of that a little in ways that allow a child’s autonomy to grow while still maintaining some boundaries.  In short, I like to say “Pick your battles”.  What does this mean?  It means you have to relinquish control over many areas of your child’s life.  You have to pick those that are truly important to you and your family and leave the rest to your child to decide.  For example, I have decided clothing is an area I truly will not fight on.  My daughter can wear what she wants anywhere and as little or as much as she wants.  Yes, she’s left the house and shown up to my lab pantless.  Some may be horrified by this, but this was not an area I felt I had the right to control.  TV, however, is.  We have had battles when I insist it’s turned off or not turned on at all (though they are fewer than one would imagine given she seems to only be interested in short bursts before returning to play).  It is my responsibility as her parent to make sure she doesn’t sit in front of the TV all day and do nothing but watch.  That matters to me.  So I pick and choose.

How does picking your battles help?  For starters, it means there’s less of a chance of you losing it and yelling.  When you have fewer things you “need” to control, you can be a bit more patient with them as you aren’t constantly feeling like you’re overwhelmed and being fought on every decision or request.  But perhaps more importantly, you can actually increase the chances that your children are responsive to your requests.  Research has shown time and again that parents who listen to their children and allow them to lead at times have kids who are more likely to listen to their parents when the parents request that they do something (for a review, see [2]).  So if you feel you can, do yourself a favour, spend some time figuring out what you really need your kids to do, and let them control the rest.  You’ll probably be doing both of you a favour.

Click here for Part Two

[Image Credit: iStock Photos]



[1] Diamond J.  The World Until Yesterday. New York, NY: Viking, 2012.

[2] Grusec JE, Davidov M.  Integrating different perspectives on socialization theory and research: a domain-specific approach.  Child Development 2010; 81: 687-709.