As a classic middle child, I spent a lot of the growing-up years feeling like I had to raise my voice to be heard at all. Being sandwiched between two rowdy brothers is not for the faint of heart. Old habits die hard, and now that I’ve got two noisy, free-spirited kids nearby at almost all times, the desire to yell remains. Especially when I really just need a little peace, and they don’t seem to want to let me have it!
But new research and my own parenting instincts show that a gentler, calmer approach to handling children is far more effective and beneficial. I won’t go so far as to wear my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter in a ring sling, but I’m definitely what most would refer to as a gentle parent.
For us, this means no cry-it-out, no forced feeding or food threats, and absolutely no spanking. It also means I do things like lean in to talk instead of sending them for time-outs when they misbehave. We listen, we reason, we set boundaries but lead with kindness and a sense of calm. We believe in body autonomy and understand that they are tiny humans with big feelings.
And yet… and yet! It can be so freaking hard when they just do not want to listen to me! I can feel the rage bubbling up beneath the surface. I can hear the volume of my words rising before they even reach the back of my throat. I can sense I am about to yell before I do it, and sometimes it’s just too late. But!
Science says it’s not good. Our instincts say it’s not good. How can we stop the yelling and keep the peace, without losing our minds in the process? Here’s what works for me:
Walk Away: Instead of giving them a time-out, I give myself one. Usually it only takes a few minutes of solace in the kitchen and a quick peek at one of my favorite meme-heavy Instagram pages before I have calmed down a few notches and can reassess the situation with the kids.
Give Them a Hug: It sounds counterintuitive, because when you’re mad, the last thing you want to do is reward them with affection. But trust me, it works, even when it doesn’t. Embracing my child drives down the urge to yell, even when they are too mad to hug me back in that moment.
Remember My Blessings: Cheesy? Sure. Useful? Definitely! It may sound ridiculous, but I will literally close my eyes and stand there for a moment recalling the anguish that came before we conceived our first daughter, and all of the “big picture” things that make our life great. This is not to say that I’m not entitled to frustrations! But giving the big joy a solid minute when I’m about to blow my lid just helps put it all in perspective.
Hydrate: An ice cold glass of water with fresh lemon juice is alarmingly helpful during tense moments. Not only does it give me something to do with my mouth other than screaming at the little mongrels, but it also calms me down from the inside out.
Exercise: Keeping up with frequent workouts is one of those things that we need to be doing for ourselves not just physically but emotionally as well. There is truth and power to those endorphins– use ’em! I joined a gym with onsite daycare so the girls can run around and play while Mommy gets a workout in, and it’s made a world of difference in my own frustration levels.
But in those moments where the urge to yell is strong, immediate exercise can be an instant quick fix. I’ve been known to throw on a yoga YouTube video or grab strollers and bikes to hit the cul de sac right then and there in an effort to get us all moving — and feeling better!
Listen: It’s hard to reason with toddlers, and I know it’s only going to get more challenging as the years go by. But when their tiny bodies are overrun with big emotions and their behavior gets out of control, yelling does so little to help. Listening does so much more. Usually, looking them in the eye and asking, “What’s really going on?” or “How can we figure this out together?” is sooo much more effective.
Cry: Yep. I said it. It is absolutely okay to let your kids see you cry. They need to know that you are a human with feelings, too. And when it gets really bad, and you feel completely lost and overwhelmed, sometimes those tears just need to come out. I don’t turn them on, but I definitely don’t hold them back when I feel the dam breaking.
It’s so infrequent that my kids break me to the point of actually having no calm words left and this is when I do sometimes cry. My kids are highly sensitive to sadness and are usually compelled to quit their tantruming and comfort me, but even if yours aren’t, it’s okay. Your message will still be clear: You went too far, and I love you so much, that this makes me very sad.
There are so many effective gentle parenting techniques for discipline, and your pediatrician can be very helpful with advice on this front as well. I’m also in some great Facebook communities of moms with similar ideals and going through it together, sharing tips as we do, is helpful.
The most important thing I have learned since my big effort to ditch the screaming matches and keep the peace? That we all make mistakes and yelling still will happen. But when it does, I always seek out my kids afterward to apologize to them. I want them to understand that we are all human and flawed, and we will mess up. But saying that you’re sorry, and meaning, it is important. So is trying a little harder the next day.