How do I Stop Yelling at my Child?

yelling-parentParents are only human and for some, ok…many parents, yelling can be a problem. If you find yourself yelling at the kids and feel guilty for it, this mother’s situation and question may seem very familiar! Discover how to stop yelling with the ideas and strategies found in the answer.

Parenting Question:

I’m a single mom raising two girls, ages 10 and 7. Being a supportive and nurturing parent is the most important thing to me, and generally, I feel like I’m a pretty good parent. But sometimes, things escalate, they talk back to me, and it reaches a point where I find myself yelling and saying things I really regret later. It’s as if I totally lost control of myself and can’t stop?

Signed, Losing It in New Jersey!


Dear Losing It,

There are many ways to answer the question you have posed. Although it may be helpful to analyze what is contributing to your daughter’s frustration, and hence, the escalation between the two of you, I’d like to shelve that issue for now. Rather, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to take a closer look at what is happening inside of you, the parent, that may be contributing to the escalation. By stepping into your internal world, discovering the “wiring” behind the scenes of your own behavior, you can achieve greater self-understanding and enhance your parenting beyond words.

Parenthood is one of the most intense of all human relationships. It is a journey where we can come to discover and develop some of our most positive qualities: our patience, our nurturing, and our ability to identify our children’s strengths and help them see them too. But along the way, we come to meet other, less pleasant, aspects of ourselves. We are faced with the undeniable reality, day after day, that we are appallingly shorter of perfection than we may have thought.

mad mamaWhen you describe “losing control” and being “unable to stop”, it is a clue for us that a shift in your general manner has taken place. Your usual rational, calm, “what is the most helpful thing to do here” approach has been abruptly switched off and been usurped by its not-as-likeable, emotion-dominated counterpart. When this happens, your rational self, that part of you that has the ability to delay gratification and coherently plan the next logical step, is basically immobilized. The system that takes over is a system manned by raw, unprocessed emotion (e.g. rage, fury, fear) that is very difficult to contain due to the collapse of logic.

The last decades have seen an explosion in the amount and quality of research generated on the role of the brain in emotional regulation.. What you describe of yourself is something most parents will identify with. Many parents describe occasions where they “see red”, “lose control”, or are “consumed by fury”. They describe being so taken over by this emotional storm that they feel unable to stop themselves. Taken to its extreme, abusive parents describe this state, during which they unleash unbridled fury upon their children and feel unable to stop it. When this state has passed, they may be overcome by deep feelings of remorse and self-hatred. But even for healthy, well-regulated parents, the nature of this type of emotional state is not unfamiliar. And when a parent realizes that he has just spewed venomous criticism and character-slashing toward the child he dearly loves, he will feel deep shame and resolve never to do it again.

What causes the switch into these states, and what can we do to restore our self-control?

Neurologists have identified two primary modes of processing information: the higher mode, or “high road”, and the lower mode, or “low road”. High road processing involves the rational, “higher” form of processing information. It is the ability to objectively analyze information, while allowing us a flexibility and self-awareness throughout the process. Conversely, the low road of information processing represents a shift in gears, whereby the high road is shut down. The individual operates under raw and intense emotion, lack of awareness as to the impact of his actions on others, rigidity, and impulsivity. In purely structural forms, the high road involves the prefrontal cortex in its processing, which is the brain region responsible for rational thoughts, whereas the low road short-circuits that section of the brain and proceeds to process the information utilizing the limbic system only (home to emotional processing) and leaves out the prefrontal cortex.

Of course, the obvious question remains: What triggers the entry into the low road state? Why do we “lose it”, i.e. switch from prefrontal cortex involvement to disengagement?

Neuroscientists have examined the characteristics of the switch to low road processing, and have delineated the process. They have found that there is always a trigger, either internal or external, which serves to activate the shift from high road to low road. At this point, a transitionary process is begun whereby the brain makes its descent into low road processing. Once this happens, you are in a state of “immersion”, where the ability to self reflect and self control is partially or totally suspended. (For further understanding of the brain science involved and for a fascinating read, see “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel J. Siegal, MD and Mary Hartzell, M. Ed, Penguin-Putnam, 2008)

The ramifications of this knowledge are enormous. If entry into the low road is precipitated by a trigger, perhaps we can identify our triggers and perhaps find an alternative way to respond to them?

In order to answer this, it is helpful to begin with an understanding of what typically constitutes a trigger into low road functioning.

Every parent was once a child herself. We all know that the complexities of how our parents raised us contribute, among myriad other factors, how we view ourselves. Even adults who were raised in a generally positive environment will recall themes or issues that may remain raw or unprocessed for them. These are the unresolved issues, the issues that remain potent with emotionality for us, that trigger our connection with our pain, vulnerabilities, and insecurities. Some common themes that people experience as unresolved are dependence, loss, aggression, intimacy, and more.

When one of these issues is activated through interpersonal connections, we access, momentarily, those feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. Although these feelings can be activated by any interpersonal interaction, children, by virtue of their still-evolving social finesse, activate these feelings in their most primal, basic forms.

Children are still learning to negotiate the bigger issues of attachment and interpersonal skills- the basic building blocks of relationships. This, coupled with the fact that we are so connected to them and assume responsibility for them, contributes to our extreme emotional reactivity toward our children. They consistently serve to trigger some of our most potent unresolved issues in the most basic way.

Although this is a reality, we do not have to resign ourselves to continually reenacting these scenarios we later regret so deeply. We can actively make use of this knowledge to help ourselves.

It is now clear that the entry into the low road is activated by our child’s triggering this state. Something about his behavior, his way of engaging with us, touches upon our most vulnerable spots. Perhaps his needs of us (nurturance, dependence, support) are too much for us to handle? Perhaps he exhibits behavior (aggression, dependence) that brings up themes fraught with emotionality for us? Perhaps we become enraged or ashamed in the face of our own imperfections, impatience, or intolerance that we exhibit following our child’s demands? The result is a flooding of our consciousness with raw emotionality such as rage or fear. This feeling is so strong, such a tidal wave of emotion that we feel quickly stripped of our self control. And the result is subsequent low road behavior.

It seems clear that once on low road mode, it is exceedingly difficult to shift back to high road state. Usually, it is best to take a “time-out” and physically leave if needed, until you’ve sufficiently restored your ability to self-reflect, and wrest back your self-control. But once the mechanism of low road is clear, you can take some quiet time to reflect on the triggers that set you off. Some questions that might be enlightening:

When does my transition into low road tend to occur? (Place, time, specific child)

What are the behavioral triggers that tend to coax me into low road mode? Where do these triggers fit into the larger context of my childhood, upbringing, and self-concept?

Self-reflection is crucial in making sense of your transition into the low road. Although it may not enable you to completely avoid descending into the low road modality, it will enhance your understanding, and allow you t identify alternative coping patterns. (Go for a walk, take a drink, etc.) Ultimately, you may even find yourself able to talk your way around the low road: “I’m feeling myself getting heated up again. Uh-oh. Low road again. Why? Oh, Brian is whining again. He’s pushing the ‘nothing is ever good enough’ button. It’s my old ‘I have to please everyone’ issue. There goes my perfectionism. Ok, this is clearly my issue, not his. He is 8. I am 34. Yeah, but I’m still getting really mad. If I open my mouth, I’ll destroy him! Ok, I’d better get into the kitchen! Wash my face! Just don’t open my mouth! I’ll get through this: High road, here I come!”

Margo Sasson is a family therapist specializing in work with children and their families, as well as an instructor of undergraduate psychology. She is married and a mother of three children.

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  1. What a great gift- the gift of perspective.

    I know that I “lose it” more often than I’d care to admit, particularly when my 6-year-old reverts to baby talk to get my attention. That makes me crazy, because it’s an ‘in-my-face’ demonstration that I’m a far-from-perfect mom.

    Parenting is a journey of self-development.

    Thank you for the ideas and inspiration.

    Abby, mom of 2 small souls

  2. Hal Runkel’s book “Scream-Free parenting” is fabulous and offers lots of practical advice. Unfortunately when we parents “lose-it” we are not showing the level of maturity that we expect our children to learn. We are no better than a 2-year-old taking a tantrum, just for different reasons but it’s the same inability to handle our emotional reaction to a situation. I highly recommend the above book, it has helped me tremedously!

  3. Wow! Now at least I feel like I’m not the only mom on the planet who’s “losing it” and screaming like a banshee! I hate myself afterwards and always end up apologizing and trying to figure out exactly what set me off…it’s usually something very innocent that can be chalked up to “they’re just kids”! As a mom of 8-with 5 under 7 y.o. life is hectic enough wothout having to try to claw my way back up to the high road!! Thanks for the insight-I like the “self talk” at the end…I’ll definitely give it a try!! Maybe I can keep myself off the low road, altogether!!

  4. Denise says:

    My 12 year old son drives me crazy in the morning while getting ready for school. He is so slow and this is just not “perfect” enough for me. I know that my son has taught me that I’m not perfect and the funny thing is that he does eventually get ready on time, whether I nag, yell and scream or not! Thanks for the advice….I just need to stop trying to be so perfect and enjoy his company more in the morning!

  5. Annita Woz says:

    Anger is fear turned outward says a friend of mine. She probably learned it in some self-help book, the kind that everyone my age is reading now!

    What humbles me is the realization that even though I can identify the trigger, i still sometimes yell and throw a fit of my own. I face the fact that it is not acceptable and try not to succumb to the argument/defense that everyone has this happen..I dont’ want to parent to the lowest common denominator. I want to rise above that.

    I practice calming down and when I want to yell and I try to whisper instead. i.e. when you have laryngytis and cannot talk, suddenly the whole house is silent. And when everyone in the room is whispering, the room takes on a stillness and peace that keeps everyone whispering. Its a funny phenomenon and has been used in the wild to provide safety (the opposite of fear, right? ) since when animals are silent the predator cannot find them…

    Granted, my first attempt to calm may be a seething whisper, but it takes all the loudness out of the room and gives me a teeny window of opportunity to hear the beating of my own heart and to see the smallness of the infraction, the frailty of the little growing personality standing before me. Whisper. Whisper.

    • What an interesting idea! I am going to try this. It is nice to see so many people talking honestly about this topic. When it happens, it is so easy to feel like you are the worst mom in the world and no one else ever lose it. 🙂 Thank you to all of you great mothers!

  6. ChristineO says:

    Something that helps me is to “begin with the end in mind.” How do I want to feel when each situation I encounter with my children is over? This is often enough motivation to take a break when I feel anger brewing. Sometimes I feel like everything I say to my children falls on deaf ears but I am positive that they are watching my behavior. It warms my heart when I steal glimpses of the way my daughter talks to her brother when she doesn’t know that I’m watching. It encourages me to continue to be sweet with them and to hold my tongue. When I do fall short, it affects the entire house. My daughter starts being unkind to her brother and he literally attempts to take it out on the cat (who is much to smart to stick around.) I know that how I parent will be the greatest factor determining how my children themselves will behave as parents. I do not want my kids “losing it” on their own children because they learned it from me. This is the ultimate motivator.

  7. All these comments, and the article itself are so comforting and reassuring. It is good to know I am not the only one facing this. Strength in numbers, and isn’t it great to have a support system! I love “Scream-Free Parenting” too…and for parents of teens: Get Out of My Life! But will you take me & Cheryl to the Mall first bu Scott Wolf PhD. Can’t begin to recommend it highly enough! 🙂 Thanks for all your insightful wisdom.

  8. This is really interesting. I am glad to have all that neuroscience made so accessible. It helps to know that our bodies are like complicated and sensitive chemical factories that react to triggers. It helps to remember too that our own hormones change over time which can affect our reactions, perceptions and relationships: mums might have monthly swings and then chaotic and unpredictable floods of hormones in menopause.
    Our children are affected by hormones too – ours when we are suffering and unwittingly transfer the stress or rage onto them (like the the mom/kid/cat scenario which reminded me of an illustration I saw once in ‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ by Elaine Mazlish et al); their own when they are subjected to stress or fear from any source (long term stress can have long term effects on how children’s brains develop because of cortisol – see Sue Gerhardt’s ‘Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain) and their own when they too are going through transitions like the teen years (beware the household with both a menopausal mom and teenagers!) By the way, parents of teens might want to know that the frontal lobes of the brain responsible for ‘responsibility” are the last to finish developing (and that may not happen till around their mid 20s!)

    What I would like:
    a) practical techniques for learning how to become more aware of my own state (very often when asked how I am reply fine because I have no idea, not because I am being polite) in order that I have some chance of being more effective at steering away from reacting in ways that I will regret and
    b) tips for chilling out that can be built into a busy life for mums who may not be able to get away for country walks or exercise or pamper days at the spa or lunch with friends (the more obvious endorphin enhancers). It is really really important to bring ourselves and our own needs back into the frame. We cannot help anyone else if our own needs are not met -I know the theory it’s practical guidance I need! So, I’d really like to hear more encouraging talk to mums and dads, not only about how well they (we) are doing (most are amazing most of the time!) but also a reminder to stop and look after ourselves (especially important for parents not close to their own family or other intimate and supportive network!). Be gentle with yourself (it may help you to be gentle to your child) .

  9. Some thoughts to contribute a partial response to my own earlier request for practical ideas:

    a) brain gym – free, easy, can be done anywhere to lift mood and access the switch to ‘high road’ processing mentioned in the article. Includes things like crossing legs at ankle, looking up,putting tongue to the roof of mouth (I do not know why, just try!), folding cross-clasped hands under chin (look up ‘brain gym’ it’s a bit complicated to explain but very easy to do), touching right knee with left leg and vice versa and likewise touching opposite feet behind you, and just very lightly and gently touching (no stroking or pressing) your forehead with forefinger and thumb tips at two sensitive points abut midway above eyes and a couple of inches apart (you just have to feel for them you will know them when you find them) which, apparently, helps draw blood flow to front (higher) brain away from back (lower) brain.

    b) cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ – I find my mood changes for the better almost instantly when I focus on what’s good or what I like or what I enjoy. This works for almost anything, people place, situation and is especially effective for difficult times with children. The FCT parenting programmes encourage us to look for the good in our children. What we focus on grows. So, noticing good behaviour encourages more of it, while (judiciously of course) ignoring what we do not like minimises it. Why? because children like and need our attention and know how to get it! Also one thing I heard years and years ago when my children were small was that it is really important for children that their parents (or someone significant to them) has faith in them throughout their difficult times (like toddler tantrums and teen traumas) so that when they emerge from them you are still in a good relationship.

    I look forward to reading your suggestions for anything that you have tried that works for you!

  10. Jane Iacobelli says:

    I remember so many years ago when my children were young and driving me crazy I ran out the front door and ran around the block. Today it would not be a good idea to do that but it really saved me.