“Seriously?!!? I told you to put your name on your homework and put it in your backpack! Why have you just been standing there staring at the wall for the last ten minutes? Are you kidding me!? I asked for one simple thing, and it wasn’t that hard!” My voice was booming, and my tone condescending. My seven year old blinked back tears, feeling belittled and hurt by the person who is supposed to love him the most.
This scene, no doubt, is unfortunately familiar to many parents. We already know that yelling at our kids makes them feel worse, and making a person feel poorly about himself is never a good way to motivate positive behavior. And if you have ever read any books or articles on this subject, you already know all about the importance of “noticing the anger” and “taking a few deep breaths to reduce tension.” But, what is going on, psychologically, that makes it just SO hard sometimes to “stay calm”? What is the REAL reason we yell at our kids?
On the surface, the reasons for parental anger seem obvious. Take your pick: The lack of listening? The huge mess? The back-talk? The extra work bestowed on us when we have to sit and monitor the child for two hours in order to complete two math problems?
But what if I told you that the reason parents yell has nothing to do with the kid? Nothing at all. Psychologists have long-known that “perceived threats” (aka “fear” and anxiety) are at the root of anger. The threats that trigger yell-worthy anger in parents include:
1) Threats to our goals (someone dumps legos all over the floor, thwarting our goal for a clean house, so we feel “anger.”): Sometimes the goals that we have are arbitrary and automatic “shoulds” such as “We MUST arrive at music lessons on-time, or the world will end” or “The playroom SHOULD remain spotless or the world will end.” Sometimes, parents have goals for their child to be something/someone that he is not; We tell ourselves, wrongly, that if our child doesn’t behave a certain way, either we are inadequate parents (more on that later) or our children are destined for eternal failure. In my case, I was holding tight to the “goal” for my son to be on-task and independently motivated, because I irrationally feared that he would go into adulthood unable to manage life’s obligations. An important part of minimizing parental yelling is to mindfully consider the usefulness and feasibility of our goals/”shoulds,” and challenge any irrational reasons that we adhere to these goals. Does it really mean catastrophe and certain failure if a child’s behavior thwarts our goal or “should”? Or more to the point, is aggressivley defending this goal worth deteriorating my kid’s psychological well-being? Emphatically no. In my example with my son, a mindful sentiment would have been, “I am noticing that I am telling myself he SHOULD be able to focus because I fear he will never be able to get a job and attain success if he doesn’t do his 1st grade math independently in this moment. Wow, when I put it that way, I sound ridiculous.”
2) Threats to our basic needs (A behavior threatens our feelings of adequacy, safety, or worth, so we feel “anger.”): The psychological need that kids most-commonly obliterate is their parent’s need to feel “adequate.” Unfortunately, feelings of adequacy are sometimes tied closely to our “shoulds.” I have talked to countless individuals in couples therapy who, because of their own overly rigid or overly permissive childhoods, have come to associate having “control” over another person with being “loved” by that person. To put it another way, sometimes we think, “Others SHOULD do things MY way, because doing things MY way means they love and consider me, thereby affirming my sense of adequacy and worth.” And even if this phenomenon is not occurring, it is natural to associate our child’s undesirable behaviors with our own inadequacies as parents. The irrational thought is, “If I cannot ‘force’ my child into engaging in desirable behaviors, then how inept of a parent am I?” Again, the solution here is to challenge the irrational fears of inadequacy. This can only happen when we accept that our children are born with certain limitations and certain strengths, and it is our job to nurture the strengths and gently offer opportunities for growth. A mindful sentiment in my case would have been, “My child is not a space-cadet because I am a bad parent, and homework time is simply an opportunity for me to help him learn ways that he can get his math completed.”
There you have it, parents. Both a reassurance that you are not the only one who loses it on their kids sometimes, AND some helpful ways to challenge the feelings behind the anger. Because everyone knows yelling is bad, but just knowing that changes nothing.
Angelica Shiels Psy.D.
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