Dear Sara…

“Conscious parenting is activism and activism is hard. Activists are cycle breakers. Breaking cycles requires deep change and that takes time. So activists need a lot of patience. It can be deeply painful. So we need the ability to bear great pain. It is often exhausting. So we need to be good at loving ourselves and taking care of ourselves. Conscious parenting is activism. You are changing the world.”

– Vivek Patel

who_ll_stop_the_yelling__by_rollarius55-dae9ns3
painting by rollarius55

Dear Sara,

I struggle with keeping patience and not yelling, especially when I am home all day alone with the boys. Sometimes, I yell in anticipation of how hard I think the day will be. Sometimes I yell when they are physically attacking each other, and I just want them to stop. I have done several things to keep myself accountable and to reduce the frequency of yelling (including preemptively increasing self-care, and creating a chart where I track, with the boys, how many days in a row I can go without losing my cool). We have had conversations about why I yell sometimes (tired, overwhelmed, I grew up with a mom that yelled, etc.) and how this is something I am working on. We are all working on different things, together. For example, Lewis is working on whining less, and Jackson is working on patience. I am also diligent about “repairing” after (I’m sorry I yelled, this is what I was feeling, it’s not your fault and I don’t want to yell because it’s upsetting and scary for you).

In spite of my best efforts, I never make it more than a week or so without yelling. I know this is a common issue, and I guess what I am wondering about is how much to let kids know “if you listen to me, I won’t have to yell”—is this reasonable or does it put too much pressure and responsibility on the kids? Also, what else can be done about this issue? I think the hardest position to be in is not the parents that yell and are “fine” with it, or the parents that seem to have endless patience and poise (and avoid yelling all together). But, rather, the difficulty comes for parents who yell but are philosophically and fundamentally opposed to yelling, and worry about the modeling, and the emotional and relational consequences, but inevitably do it because they can’t break the habit.

Thanks for sharing your insights, as always!

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Hi Amy,

I truly appreciate, but of course am not at all surprised by, your level of self-awareness and accountability regarding this challenge you are having. I must say how wonderful it is that you don’t place blame on the boys, or anyone else, and have taken initiative to put strategies in place to lessen the instances where you lose your cool…and that when you do, you make the effort to reconnect. I struggle with yelling too, for many of the same reasons and I believe, as you acknowledged, many, MANY others do as well. While I don’t seek to normalize yelling, I do want to point out that the habit, as you put it, is one that actually stems from the deep desire for cooperation from our children. Because we are wholeheartedly dedicated to raising our children respectfully we don’t rely on tactics that are punitive, manipulative, or violent…so I think yelling springs up as almost a cry for help when everything feels out of control. It’s no surprise at all that this happens when you are alone (and outnumbered) with the boys.

So, to get to the heart of the matter I think we need to first look at all the complex things that come into play here. It’s so important to untangle all the varying factors, and perhaps put them in a slightly different context, before putting all the puzzle pieces back together to gain a clearer picture. First are the developmental realities of young children, and our expectations surrounding them. By “realities” I mean perfectly normal, but sometimes upsetting, things such as impulsivity, aggression, sneakiness, strong displays of physicality, boundary-testing, non-compliance etc., all the behaviors that pop that “peaceful parenting” bubble and make us question if we are doing things “right.” I think the more we prepare ourselves to not only expect, but to view these behaviors through a different lens, the less likely we will be to react with anger, surprise, embarrassment or feel threatened by what they are expressing in the only way they know how. The truth is, of course, that aside from the fact that our children go in and out of phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium, these irritating or unsettling behaviors are often cries for help, clearer limits or more connection.

I think that it’s so important that you bring the notion of self-care into the mix, because being a parent in and of itself can feel like an act of altruism…and for some people I believe, perhaps, even an unhealthy self-denial. One perspective I’d like to offer is the idea that self-care should include things as seemingly disassociated as setting limits with children clearly and early, meaning before we get upset. When taking care of ourselves, I think images of getting massages, having wine with friends or a couple hours of solitude come to mind, but setting limits around things we find overwhelming, stressful, or exhausting is a crucial part of tending to our own needs. Being able to know our own limits, and be aware of where the needle is on our internal gauge (slightly annoyed to livid) is the first part of bringing consciousness and intentionality to our relationships. It often helps me to use this visual of a gauge so I can be aware of the route my feelings take, because I find the more aware I am of where my feelings are (especially as they are escalating), the easier it becomes to steer them back from taking everything over. It is absolutely my responsibility alone to regulate myself, forgive myself when I don’t, and commit myself to try again tomorrow.

This leads perfectly into your question about whether or not you should let your kids know how their behavior is contributing to the cycle. Which brings up a lot of important ideas surrounding consequences…of which there are three types: natural, logical, and punitive, more on that here. What is the consequence of “not listening?” What do you think it should be? Do you trust that the sheer unpleasantness of conflict, or having an upset Mom is enough for children to internalize a lesson on how to behave differently in the future? Is the goal for them to ultimately change their behavior? What should be mentioned to them, or held back? These are all important questions to explore…

My feeling is that informing your child “if you’d just listen, then I wouldn’t have to yell” is an unfair expectation, and possibly even counterproductive- especially at this age- and communicating this to them might lead them to feel a sense of shame, or that they are somehow responsible for your feelings and actions. I think it’s important to be honest about your feelings (using age-appropriate language), and model how you regulate yourself (a few breaths, a short walk, screaming into a pillow etc.), but in the end letting them know that it is solely up to you how you behave, or what you choose to act on…and that it’s hard to be perfect, and that nobody is. I think it’s quite healthy for children to know we have limits to our patience, that they know what “too far” looks and feels like, but also how to pull back from it. I think it’s also critical to show them that we have faith that our relationship can weather some bumps, and that we remain confident in our ability to always come back around to connection.

Outside of the “storm”, once our connection has been reestablished, is the best time to problem-solve with them about how things can go differently next time, or about what they (and you) can do to contribute to a more peaceful household. Will it all come crashing down next time you are feeling impatient, or tired, or stretched too thin? Maybe. We are all facing some sort of hardship…battling something behind closed doors. It is so important to remind yourself of all the validating and loving things you are doing with your children, and that what you are doing is hard work. We must learn to rely on each other and ourselves to keep a lantern lit, so that a light will continue to shine on the darker corners of our parenting paths. You cannot change what you cannot see. Nothing can grow out of darkness.

 

All the best,

Sara

 

Additional resources:

For a wonderful overview of what nonviolent communication looks like with children look here.

For some encouragement, look here.

For Janet Lansbury’s take on yelling look here.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Dear Sara…

  1. This is such a thoughtful and realistic analysis of the issues, Sara. What you wrote about setting limits AS self care is really brilliant! The outline of different types of consequences was also very pertinent.

    We do all face hardship in our lives and in addition to what you wrote, I would add that in a society that fuctions through the mediation of money and the disciplines of exploitive labor and endless consumption, treating people more like machines than humans, alienation from ourselves and others brings tremendous stress into our familial relationships and harms our children.

    Oh, by the way, the last two lines of the blog post are pure poetry – and consequently true. Such a pleasure to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for another gem, Sara. Re-framing self care has dramatically affected how I approach parenting (for the better). It allows me to examine my part in my relationships and focus on what I can change to affect different outcomes. I also appreciate the discussions of consequences, reconnection and that I’m not alone in these struggles. Bonus points for the additional resources!

    Liked by 1 person

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