what to do when your child yells at you

When my child yells at me, I tell her she can't talk to me that way, and that I won't listen until she can be sweet. But rather than calming down, she often just becomes more upset at me. What is going on? I don't want to reward her lack of self-control by responding to her when she is yelling, but I don't think what I am doing is working, either.

What an insightful question! A little bit of brain science might illuminate what is happening.

Ever heard of the Triune Brain? It's the theory that our brains are actually three-in-one. I'll be oversimplifying the heck out of it in this article to suit my purposes. Please google it if you want to learn the neuroscience. (Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore have each published some wonderful materials for parents that are well grounded in current brain research.)

The brain stem is responsible for governing our basic survival. It keeps our hearts beating and our lungs expanding, as well as managing instinctive protective responses like fear, fight and flight. It keeps us alive by automating functions that we don't have the time or energy to consciously control. By the time our conscious mind realizes we are being chased by a tiger, our brain stem has already got our adrenaline pumping and our feet moving.

The limbic system governs emotions and attachment. It's what allows us to feel both love and rage. It helps us form relationships. It anchors memories; making shortcuts so that we associate feelings with certain sights, smells, and sounds and don't have to figure out if we are with a friend or a foe each time we are with someone.

The cortex is the seat of reason, logic, and learning. It's what helps us draw conclusions, consider other perspectives, and do things differently the next time.

At birth, all three brains are present. But they are not well connected to each other, and therefore not in reliable communication. In newborns, the brain stem is calling the shots, keeping us breathing and digesting so we survive. When we get basic survival mastered, the limbic system undergoes major development in order to help us form attachments to caregivers and become social beings.

Connections to the cortex are developing all the time, but development really starts revving up sometime between the ages of 4 and 7. However, reason and logic won't be the primary driving force behind our actions for several more years. And the cortex is often not well connected enough to the other brains to consistently inhibit and override impulsive and emotional reactions until the mid 20s.

So when your child is yelling at you, she is likely at the mercy of her limbic system. Her cortex, which would be the part capable of inhibiting her outburst and helping her figure out a better alternative that is more likely to work for her, is not in charge. She gets more upset when you tell her you won't listen until she can be sweet because it's the cortex that can bring her back to sweetness, and hers is offline at the moment. She was hoping you could help her with that.

The optimal response then is for your adult, connected, reliable cortex to come in and soothe her little wigged out, disconnected brains. We do that by giving her empathy; letting her know we understand she's upset while staying calm ourselves.

Children are wired to imitate their caregivers. An interaction with a calm, cool adult brain helps settle down the red alert message she's getting from her temporarily overwhelmed limbic system. As her limbic system settles, her own cortex can come online and continue the job you started.

Am I saying it's okay for her to yell at you? No. I am saying that she's still developing, and her brain is on TILT, and she needs help settling down before she can understand that you don't like being yelled at and learn a better strategy for communicating her feelings or needs to you.

So what do you do when she's yelling at you? Here is something to experiment with:

Take a breath to settle yourself down.

Get on her eye level, touch her shoulder, and calmly ask Do you need my help?

Don't rush to help her or do what she was demanding. Just ask, and stay near her. She may want to be held, and that's fine. She may cry out of frustration or relief. Just be with that. She's simply releasing emotional energy -- discharging some static. If she revs up and starts hitting you, gently restrain her arms while reassuring her by saying I'll keep us safe.

When she starts to relax and settle down, her cortex is probably coming back online. That's the time to say I want to help you. When you need my help, please ask me like this, "Daddy, can you help me?"

This kind of response shows her own cortex what do to: pause, assess and acknowledge the current situation, settle the limbic system and brain stem down, and either take a constructive action or ask for assistance if necessary.

You've just helped her brain take one step closer to doing this without your help. But remember, those neural connections are still very tenuous in a young child, and they easily get disconnected under duress. So don't expect that only one interaction like this will make every future communication sweet forevermore. It's a learning process, just like feeding, bathing, and dressing herself.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

great post, thank you! there are many articles on parents shouting at children with little information to be found if the situation is reversed so this has helped me lots.

karen alonge said...

I'm glad you found it helpful!

Izzi said...

Thank you so much. I actually felt teary when I read that we should say "I'll keep us safe". My son gets worked up about everything, yells at me, shouts his conversations, and often hits me. He's 3. His sister doesn't do this -she's 2. Oh,she has her full on tantrums, but not as a rule, just as the exception. Your advice/counsel feels 'right' and it's the first time I feel confident in someones advice. Thanks for simplifying the explanations too... I do like to know why things are the way they are. Light & Love. Izzi xo

karen alonge said...

thanks for taking the time to post, Izzi. I'm so glad this advice resonated with you. You may also really enjoy reading the free articles on www.handinhandparenting.org. Lots of great stuff there, in my opinion.

take care,
karen

Anonymous said...

This sounds good. But how do I stay calm? My daughter is 11, and will push away and continue yelling if I touch her or try to calm her. After a few minutes of this, I tend to yell back. Then, she's in tears and it can take a long time for both of us to calm down. Of course, we always end up hugging and telling each other how much we love each other. (Walking away doesn't seem to help either.)

karen alonge said...

thanks for commenting, anonymous. this is such a great question, and it comes up for so many parents.

if walking away/taking a break does not help us to feel calmer, that's usually a sign that we have some emotional sore spots left over from our own childhoods.

what can help us to heal those spots so they are not quite so tender and easily triggered is to spend some good quality time venting to someone who won't judge or try to fix us.

ideally we can say to that person all the things we hear in our heads when we are upset with our children - those things that we know would not be helpful or wise to say directly to our children, but sometimes sneak out anyway.

by deliberately finding someone to listen to us when we rant about things like how angry we are, how taken for granted we feel, how hard we are trying, how different life is for our children than it was for us, how much trouble/pain we would have been in as a kid if we did what our child just did, etc, we can take the edge off of our anger.

when our sore spots are not so reactive anymore, it's much easier to stay cool and think clearly with our kids.

for more on this topic, please see the articles at www.handinhandparenting.org.

Patty Wipfler, their founder, really has a handle on this dynamic. This article might be a great place to begin:

http://www.handinhandparenting.org/news/202/64/10-Tips-For-Raising-Happy-Parents

please let us know how it goes ... parenting is hard work, and I hope you have access to all the support you deserve!

warm regards,
karen

Anonymous said...

Whoa! I googled "kids yelling at parents" and got many items geared towards parents yelling at kids. I work nearly every day at remaining patient with my daughter and not ever raising my voice or expressing frustration with her, so I was naturally relieved to find something for a parent like me. I will give your approach a try. It seems informed, and makes a great deal of sense to me. I can only hope that she responds to it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This really sounds sensible. I have just allowed my daughter down from her bedroom as she was screaming, swearing and hitting me after she declared that her dinner was simply not good enough. I really am at my wits end and am willing to try anything. I will certainly try this. Thank you.

karen alonge said...

glad you found it helpful! good for you for being willing to experiment with new and different strategies. come on back and let us know how it goes if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. It was enlightening. I have been a yelling mom, and by the time I realised it, my 6yr old yells and cries when things don't go her way. I was looking for information on what to do now that the child has learnt to yell, and help her to unlearn, and whether it is even possible now that she is six. I kept getting results about what damage yelling can do, but finally I have found something which helps me respond when my child yells. The brain science helped me realise how wrong I had been and probably am wondering the state of my own cortex! your answer to a comment dated 7 Feb 2012 probably is the answer to why I yell. I do feel cheated when she doesent keep her promise, and forget that she is the child. My childhood memories and other resentments kick in many times. Even with my husband. :( Walking away for a breather has not worked for me too. Thankyou so much for letting us know the connection. All of a sudden I feel so immature and sad. I am hoping to teach my child a behaviour which biologically they are not even capable of mastering, while I myself have been displaying my incapability..While I don't have close friends, I can start a diary of feelings and anger. While I have made progress in the number of times I fly off the handle, my daughter is still scared to talk to me freely and says she is not sure how I would react and give the answer she thinks I would like to hear, and keep her from my anger.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. It was enlightening. I have been a yelling mom, and by the time I realised it, my 6yr old yells and cries when things don't go her way. I was looking for information on what to do now that the child has learnt to yell, and help her to unlearn, and whether it is even possible now that she is six. I kept getting results about what damage yelling can do, but finally I have found something which helps me respond when my child yells. The brain science helped me realise how wrong I had been and probably am wondering the state of my own cortex! your answer to a comment dated 7 Feb 2012 probably is the answer to why I yell. I do feel cheated when she doesent keep her promise, and forget that she is the child. My childhood memories and other resentments kick in many times. Even with my husband. :( Walking away for a breather has not worked for me too. Thankyou so much for letting us know the connection. All of a sudden I feel so immature and sad. I am hoping to teach my child a behaviour which biologically they are not even capable of mastering, while I myself have been displaying my incapability..While I don't have close friends, I can start a diary of feelings and anger. While I have made progress in the number of times I fly off the handle, my daughter is still scared to talk to me freely and says she is not sure how I would react and give the answer she thinks I would like to hear, and keep her from my anger.

karen alonge said...

dear anonymous -

bless your heart!

your daughter is so lucky to have a mama who is trying to do right by her.

I hope you won't be too hard on yourself -- all parents lose it sometimes. It just goes with the territory!

We can go back to our children after we've yelled or lost our tempers and apologize.

This models an important skill - repairing a relationship by taking ownership for our actions. Then we can ask for a do-over. These are good things for a child to know how to do!

You might enjoy checking out www.ahaparenting.com. Dr. Laura Markham really gets how hard it is for us parents at times, and she writes lots of insightful newsletters and articles to help.

She had an email series just recently that was about how to unplug from our own triggers so we can be more present with our kids. If you can't find it there, email me and I will forward it to you.

hang in there, and please remember to forgive yourself first.

warmest regards,
karen