I come from a long line of yellers. People who get passionately angry. People who get red in the face when they’re mad. Who spit saliva from their mouths like fire when they’re pissed off. People who argue and yell about politics or bad drivers in the parking lot or even the “goddam weather.”
As is the case with human beings emotional enough to scathingly call out innocent gas station attendants (I have an early memory of my grandfather cussing out a Shell employee in Portland, Oregon when I was 5), the familial yelling examples don’t stop there.
The raised voices and rough tones carried all the way home to the dinner table. If my brother and I were playing with our food, someone yelled. If there were bad grades, someone yelled. If there were dirty dishes sitting in the sink, someone yelled. But the get-ready-for-school morning shuffle was the worst.
My mother would stand at the bottom of the stairs and scream at us to “hurry up” until she was literally blue in the face, the veins in her neck pulsing like live snakes as her pleas escalated to a litany of threats in a voice so loud and frightening I’m surprised the neighbors stayed friends with us.
So for as long as I can remember, I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t yell like them. I wouldn’t use that tone. I could be passionate and opinionated and colorful and gregarious – because I was and am – without the need to raise my voice. I could care deeply about things without burning the edge of my words with a tone so hot it could char someone’s ear off. I wouldn’t berate service people like my Grandfather did. I wouldn’t turn even the most innocuous sentences into vitriolic poison like my mother did. I wouldn’t be a yeller.
That is until I too became a mom.
On the drive home from a recent doctor appointment, my almost-four-year-old daughter decided she was “hot.” Strapped into her car seat where she belonged, traffic in full throttle around us, she lost it. She cried and carried on because I dressed her too warmly.
Quickly trying to address her rising body temperature, I turned on the air conditioning. After acknowledging her as calmly as I could, I encouraged her to open the window (about ten times). Nothing worked, girlfriend was burning up. She cried – pink-faced and wet teared- that she was so “very very hot.”
When I told her she was hurting my ears and I needed her to be quiet so I wouldn’t ram our car into oncoming traffic, she cried – and yelled – even louder. That’s when I lost my temper – screeching right back at her like I too was a child. In the nastiest, yelliest tone, I threatened punishment if she didn’t stop. I bellowed from the depths of my tired mama soul, “JUST STOP!”
This wasn’t the first time she’d decided to scream the whole way home. When she was a newborn she’d cry for hours on end. I wouldn’t yell then, but sometimes I’d cry right alongside her, too exhausted and frustrated to do anything but. Now as a toddler, albeit a “high needs” one, I felt she knew better. And maybe I wasn’t hot, but I was hungry and spread thin and annoyed. So I finally yelled some more. In a moment I’m not proud of I shouted “SHUT UP” at the top of my lungs with so much force I swear the car shook.
Breaking The Cycle By Example
A few weeks earlier my husband spanked our son after an especially harrowing weekend of dad life. (Aren’t we just role model parents!?).
I was sick and unable to effectively execute our typical man-on-man parenting defense. So there he was: disciplining, feeding, bathing, cleaning up after, and entertaining two toddlers while I moaned in agony on the couch.
One bad toddler moment after another culminated into my almost two-year-old son using all his might to slam a Melissa and Doug imitation frying pan onto his sister’s head. My husband acted instinctively and swatted our son on the rear. Twice. Not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to get his attention (and mine). I shot said husband a disapproving look. When the kids had moved on to making mud pies, I whispered, “How can you tell him not to hit and then do exactly that?” My thoughts: more violence is never the answer and two wrongs don’t make a right.
How then could I yell at my daughter for yelling and expect anything better from her?
So is yelling child abuse?
At face value, no, yelling, is not child abuse. Parenting is really, really hard. At times, children can be patience testing grab-happy troublemakers who seem like their only agenda is to push you past your limits. Even the calmest parent out there has surely lost it in one way or another.
But when does habitual temper tantrums – from the parent – become verbal abuse? Does it ever?
Julia Weber, J.D., MSW, an expert on domestic violence and family law says, “We should consider whether our behavior involves asserting power over another person. Ultimately, abuse is about engaging in a pattern of asserting power over someone else. With parenting and kids, it’s important to keep children safe, which may involve some assertion of power at times.”
“Keeping a kid from running into traffic or engaging in other risky or dangerous behaviors,” are examples of when exerting such power may be necessary.
“But,” she says, “If we yell we are teaching that yelling is a legitimate way of expressing anger and we can expect our children to learn to do the same. And when we scare or intimidate them regularly with yelling, we may be using our power over them in a way that can cause them harm and constitute emotional abuse.”
Weber offered advice to parents who may be struggling to stay calm in difficult parenting situations. “Take a time out to cool down so you can more calmly address the situation,” she said. “Pull over. Get out of the car. Breathe. Call a friend. Go into another room. Think about what you’d like your kid to do when he or she is upset and try it out yourself.”
She recognizes that parents will make mistakes and when they do, apologizing can be an effective teaching tool. “Your kid will learn a lot if you take responsibility when you screw up. Children are generally pretty resilient. If the yelling isn’t part of an abusive pattern, they’ll typically do just fine.”
My Mother’s Shoes
When we were growing up, my mother had so very much on her plate. She balanced work, running a household, her relationship with our stepfather, and all of the other complexities that go into raising children with a difficult ex. On top of that, my brothers and I had issues. Mental illness, the ramifications of childhood sexual abuse, disciplinary problems, and even teenage drug addiction – all that right there is some serious mom stress. I didn’t love her yelling when it happened, but now I understand. She was doing her best to keep our fragmented family together – and to get us to school on time. Yelling was her way of trying to be heard amongst the chaos.
Thankfully, she doesn’t yell much anymore. It took until my middle brother and I were in our thirties, and my younger brother’s mental health was stable, for her to finally calm down for good. She still gets heated, sure, but it’s in a healthier way than ever before.
If my mother can change, I can too. I just don’t want to wait to stop yelling until my kids have already grown up.