Mary Wyatt still remembers the things that would trigger her mom to raise her voice at her as a child.
“My mother yelled at me for my behavior, grades, or even when she struggled with her own personal trials,” says Wyatt, a motivational coach and mother of two who lives in Chesterfield, VA.
When Wyatt became a mother, she found herself repeating the pattern with her son. “Enduring this yelling technique growing up should have been more of a reason for me not to do it,” she says. By the time she had her second child, a girl, “it was evident a change was needed,” Wyatt says.
It didn’t happen overnight, she says, but she found strategies to break the cycle and stop herself from yelling. You can,too. Doing so is good for your relationship with your child – and for both you and your child’s mental health.
See the Signs
The first step is to know when you’re about to lose your cool.
You may feel irritable, anxious, or out of control. Being aware of what your body feels like is key.
Look for physical cues like:
- A clenched jaw
- A tight chest
- An upset stomach
- Your heart rate speeds up
- Your breathing pattern changes
- Your skin starts to literally feel warmer
“Once you’re aware of your physical clues, you can move into quick tools for resetting,” says Amy Hoyt, PhD, co-founder of Mending Trauma in Monett, MO.
Try a Physical Reset
When you notice these signs, try these quick-acting strategies to turn things around.
Double-inhale sigh. Take two inhales in a row through your nose, without exhaling. After the second inhale, exhale with a sigh through your mouth. Repeat one to three times.
“This is a tool to quickly offload carbon dioxide and increase oxygen, which helps to immediately calm your nervous system,” Hoyt says.
Mindfulness exercise. Notice three things in your immediate environment. What do you see, hear, or smell? Focus on it. This puts you in the present moment to lower your anxiety and calm your nerves.
Bilateral stimulation. Tap your opposite feet or big toes in an alternate rhythm while repeating a key soothing phrase to yourself, like “I am safe.” This regulates your nervous system to prevent you from flying off the handle.
These strategies are subtle so they also work when you’re out in public, says Hoyt, who uses them with her own five kids.
Devin Sabraw, a blogger who writes about Airbnb, coffee, and gardening, uses a similar strategy with his young son. “When I feel like yelling, I clear the anger by focusing on my breathing,” he says.
Sabraw, who lives in Calgary, Canada, pays attention to his chest as it goes up and down. He learned this by practicing meditation, a mindfulness technique that may also help you stay calm.
Know Your Triggers
You’re more likely to yell when something sets you off. These are called triggers.
“Triggers can include a messy space, whining, upcoming work deadlines, and a recent quarrel with your partner,” says Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, PhD, a psychologist in Santa Barbara, CA.
Try to pinpoint your triggers. Simply knowing what they are reduces the possibility that they’ll trigger you, Peck says.
Create a Calm Mirror
Model the tone you want your child to follow. Remember that emotions are contagious -- and that as the adult, you are responsible for your child’s wellbeing.
“If you stay calm, your child will have a better chance of staying calm as well,” says J. Stuart Ablon, PhD, director of Think:Kids, a program in Massachusetts General Hospital’s psychiatry department.
It may be the opposite of what you want to do, but using a soft, gentle voice may get your child’s attention better than yelling. You can even try whispering. Avoid calling your child from another room.
Make Eye Contact
Get down on your child’s level. Kneel or sit. Look your child in the eye. If you need to get their attention, gently touch their shoulder or arm. This may help both of you stay calm and quell your urge to yell.
Be a Detective
When Wyatt found herself on the verge of yelling, she tried shifting her perspective. This allowed her to think about what her daughter was going through instead of simply reacting.
“Be curious, not furious,” Ablon says. “Ask questions without jumping to conclusions so you can find out what’s going on for your child. Be a detective.”
Remind Yourself That Kids Do Well If They Can
This is a good mantra for when you’re about to raise your voice, Ablon says. “Just like us parents, our kids are doing the best they can to handle things with the skills they can muster at the moment.”
Remind yourself they’re not trying to push your buttons. They’re frustrated, just like you.
Give Yourself a Time Out to Reflect
Sometimes you simply need a break. Tell your child you need a minute to yourself. Go into another room, take a few deep breaths, and come back feeling calmer.
Wyatt says reflection helped her break the cycle of yelling. Thinking about her upbringing and reminding herself how yelling made her feel helped her stop once and for all.
Tap Into Resources
If you find it hard to stop the pattern of yelling at your children, consider taking a parenting class. If working on these changes bring up difficult memories from your own childhood, you may want to talk to a therapist. You may learn new skills to help both of you thrive.