Ep 43: How to Stop Yelling at Kids

Episode Summary

Bonnie Harris, the bestselling author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids, reveals why your kids make you so mad sometimes. In this episode, she breaks down her incredible system to stop yelling at kids and start connecting with them instead.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s a normal Saturday night in your house, and you and your teenager are getting along just fine. All of a sudden, they ask if they can go to a party, and seem very insistent  You don’t know who’s going to be there, where the party will be, or what people will be doing. Naturally, you say no. Frustrated by this and emotional, your teenager retaliates, knowing just what to say to push your buttons. You get mad and yell, and both of you leave the conversation feeling worse than when you started.

This cycle is hard to break. It’s not easy to figure out how to stop yelling at kids. As a parent, you want to protect your child and make sure they stay on the right path, and sometimes it feels like there’s no other way to ensure their well being other than to yell at them! On the other hand, your teenager wants freedom, and when you won’t yield to their demands they know just how to frustrate you. Even though they know that their tactics will only lead to more fighting, they antagonize you anyway.

Fortunately, our guest today has some answers for you. She’s here to help you learn how to stop yelling at kids and implement more positive solutions. Her name is Bonnie Harris, and she’s the author of When Kids Push your Buttons and What You Can Do About It. On top of being a mother herself, Bonnie has given talks all over the world and is constantly running workshops for parents. These workshops focus on how to become better at diffusing tension between you and your teen and how to stop yelling at kids. 

It was in one of these workshops that Bonnie began to notice this destructive cycle of yelling among her clients. She realized that this was a very common problem among teenagers and parents, and started to look at her interactions with her own teenager to try and figure out how to stop yelling at kids

Teenage Emotions

After examining her teenager’s behavior during arguments, she noticed that her kid was not only miserable by the end of a dispute, but often seemed to go in already feeling upset. Bonnie clarifies that this is because they’re feeling other emotions that they don’t know how to process, which they then channel into this argumentative behavior. 

It’s like an iceberg, Bonnie explains. When we see an iceberg above water, we only see about 10%. The other 90% lies under the water, invisible from the surface. The angry words that you hear from your child are just what you see. The rest is below, not expressed. 

If you want to know how to stop yelling at kids, you must explore their unexpressed feelings. These often include loneliness, jealousy, or sadness, and this button pushing occurs as a result of these feelings emerging without control. If something about your behavior triggers them, then they are likely to take these emotions out on you. For example, they may blow up when they can’t attend a party because they have been feeling lonely or isolated at school and they feel that this party is going to help them fit in. They’re not just trying to piss you off. They’re trying to solve their own problems, but they don’t know how.

You’re not going to know how to stop yelling at kids if you don’t find out what’s really going on with your teenager. You’ll simply make assumptions and judgements that are not productive. Bonnie explains that when our teenagers piss us off, we assume it’s because they want to make us mad, want to disrespect us, want to ruin our days. We assume that they are making us angry for the sake of making us angry. Then we fall into a cycle of yelling and retaliation when really, you and your child are on the same team. If we put these assumptions aside, we can see that our teens are just trying to blow off steam, but are using an unhealthy outlet.

To figure out how to stop yelling at kids and create a deeper connection between you and your teen (instead of a greater divide), ask them about their behavior. When it comes to a party you know nothing about, ask them why they want to go to this party so badly. Instead of saying no outright, or allowing the discussion to escalate, listen closely and pay attention. Making an effort to actually learn what’s going on with your teenager is the best method for how to stop yelling at kids. If you learn the true root of their behavior, you’ll actually be able to help them feel better instead of hurting them and perpetuating a destructive yelling habit.

Different Agendas

Part of the problem is not that your teenager is out to aggravate you, but instead that you and your teenager have different agendas. When you’re trying to get to work on time and need them to get in the car, they’re trying to make sure their mascara looks just right so they can impress a boy at school. While it may seem like your agenda is much more important, their agenda is important to them too, and that’s something you may need to learn if you want to know how to stop yelling at kids.

In order to help you both meet your agendas, Bonnie stresses the importance of collaborative problem solving. This means applying empathy, understanding, and effective communication to reach an agreement with your teen. Instead of punishment, blames, and threats, which have been heavily researched and found to be ineffective, take the time to listen and work through the issue calmly and fairly.

In the ‘party’ situation, work out a time that your teenager needs to be home. Figure out who they are going to be with, what they’ll be doing, and for how long. Have a calm, receptive conversation with your teenager to understand why they’re behaving as they are and how you can both agree on a solution to your conflict. If you’re wondering how to stop yelling at kids, the true remedy is communication.

Identifying Changing your Perceptions

One solution for how to stop yelling at kids may be changing your perception—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You or your teen may be holding onto preconceived notions that are both causing you to inadvertently experience confusion and pain that’s just not necessary.

For example, Bonnie shares the story of a woman who attended one of her workshops who would constantly get into arguments with her daughter. After these long arguments, her daughter would always be very upset, and call herself “stupid.” The mother was really struggling with this recurring problem, as she believed her daughter to be anything but stupid. Why would her daughter say this when her mother had never once asserted that she had lower intelligence? Bonnie suggested that the mother ask her daughter about what “stupid” means.

It turns out, her daughter thought “stupid” is what you are when someone is mad at you. By examining and challenging this perception, the mother figured out how to stop yelling at kids and help her daughter understand the true meaning of the word. The daughter realized that her mother actually considered her to be very smart, and the two were able to make progress in their relationship.

You also may have perceptions about how you should be treated by your children, perceptions could be holding you back from developing healthy communication with them. If you believe that your status as a parent means that you are always right, you are restricting your own ability to partake in collaborative problem solving. You are adopting a mindset that inhibits you from reaching peaceful agreements with your children. 

However, if you can perceive your child as an independent individual with valid goals and desires, you’ll be able to reach them far better. Understanding and valuing their input during a conflict is a much more effective approach than perceiving yourself as the only person with a voice in the discussion.

How to learn more

By challenging our perceptions and making the time and effort for good communication, we can learn how to stop yelling at kids and repair our relationships with our teenagers. We need to view our teenagers as adults and commit ourselves to understanding their motivations, fears, and desires, instead of simply using punitive efforts.

Bonnie shares many more great ideas and parenting techniques in the episode! Her years of experience working with parents and teenagers are so helpful when it comes to providing useful advice on how to stop yelling at teens. We cover:

  • Exercises you can do to help you stop yelling
  • Why kids lie to get what they want
  • The importance of teaching your kid problem solving skills
  • How we can start developing positive communication by the age of 2

Thanks for listening!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  When your teen wants something, start by getting them talking:

“This is really important to you. You have been coming back and asking me about this several times. So that tells me this party is really important to you. You really want to go and I’m giving you the message that I don’t want you to go, so can you tell more about why it’s so important to you and help me understand?”

-Bonnie Harris

2.  After you get your teen talking, tell them your concerns:

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3.  Recognize your teen’s agenda before asking them to do what you want:

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4.  How to say “no” to your teen:

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5.  Tell your teen exactly what has to happen in order to get a “yes” from you:

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6.  What to say if your teen doesn’t live up to their word:

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7.  After your teen messes up, make sure they learn their lesson:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Uncover the Assumptions that Cause You to Lose it:

Think back to a situation between you and your teenager where things got a bit out of hand and you lost control or you wish you would have handled things differently. Bonnie refers to these types of moments as “getting your button pushed”. She has developed the following exercise to help parents uncover the hidden assumptions that caused you to react as you did. Write down what your reaction was in the situation. For example, did you scream at your teen? Did you yell certain words? Be as specific as you can about what your reaction was. Next, write down exactly how you felt while you were reacting in this way. Again, try to be very precise about your emotional state. Were you enraged? Did you feel hopeless? Resentful? Guilty? Finally, answer the following question: if you felt that way and reacted that way, what must you have been thinking? Bonnie says these thoughts usually involve very black-and-white language, like “she always attacks me like this” or “he will never learn”. The assumptions you write here are a big part of what is causing you to “lose it” with your teen.

2.  Reveal the Standards Behind Your Assumptions:

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3.  Look Beneath the Surface of Your Teen’s Problem Behaviors:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So I have now read two of your books here; When Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids. They’re just like so packed with insights and psychology and totally actionable stuff that parents can like immediately just dive into and say, “Oh, I see I’ve been doing that. I got to change that.” And so I’m really curious how you developed the… You talk in these books about how you’re parenting your kids. Molly, your daughter, you have a lot of stories about that in your books and then also stuff that you studied in graduate school. Where did this come from?

Bonnie: Molly is definitely my teacher and I learned everything from her, but I also learned from the parenting groups that I was running. So I developed this program, the effective parenting workshop, that I taught to parents for years. And it was just full of great tools, good communication tools and stuff. And parents were loving it and it was like, they couldn’t wait to get home to try this out. And they were thinking, “Why didn’t I think of this and blah, blah, blah. It seems so easy.” And then maybe about the third week into the class, inevitably, somebody would say, “Now I feel worse than ever.” And I went, “Ooh, what?” “Now I feel worse than ever because I know what I want to do now, but I still can’t do it.” And I thought either two things; I’m not teaching it very well or they’re not practicing enough.

Bonnie: And it turns out that neither of those was the answer. The answer was because their button was getting pushed. And so I didn’t know what was going on. And one day I witnessed something between my husband and my daughter, and it was like, it rang a bell. His button’s getting pushed. That’s why. And then, so what does that mean? Okay. Your button is getting pushed. So when that happens, you can’t respond the way you want to. But why? And I didn’t really know. And so I decided to start running classes called diffusing your buttons. And so every class I ran, I learned more and more from the parents who were in the class.

Bonnie: Then I put it together with the psychology that I know and suddenly bingo, I got it. And I was able to put together that the real button pushing situations that I had with Molly story in the book on preschool mornings, when we got into power struggles every single morning, I realized that what I thought when I saw that little face that I hated with her lip sticking out three feet, that lip lasted for about three years. I just wanted to cut it off. Anyway, whenever I saw that, and I didn’t realize this til much later, I thought, “She’s out to get me. She is out to get me. She is doing this on purpose.” And so this was after I had realized that the thing that happens when we get our buttons pushed is that it’s not that my child’s behavior is making me react the way I do.

Bonnie: It’s not even that my child’s behavior is making me feel a certain way and then react the way I do, it’s all happening inside my head. It all has to do with the thoughts and the perceptions that I have in that instant. And we don’t realize it. We don’t pay attention to that. So it was, she’s out to get me, that led me to feel so angry and put upon and furious and, “How can this little pipsqueak do this to me? I can’t let this happen. I’m a good parent. I have to stop this.” Right? So then we went into a power struggle. And one morning, I was still reading and learning and… But here I am running these groups with parents, trying to help them better communicate with their kids. And I’m at home screaming at my daughter every morning. But one morning the same, same child came through the door, same look on her face, same lip, sticking out, nothing different from her. But I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. She’s not out to get me. She’s miserable. And just that thought, my head did 180 degree switch.

Bonnie: And when I looked at her and saw that she was miserable, I felt compassion. It was all about her. When I thought she was out to get me, it was all about me. Right? What she was doing to me, what I had to do to make her stop. And this huge weight is on every parent’s shoulders about, “What should I do? What shouldn’t I do? How do I do this? How do I make her do blah, blah, blah?” It just was like this complete switch in my head. And I got it together with the groups I was running and testing this over and over and over again with all the parents in my groups that I realized, and this is coming out now in lots of theories, lots of psychology, lots of books, but nobody talked about this when I wrote When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. And so it was a new idea. It’s hard for parents because it means you’re the one, you, the parent, are the one who has to do the work.

Andy: Right. But your kid isn’t going to do it.

Bonnie: That’s right. The good news is, there’s nothing wrong with your kids. They’re just doing what they’ve been taught to do. They’re just doing what they’re doing

Andy: Well, and as you point out in here, they want to be successful. They’re trying to thrive and get their needs met.

Bonnie: Exactly, exactly.

Andy: And I think kids are just like little experimenters. I’ve been getting into learning about how machine learning works, because a study that we’re doing in our lab, we’re using machine learning to build a model that recognizes alcohol in social media posts-

Bonnie: Oh wow.

Andy: … and analyzing how seeing alcohol in social media affects teenagers. But so it’s been a real process for me of learning about the technology of how you can build a model in a computer that will be able to recognize things and pictures and it learns things.

Bonnie: Wow.

Andy: It’s really interesting watching how it does this, because it basically just like starts making random educated guesses based on the data that you’ve given it. And then you start telling it, “No, that guess was wrong. That guess what’s right. That guess what’s wrong. That guess was right.”

Bonnie: Wow.

Andy: And through those iterative processes of doing that, it learns,

Bonnie: I wish we were like machines and could learn that way.

Andy: But that is what kids do. It’s like-

Bonnie: Right.

Andy: … you write in your book, they want to be successful. And they’re trying different strategies to get their needs met. And some of them are bad strategies like throwing tantrums when they’re younger or acting out as teenagers.

Bonnie: Or screaming at you or throwing something. And yes, exactly.

Andy: Right. And what you’ve mapped out in this book is the problem arises when the bad strategies that they’re using to get their needs met push your button as a parent.

Bonnie: Exactly, exactly.

Andy: And then you fly off the handle and then the whole situation just spirals out of control.

Bonnie: That’s right.

Andy: And what’s cool is you don’t just talk about this in general in your book. I mean, you’ve got this, like you’ve got diagram, you’ve actually mapped out like the specific steps of what at these eight different types of buttons, specific types of buttons and how they get pushed and how that a lot of times it starts as a parent in your own childhood and in the things that you wanted from your parents, and now you’re trying to give those things to your kids, but it gets messed up. So I wonder if we could just walk through this idea of standards and assumptions. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about just the anatomy of a button and how a standard works and how that sets up the button to get pushed.

Bonnie: Yeah. Well, just to take it out of parenting so it’s easier to see, you could think of yourself in the line at the grocery store. And you’ve got a little kid on your hip and you’ve got another one in the cart and you’re late for getting your older child from the bus and you’ve got to get out of there fast. And you’ve only got the things that you absolutely necessarily need, but the woman in front of you has bought half the store. And the cashier is just going so slowly scanning every little cut and she can’t get it right. And she’s doing it. And you are thinking, “Why can’t this store not hire competent people? What is wrong? I’m never coming here again.” And somebody from behind you leans forward and says, “Oh, the poor thing, I bet it’s her first day.”

Bonnie: Okay? So those are two different ideas of the same situation. Two different ways of perceiving the situation. We know all these stories. 10 people can watch a car accident happen and you get 10 completely different stories. You’ve got the blind man feeling, the elephant story, everything is perception. There really isn’t a truth. I don’t want to get into that because… But everything is perception.

Andy: It’s reality of subjective. Yeah. Yeah.

Bonnie: It’s very subjective. So one parent can get their button pushed when their child says, “You’re stupid.” “Fly off the handle. Don’t you ever talk to me like that.” And another parent doesn’t get their button pushed at all.

Andy: Doesn’t face them at all. Right. Right.

Bonnie: It’s no problem. Right?

Andy: Right.

Bonnie: So why is that? And so what we do in the book is go through the layers that are underneath those assumptions. So where does that assumption come from? So let’s go through with I’m stupid. I have the expectation, perhaps, that my children should be respectful every time they speak to me. That comes from a standard that I was brought up with. You don’t say anything but nice things. You don’t say anything like that in this family, or else. And then, then below, that is the belief that I have taken in about myself that I’m stupid. Now, when we parents are trying to teach our children something, for instance, how to speak respectfully, “I don’t like it when you call me stupid and I’m going to teach you how to be respectful,” perfectly good intention. Right? But if that button has been pushed, I am going to scream at this child. I am going to yell. I am going to blame. I am going to threaten, “You don’t ever talk to anybody like that and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Bonnie: Now what happens on the others, this is what I call the gap. The gap is the space between me and my child when my intention of teaching goes down the drain because my button has been pushed, but the message to my child is loud and clear. So in a very childish, very immature, very undeveloped brain, this child is hearing, “I’m bad. I’m wrong. Mommy doesn’t love me. I’m not as good as my brother. I am not good enough. I can’t be who she wants me to be.” Whatever it is. Some form of I’m bad gets in there. And that goes into my subconscious brain. I don’t know how to question that as a little child, I can’t say, “Oh, mom’s just having a bad day. She doesn’t really mean that.” Like data on software, we take in everything we hear from our parents and the important people in our lives when we’re little children as the truth. But we interpret it.

Bonnie: I once had a mother talking about the situation with her little four-year-old. And they just butt heads like crazy. And her daughter started saying things like, “You think I’m stupid. Stop calling me stupid.” And then it ended up with, “I’m stupid.” And in class, this mother said, “I have a lot of problems with this child, but stupid is the last thing I would ever, ever call her. She is so smart. I can’t stand it. I would never call her stupid.” So I said, “Why don’t you ask her what stupid means to her?” And the next week she came to class and she had asked her daughter and her daughter said, “Well, when somebody is mad at you, it means you’re stupid. “

Bonnie: So that could sink in. Depending on how you, the child, perceive what’s happening in your life, you make these decisions about yourself. And unless we go through years of therapy, unless we go through all kinds of personal growth workshops and really examine this, they drive everything we do. But you can couch an awful lot of it until you have children. And your children know you better than anybody, way better than you know yourself. They just start jabbing those thorns in. If there’s a button to be pushed, they’re going to push it.

Andy: They’re going to find that thing.

Bonnie: It’s like putting that big red button up on the wall and saying to your child, “Don’t you push that.”

Andy: “Whatever you do, don’t touch it.” Yeah. Right.

Bonnie: Right. Oh, okay. So if it’s there, it’s going to be pushed.

Andy: You write that your children are your teachers.

Bonnie: Yeah.

Andy: And it’s like, yeah, by pointing out those sore spots, it can help you realize that, “Wow, there was a standard there that doesn’t really make sense and that’s what was generating those assumptions,” and then you can look deeper and figure out what the belief is and underneath it. I think it’s really powerful. And it’s cool how it’s not just parenting. Even like what you brought up at first, this example in the grocery store is you have some standard that grocery beggars should be efficient or I don’t know, whatever it is.

Bonnie: Right. Exactly. It should be fast and speedy. Yeah, exactly.

Andy: And you’d have all those assumptions in your head about, “Oh, this person’s incompetent and I’m never coming to this store again. This place is terrible and they can’t hire good people.” It’s so true that it’s the same thing that happens in our head when the kid is doing something, those assumptions just start going. And I’d like… Well, you said something in your book about specifically using really strong language when you voice those assumptions. Can you talk a little bit about how to uncover what your assumptions are like that?

Bonnie: Well, because we don’t pay attention to those assumptions. We don’t realize we’re having them. You want to start with your reaction. So after a situation is over, every parent knows, “I didn’t like the way I reacted.”

Andy: “I didn’t really handle that to well.”

Bonnie: “I was like out of control.”

Andy: Right.

Bonnie: I couldn’t, but we think that, “The child is making me do this.”

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Bonnie: But anyway, you know that when your button has been pushed, your reaction is anywhere from totally ineffective to damaging. And no parent likes that feeling, but they just don’t know what to do about it. What they think they have to do about it is get their child to change, get their child to behave differently. So this is the choice point you’re at. When you realize that your button is getting pushed, your choice point is, “Am I going to use fear tactics and punishment and threats to get my child to change? Or am I going to recognize that this is my button? This is my responsibility. And I can change.” and that’s the choice.

Bonnie: So if you have chosen to do something about this, after a situation is over, write down your reaction. “I screamed. I yelled these words. That was my mother coming out of my mouth.” And then ask yourself, “How did I feel?” Because that’s pretty easy. “I was enraged. I felt hopeless. I felt resentful. I felt guilty. I felt blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So you want to write those down. Then ask yourself the question, “If I felt that way and reacted that way, what must I have been thinking?”

Bonnie: And that’s the way you get to it. Also, there are exercises throughout the book and I also have a workbook that’s got much more detailed stuff in it that help you put your situations into these exercises so you can figure it out for yourself. But the key question is, “What must I have been thinking?” And we make these assumptions about our kids. “He’s so mean. She’s violent. When is she ever going to listen? He will never learn. The always and the nevers, he doesn’t know how to take responsibility for himself. She just goes at me every single day. She’s…” These judgements.

Bonnie: Assumptions are always judgments. And we take them in as the truth. And so we react accordingly. So when I am able to change that, so what we do in the work is, when you can identify some of the assumptions that you’re making, for me, it was, “She’s out to get me.” Right? That is logically and naturally going to lead me to feel furious and maybe helpless and maybe out of control and blah, blah, blah. So I’ve got to recognize what it is I’m thinking, my perception of my child and also my perception of myself. “I’m a failure as a parent. I don’t know how to handle this.” I had a woman in a group of mine once say, “I should never have been given a uterus.”

Bonnie: She was saying it as a joke but that’s where we, “”I should never have had kids. A lot of parents get into that place where they just feel like such failures. That plus the thoughts we have about our kids just take us down that vortex and we’re lost. And there’s nothing and you’re completely in your head about what a failure your child is, what a failure you are and you feel hopeless and you don’t know what to do. And so you just hope and pray that this will pass and you go onto the next situation and you have dinner and you go to bed and then you start all over again the next day. But these situations build up and build up until you feel like your family is not working very well. And your kids are at you all the time.

Andy: It creates a environment where there’s like you’re going at each other kind of, or there’s like two sides almost where it’s like, “Wait, we’re all on the same team here. We’re all the same family.”

Bonnie: Exactly. And when we can’t take it, what our children are doing, we get into power struggles. And my definition of a power struggle is two children, the same age, out to get what they want. That’s what we’re all about. We all want what we want when we want it. I tell parents to recognize that that is your child’s job. It is your child’s job to get what he wants when he wants it. And I was speaking to a large group of people once and this dad, way in the back of the room, called out, “When can we expect that to stop?” And the entire audience burst out laughing because somewhere in there we realize it doesn’t ever stop.

Andy: It’s not going to stop.

Bonnie: We all want what we want when we want it, which is why we get our buttons pushed. And the difference is that the maturing process means that I learn that, “Oh, that person wants what he wants when he wants it too.” So if I want to be in relationship with this person, I need to have some consideration for what this other person wants. That’s how relationships work. But we expect that kind of consideration from our four-year-olds and our eight-year-olds and our ten-year-olds. It’s not going to happen then. It’s the maturing process. It’s so slow, long gradual process when we come to appreciate. And the way we learn it the best is when our parents have consideration for us and what’s important to us. And if that doesn’t happen, then it’s much harder to learn.

About Bonnie Harris

A parenting and child behavior specialist, Bonnie Harris has designed and taught parenting workshops and counseled parents for more than twenty five years. Her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education is from Bank Street College in New York City.

Bonnie founded The Parent Guidance Center in Peterborough, NH in 1990, now The River Center, dedicated to parent education, support and community connections. She has written two books, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids, speaks and teaches internationally and has appeared on many television and radio programs and podcasts.

Bonnie lives in NH with her husband and is the mother of two grown children and three grandchildren.

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