Why I Don’t Yell at my Kid—Until I Do

I have a confession: I side-eye the parents yelling at their kids in Wal-Mart. You know the ones. The real screamers. I’ve always advocated and strived for non-engagement with my kids’ (we both know I mean Big A) negative behavior. With concentrated effort, I usually succeed. Until earlier this week when I experienced a classic, “It’s 5:42 in the cereal aisle and I just want to get home after a long day at work with some DINNER TIMMY SIT DOWN” parental crisis. I yelled at my toddler. I bent down and yelled “Shut up!” in his face during an epic tantrum.

The Struggle Is Real

It’s been a long handful of weeks wrestling with Big A’s autism diagnosis and the gritty realities of it all. Some days it feels as if I am just plodding from meltdown to meltdown. The calm behavior is lava and Lord knows we can’t step on it for long. Little A’s intense teething and constant demands for attention aren’t helping matters either.

Little A is in pain. Big A is jealous and struggles to communicate his needs. I am (beyond) frayed.

And I am flawed.

I feel guilty and awful for losing my temper. Physiologically, cortisol flooding the brain is not a pleasant sensation. Emotionally, conflict with Big A is wrenching, making him cry terribly.

I am trying hard to let go of that guilt. Beating myself up doesn’t help. Guilt comes from an emotional place and I don’t operate well from there. Whether shouting in anger or wallowing in guilt I’m not thinking clearly. And my kid isn’t, either.

I’m trying to look at this from a place of practicality rather than emotion. I don’t think my children are too precious ever to be subjected to such a shocking thing as a raised voice. Life can be stressful and unpredictable; raised voices happen.

To me, yelling has two strikes against it:

  1. Everyone feels like trash afterward
  2. As a way to teach, discipline, or communicate ideas yelling doesn’t work with Big A (except with safety, if he’s about to run in traffic I yell my damn head off)

So we all feel awful after I lose my temper…for nothing. Yelling doesn’t work and I’m done doing things that don’t work.

I read a book in which the author wrote about mirror neurons. I’d heard of these neurons in college, but this author presented the concept through the lens of discipline and parent-child interactions. Piqued, I began researching. Now, I’m left wondering if yelling ever effectively causes behavior change. With anyone.

woman in front of man seating on brown chair

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons were first observed in monkeys in the 1990’s. Researchers noticed that the same neurons lit up in the primate brain whether an action was performed or observed. In other words, if the monkey picked up an apple certain neurons would light up. When the monkey observed a human picking up an apple the exact same neurons would light up.

Image result for mind blown memes

The scientists were stunned. A mad dash to study mirror neurons, in primates and humans, ensued. While scientists cannot access individual brain neurons in humans they can use imaging technology to study our brains as a whole. Researchers have observed mirror neuron systems in the human brain. At least, using an fMRI, it can be clearly seen that the same areas of the brain light up whether an action is performed or observed.

There is near consensus that mirror neurons exist, but no one is completely sure what they do. Here are some ideas:

Whatcha Doin’, Guys?

  • Deciphering intent: one study found that mirror neurons helped participants realize if someone was lifting a tea cup in order to be served or to be cleared from the table.
  • Learning: some argue that mirror neurons exist so that we can visualize activities in our heads and therefore  “practice” them over and over. When we need to do the action again our mirror neurons are more than prepared.
  • Empathy: several studies show that the human brain lights up in the same area whether an emotion is experienced by the participant or observed in another.
  • Human self-awareness: this theory piggybacks upon the learning theory of mirror neurons. Just as we can visualize our actions, scientists postulate that mirror neurons allow us to “picture” our own thought processes in order to learn about ourselves. Some say mirror neurons contribute to our theory of mind skills.
  • Language: mirror neuron activity has been observed in the inferior frontal cortex of primate brains, near the Broca’s area (known language development part of the brain), leaving some scientists to theorize that mirror neurons played an important part in our language development as a species.
  • Automatic imitation: this is why yawns are contagious, babies will put their arms up when you do, and Buzzfeed articles recommend that you mirror body language in job interviews. We can’t help but mimic our fellow humans and feel positive toward those that mimic us. Scientists wonder if this is due to mirror neurons.selective focus photography of grumpy face toddler sitting on plaid pad taken during daytime

Mirror Neurons and Yelling

Twenty-six years on, some of the more grandiose claims made of mirror neurons have been scaled back. But even the most serious detractors admit a connection between the mirror neuron system and automatic imitation.

It is this connection between mirror neurons and automatic imitation that leads me to think that yelling is simply biologically ineffective. I witnessed it first hand when I lost my cool with Big A. His immediate reaction was to mirror me. His little face contorted in rage. He thrust his chest and face towards me while clenching his fists behind him. Then he crumpled to the floor and cried as if his heart was broken.

Have you ever read the advice to smile when you’re feeling sad? That just the act of smiling will trick your brain into releasing feel-good hormones, lifting your mood? The same works with negative emotions—start frowning and you’ll feel sad.

So I start yelling (which floods my brain with cortisol) and Big A’s mirror neuron systems activate in response to my emotions. When he yells in kind, cortisol floods his brain. Now we’re both yelling, cortisol-ridden hot messes. How can I teach him to sign what he wants, or choose another behavior instead of hitting his brother, or not throw his food if it displeases him in the presence of rampant stress hormones? I CAN’T.

Now What?

In a follow-up to this article I’ll explore coping skills, their implementation, alternatives to yelling, how things are going, etc. I have some ideas and I’ll canvass others from Big A’s developmental, occupational, and speech therapists. More importantly, I’d like to hear from you.

What do you do instead of losing it? And what do you do when you inevitably do lose it? How did you survive the terrible two’s (or any other challenging stage)? What specific Yankee Candle scent will calm me down?

Let me know in the comments below. Comment, share, pin, subscribe, and do all the social media things. I can’t be the only one struggling with this. Let’s rally round.



Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.

2 Responses

  1. I have lost my temper with my child (she’s now 14), and occasionally yelled–something I am also adamantly opposed to because I feel it is ineffective and detrimental to both parties. I have a few thoughts:

    1. I think it’s important for kids to realize that it’s okay to feel frustrated and angry sometimes, and that even adults feel these emotions… The hard part is that they’re learning from us how they should express those emotions. No pressure (ha!).
    2. I’ve learned to have some humility, when I have lost my temper with my kiddo, to tell her as much, and to tell her I’m sorry. I realize this will vary widely in application between be telling my 14 year old that she’s acting like an entitled brat and losing one’s cool with a toddler… But I can remember telling her as a toddler, “I’m sorry, mommy was angry. I shouldn’t have said that”.

    2. To prevent getting to the boiling point, I tried to do everything I could to foresee issues… But we all know that isn’t fail safe. Even packing snacks, distractions, doing things after nap, don’t always work. I tend to use irreverent humor. Especially during the toddler years. I also employed self time outs. Sometimes I would also listen to soothing music with one ear bud in the store, so I could still hear my kid… Mostly. Mantras like, “Crying never killed anyone”, “My track record for getting through rough days is 100%”, and “I don’t negotiate with terrorists” were especially helpful.
    3. Ask for what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask people if they’d mind watching one, or both boys, for a half hour or hour, while you run an errand. It will give you a break of sorts and will give them a chance to bond with others who love them. You and your children are not a burden to those who love you, but a blessing. It took me a long time to realize and accept that for my own life, but it’s true!

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