Ah, stress-free parenting… that would be nice wouldn’t it? John Dabell shares some tips for being a calm parent.
Unfortunately, stress is part and parcel of being a parent, and unavoidable, it’s in the job description. Parental stress comes in all shapes and sizes but can often manifest itself negatively through shouting, yelling and screaming. Beeping your car horn is normal.
What might worry you, though, is when you find yourself shouting almost as a default reaction to events – big and small. If that’s the case and you feel like you might be making a habit of shouting, then it is time to take a step back and think why and what you can do to help yourself regain control. Shouting rarely makes you feel better and is likely to impact negatively on your child when done excessively as it is counter-productive.
Danish psychologist Erik Sigsgaard has found that shouting at children is ‘verbal abuse ‘ that can be as harmful as hitting or spanking. A study by psychiatrists at Harvard Medical School in the US found shouting can significantly and permanently alter the structure of children’s brains because it is stressful. It can also negatively impact the child’s self-esteem and potentially increase aggression in them, especially if the raised voices are regular and in themselves abusive.
Fight, flight or freeze
We shout when we are angry. Anger is a reaction and the result of thinking that we have been disrespected or that others have broken or fallen short of our expectations, standards and rules. When we get upset our body's way of helping us to cope causes us to go into a fight, flight or freeze mode.
If we ‘fight’ then we respond to those thoughts and feelings by acting, or feeling an urge to act, in threatening or aggressive ways. When you think “I’ve had enough” you get upset which unleashes a range of physical and emotional responses such as a pounding heart, shaking, accelerated breathing, feeling hot and bothered, being defensive, feeling overwhelmed, being tearful, scared and helpless. If you feel some of these responses your behaviour changes and this comes out as arguing, snapping, swearing, shouting or roaring.
Buttons and triggers
Parenting is all about button pressing. Certain situations and certain behaviours will press certain buttons (if you let them) and it is vital to know your trigger points.
It’s a good idea to make a note of what your child does that presses the ‘shout’ button and what you experience leading up to a yelling outburst. Is it a certain time of the day or a certain activity?
Children’s behaviour can be challenging, and you could face these challenges several times a day, seven days a week, and that is exhausting – for both of you. Children will be stubborn, argumentative and destructive and sometimes it can feel personal; when that happens, and without effective strategies in place, you can start to feel inadequate, threatened and insecure, convincing yourself that other parents are doing a much better job than you are (they aren’t!).
When you have been flooded by emotions and your child continues to push, pull and test you then shouting isn’t normally that far behind, waiting to erupt and attack. You might find yourself yelling things that are belittling, blaming or personal. For example, “What is wrong with you?”, “Why don’t you just listen I’ve told you 1,000 times before!”, “Are you stupid?! I said not to do that!”
When you find yourself shouting more than talking and getting personal then it signals a downward spiral in your relationship and so it is vital to break vicious cycles of negative thinking, feelings and behaviour. Feeling guilty and ashamed is a common response after shouting and this can lower your mood as well as theirs.
The good news is that your parenting style is not fixed and you can make changes to improve your problem-solving ability. How you approach situations depends on your mindset and you can use some strategies to change the way you think, feel and behave.
Your parenting style often replicates that of your own parents and upbringing. They may have used old-fashioned shouting methods as a strategy for dealing with you when you were ‘naughty’ or not behaving in a way that they wanted you to. If all you ever heard as a child were negative comments and you were at the receiving end of shouting attacks then this may have become your inner voice and unwittingly you could be passing this on all over again to your own children.
Managing emotions and avoiding meltdowns is obviously good for you and good for your child because your parenting style is inextricably connected to the mental health and wellness of your child. Psychologists say that it isn’t an event which causes our emotions but how we interpret that event, so what we think or what meaning we give that event or situation is what really counts.
Having a plan
Parents are good at juggling balls, however, everyone has a breaking point and in the heat of the moment when your child’s behaviour has provoked a negative feeling, it can be easy just to give in to shouting.
Unless you have a proactive plan you might only ever settle for a few stock responses of your own when managing children’s behaviour, so planning for the inevitable and having a range of techniques at the ready makes sense.
Whilst no one would expect you to refer to a list of ideas in the midst of a child’s tantrum, having one to hand that you can consult regularly will definitely help minimise the shouting mode. One size doesn’t fit all, so some suggestions might fit perfectly, others might be a tight fit and one or two you might not be able to get into at all.
Tips for positive parenting
STOP: Step back, Take a breath, Observe, Put in perspective – Just by pressing your own pause button and taking time out for a moment lets you see a situation more clearly. Imagine what a drone would see if it were hovering above you? Take some deep breaths to centre yourself.
Watch your body – pointed fingers, clenched fists and arms flapping are adding fuel to the fire and can really intimidate children so think about the signals you are giving off. Make your body language neutral, passive and non-threatening.
Think about the volume button – yelling means that children only really hear your voice – far better to speak in a calmer hushed tone so they hear your words not your noise. A calm, measured and steady voice is going to help the dust settle not whip it up. The more you shout the less children listen.
Level with them – when the going gets tough, standing over your child can make you look like a monster, so get down to their level, make eye contact and face the music together face-to-face not face-to-waist. Be level headed.
Be reasonable – research has shown that reasoning with children is more likely to have a positive impact on their behaviour. Try to get children to talk about what they are experiencing rather than shouting at them and over them. A composed talk through what is happening where you try to decode behaviour is better than naming, blaming and shaming.
Focus on the behaviour not the child – if your child hits another then shouting is only going to add fuel to the flames. Explain why that type of behaviour is unacceptable and talk through some alternatives so your child can see that there is always another way to react and deal with a situation. Children need to reflect on their own actions and the choices they can make. Provide options and talk about good and bad choices.
ABC – using an Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence chart will help you get a better picture of what is contributing to your child’s environment. The A refers to antecedent or the event or activity that immediately precedes a certain behaviour, B refers to the behaviour a child displays, and C is the Consequence or event that immediately follows a response.
Use a mediator – using a puppet or a teddy can calm a situation right down as they act as a third party that your child can identify with and talk to. A puppet can respond to a situation and model a desired behaviour in ways that a parent can’t!
Teach emotional literacy – share feelings and emotions together using an emotions chart where you can point to how you are feeling and why. Look at different faces of emotions and talk through why we feel the way we do in certain situations. Teach emotion words so that children can express how they feel.
Gently does it – no one is pretending that remaining calm is easy, but behaviour can be calmed by holding hands and giving a gentle hug.
Praise purposefully – when children are being productive, busy and helpful, remember to tell them how happy you are, but be specific. “Well done, good boy for doing that” is too general but “I really like the way you tidied your room by moving your teddies over there. They look much cosier! I think they are a lot happier there don’t you?” Rewarding with objects can be also be helpful, e.g. stickers.
Stand firm – if you have clear rules then you have to stick to them not just some of the time but all of the time. If you say “Five more minutes on your iPad” then five minutes it is. If you don’t follow through and you find your child negotiating, ignoring you or calling your bluff then a shout isn’t far away. Have a rule, state a consequence, be consistent and stick to it; this avoids a power-struggle. Inconsistency breeds confusion as children won’t know how to behave.
Eat well, sleep well – having a well-balanced diet and a structured bedtime schedule is going to remove a lot of problems because if you are tired and hungry then you will be grumpy. Children that are rested and well-nourished are better behaved, so take care of the basics.
Smile – one of the best diffusers of tension and conflict is to humour it and smile. That’s a tall order in the face of chaos but anger never wins so if you can laugh and pacify a situation this has to be a win-win.
Children’s behaviour can be naïve, unsophisticated, contradictory, confusing and frustrating but then so can our responses. It doesn’t have to be this way. Children will look at role models and want to be like someone else and mimic their behaviour. We can model great behaviours and feel confident that children will want to do the same. Self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth aren’t likely to grow when being shouted at, so as a parenting strategy it’s best left unused unless a child is in danger and you really do need to shout to keep them safe; if they are too used to you ‘shouting wolf’ the ability to stop them in their tracks if needs be loses its effect.
This article appeared in Playtimes May Issue 2017.