Peaceful parenting

At some point, most parents yell. Soon after, they wish they hadn’t. Dr Melanie Woodfield looks at what’s really happening when we raise our voices and how we can all turn down the volume.

How many times have you made an early morning resolution not to raise your voice, and gone to bed later that day feeling guilty? Or worried that you’re an awful parent when your child looks shocked or scared as you shout? Rather than feeling bad or guilty, it is more productive to turn your attention to better understanding what drives the yelling and the thoughts and feelings that fuel the words. This is absolutely essential if you’re interested in doing things differently.

The shouted words that come out of your mouth are the tip of the iceberg, and under the water is some powerful stuff that, once understood, can be used to bring about lasting change.

First things first
Usually, yelling happens after a surge of a powerful emotion. It’s often anger, but not always. There’s nothing wrong with anger as a feeling, in and of itself. Anger can motivate us, connect us to others, and tell us what’s important. Feeling angry when you’re parenting is absolutely okay. In fact it’s important that you communicate to your children that all emotions are okay, even the less pleasant ones like sadness, anger or fear. It’s natural to feel angry sometimes when you are parenting –by definition, children are dependent and needy, and this can really press buttons for lots of parents, especially if your own experiences of being parented were less than ideal.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. The anger protects us from the feelings that came along immediately beforehand – like feeling offended, trapped, pressured, disrespected, irritated, frustrated or plain old afraid. Think of the example of a young child getting lost in a shopping mall. When Mum finds Sally, the first thing that usually happens is that Sally gets shouted at (“Where WERE you?! You KNEW you were supposed to stay with me!”). Mum is feeling a flush of complicated emotions – relief, fear, embarrassment, vulnerability… but along comes anger, and the yelling follows. The bottom line? Sometimes, we yell because we’re actually scared or sad.

It is very helpful for children to see their parents experience a range of emotions, and manage these well. So, next time you’re angry, try explaining your feeling to your child: “I’m feeling pretty angry. That car took my parking spot and it feels unfair because we’ve been driving for ages. I’m going to breathe deeply, put my favourite song on the car stereo, and keep trying”.

It’s incredibly powerful for a child to hear you say this self-talk aloud. It will help your child describe their feelings in a helpful way in the future, rather than acting out. Don’t be surprised if this takes some practice. It can be easier said than done, and just like a new shoe, it takes some wearing in before it’s comfy and easy.

Amygdala hijack anyone?
You might be interested to know why it can seem like all logical and rational thought goes out the window when a surge of anger comes along. That’s because it does. Daniel Goleman coined the term ‘amygdala hijack’ in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. An amygdala hijack is an overwhelming and immediate emotional response that is out of proportion with the actual event, usually because it triggered a much greater or more significant emotional threat. Mr Goleman suggests that your reaction involved an amygdala hijack if three boxes were ticked: you had a strong emotional reaction, with a sudden onset, and a realisation afterwards that the reaction was inappropriate. Amygdala hijacks can involve other emotions too – like laughing explosively at a not-very-funny joke.

In terms of brain science, you’re probably aware that different parts of your brain have different functions. The amygdala, deep in your brain, is responsible for primal responses. If it senses a threat, it kicks into action. All the parts of the brain work together, and normally the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain kick in to help the amygdala figure out how much of a threat the situation actually involves. The frontal lobes are responsible for reason, planning, organisation and logical actions.

There can be quite a delay between the primal surge of anger (or fear) and the frontal lobes kicking in with reason. On average, it takes around 20 minutes for the physiological arousal to completely calm. So, the take-home message is – anger easily charges up the primal areas of our brain, and can hijack the logical bits.

It can be tempting to read all of the information around brain function and be left feeling completely at the mercy of your biochemistry. But change is absolutely possible. Firstly, it’s important to remember that changing your behaviour isn't about making sudden resolutions or going cold turkey. This applies whether you’re trying to practise mindfulness more often, exercise more, eat less or yell less. It’s about taking a thoughtful and sensible approach to understanding why we do what we do, and how we can do things differently. 

1   Identify the times of the day or week (or month!) you tend to shout more. Is it right before bed, when you just wish they’d listen?

Or on the drive home from daycare when work stress is still on your mind? Perhaps it is at the end of the week when your partner has been late home every night. Or late afternoon when you’re hungry. There are a couple of benefits of keeping a chart or diary of when you yell – it gives clues as to when your high-risk times are, and gives you an idea of how much of an issue yelling is for you. You might surprise yourself and yell a whole lot less than you thought you did.

If you notice a pattern, and your wick tends to be shorter at certain times, that’s really useful information. It’s a clue that you need to top up your self-care around that time. Maybe a banana mid-afternoon before the daycare pick-up, or promising yourself a well-deserved glass of wine after the bedtime routine.

2   Anticipating and planning for high-risk times can make a big difference. In fact, thinking about a situation ahead of time makes it more likely to go well.

Using your chart of times when you’re more likely to yell, think ahead to a time that could involve anger, frustration or irritability. Be really specific. For example: on Thursday afternoon, I’m likely to be stretched thin. My in-laws are coming to stay, I’m working and then have to pick up the kids and take Sam to swimming.

Decide ahead of time what you’ll do to solve the problem or cope well. Again, be really specific. For example: I’ll treat myself to Subway for lunch, and I'll eat some nuts just before I pick up the kids, so I’m not hungry. I’ll make extra dinner the night before so I just have to heat it up when we get home. I’ll find that Wiggles CD the kids love and play it in the car. If I’m feeling angry, that’s okay. I’ll tell myself “They’re just kids – they’re not trying to irritate me, they’re just doing what pre-schoolers do”.

In your mind, imagine the situation ahead of time. Imagine yourself doing and saying things – don’t just imagine yourself observing the situation.

Finally, mentally rehearse what you’re going to do and what you will say (and how you'll say it). Think about any problems that might come up (like the CD player breaking or not having time to cook extra dinner) and how you’ll cope with those issues. Of course you don’t need to go through this process every day. Focus on the high-risk times for yelling or shouting. You’re likely to notice that you begin to cope well with these situations without needing to plan ahead.

3   Practise positive and empowering things to say. Create and rehearse helpful statements before you need them, like:
●  “He’s not trying to annoy me, he genuinely doesn’t understand.”
●  “She is not feeling well, and I need to give her more time.”
You can say these to yourself, or even say them out loud to model emotion regulation to your child. He might not understand what you’re saying, but he’ll pick up that you’re trying to demonstrate compassion, respect and kindness.

4   If the anger is too overwhelming, do something! It might help to try a TIP skill:
a. Temperature change: if you can, have a hot or cold shower. Or (sounds silly, but it can help) splash cold water on your face.
b. Intensive exercise: Quickly do 20 star jumps or burpees or even just run around the house.
c. Progressive muscle relaxation: systematically tense and relax each muscle group of your body, slowly and deliberately. This one’s likely to suit if you’re sitting at traffic lights, or stewing while lying in bed at night.

5   Gather support around you.
Your mother-in-law might drive you nuts when she sits your toddler in front of Peppa Pig, but what’s worse – losing it because you desperately needed a break, or Junior watching George and Grandpa Pig once or twice? Or figure out a traffic light system with your partner – if you text ‘red’, they need to come home immediately. Orange means early if possible, and green means that it’s been a good day. You won’t need these strategies for ever, but they can really help you to get through a tricky patch and can bolster the efforts you're making at an individual level.

Sometimes we say things to our kids that we really regret, or we use a tone of voice that we wish we hadn’t. No matter what your mind is telling you, you’re almost certainly not a terrible parent, and you haven’t permanently ruined your relationship with your child. Just ‘fess up, admit you were wrong, and move on.

Put in place some solid self-care, try some new strategies and enlist external support, and you’ll be heading in the direction for being the parent you want to be.

Dr Melanie Woodfield (DClinPsy, BSc(hons), MNZCCP) is a clinical psychologist, wife, and mother to two young boys. She works for a child and adolescent mental health service in Auckland.