I didn't know what emotional abuse was, much less that I was doing it to those I love the most.
Confession: I used to yell at my kids. A lot.
Sometimes it was just a result of frustration about repeating the same instructions over and over. My voice would increase in both volume and intensity until I found myself literally shouting at my children. I wasn’t proud of those moments, but I also felt somewhat justified — after all, what else could I possibly do to get them to listen?
Other times, it was a manifestation of my own turbulent emotional state. Upset over something totally unrelated to my kids, I might respond to the simplest of requests with anger and hostility. It scared my kids, often making them burst into tears — and to be frank, it scared me, too. I would immediately be overcome with remorse, horrified at my childish outburst and distraught that I had frightened my children to the point of tears. I apologized over and over, internally vowing never to do such a thing again. Inevitably, a few weeks later I would break that promise … wash, rinse, repeat.
It wasn’t until I started going to therapy and learning about the real, measurable damage that emotional abuse does to people — adults and children — that I stopped yelling at my kids. Confronting the truth about my “childish outbursts” was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. See, they weren’t childish outbursts — children have outbursts of emotional volatility because they literally don’t know how to manage intense emotions, and their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed enough to connect with and manage the amygdala (the emotional-response center of the brain).
I, however, am an adult. My prefrontal cortex is fully developed — which doesn’t necessarily mean that I knew how to manage intense emotions at the time (spoiler alert: I didn’t). But I was capable of figuring it out. Instead, though, I made the choice — conscious or subconscious — to take my emotions out on my helpless, vulnerable children.
I love my children. I had never intended to cause them emotional pain and injury — but I was still doing it. It was emotional abuse, regardless of my intention or awareness. The day I came to terms with that was the day I stopped yelling at my kids.
It wasn’t easy — I had to find new ways to cope with my emotions. Daily exercise became absolutely essential as my main form of emotional regulation, and continuing to go to therapy and find new techniques for managing stress was also important. But in those early days, I literally had to treat myself like a child. When I was upset, I would put myself in a time-out. I made sure the kids were safe and turned on the TV, then shut myself in my room until I got a grip on my emotional state. Sometimes it took 10 minutes, sometimes it took 30 (and don’t worry, I had the baby monitor with me to make sure the kids were okay). But I didn’t let myself emerge until I was calm and in control.
Over time I got better and faster at this process, and putting myself in time-out is a rare occurrence now. But I always keep that option in my pocket as a back-up in case things just seem too overwhelming, because taking out my emotions on my kids is not an option.
I was so upset at what I had been doing that I took a scorched-earth mentality towards yelling — I stopped all forms of it, not just the emotional-outburst one. I stopped giving myself permission to raise my voice in frustration, and set about finding new ways to get my kids’ attention.
That’s when I discovered something remarkable: my kids had become “parent-deaf.” They were so used to tuning me out until I raised my voice that they literally did not hear me. I discovered this when I switched from yelling to getting down to eye level anytime I wanted them to do something, from putting on their shoes to cleaning up their toys.
They didn’t ignore me or resist. They just … obeyed.
Sure, it was magical at first — mostly because it was such a drastic shift. In the years since then, I’ve had periods of sliding back into barking directions while half-distracted, and getting louder in frustration. But usually I recognize this faulty means of communication pretty quickly and reverse the tendency.
I’m not saying that everyone who yells at their kids is emotionally abusive. That’s not true, and it wasn’t true for all the times I yelled. But it was true sometimes.
Teaching myself how to regulate my emotions also came with an unexpected benefit — it gave me strategies to help teach my kids how to regulate their own emotions. My six-year-old still comes to me sometimes when he’s upset and asks me to help him calm down. We sit quietly and take several deep breaths, face-to-face, until he is calm and still. Then he gives me a hug and runs off to play.
If you find yourself yelling at your kids, the question you should ask yourself is why? Is it frustration because they’re not listening? If so, try and find a new strategy to get their attention. Is it a result of your own turbulent emotional state? If that’s the case, I encourage you to find a way to handle your emotions before talking to your kids. It will take work, but in the end your kids will have a parent who is a truer reflection of Christ’s patient, kind, and unconditional love for all of us.