Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece (with a stronger tone than is typical for this site), posted with the purpose of creating a dialogue among real moms who are actually raising families in today’s culture. Please share your perspective in the comment section.
I’m one of those people who is susceptible to every form of Mother’s Guilt. If I don’t pay enough attention to my thought processes, I can easily become overwhelmed by my negative self-talk. It’s just the way I’m wired, and I know I’m not alone. The funny thing is, it’s often the mothers who care the most and are trying the hardest who make the easiest prey for Mother’s Guilt and negative self-talk. You want so badly to be the best you can be and you have such high standards for yourself and your life that you become easily discouraged when things don’t go quite as you hoped, planned, or expected. I saw a meme today (pardon it’s French) that captures this idea perfectly: “Everything is great when you don’t give a (blank).”
So I was a little (scratch that) LOT annoyed when I read about this study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh that was recently published in the Journal of Child Development. The study addresses the negative effects of parents yelling at their teenagers, saying it has the same effect as physical abuse. I could maybe swallow that depending on the type and level of yelling, but this next part just bugged the heck out of me:
Significantly, the researchers also found that “parental warmth”—i.e., the degree of love, emotional support, and affection between parents and adolescents—did not lessen the effects of the verbal discipline. The sense that parents are yelling at the child “out of love,” or “for their own good,” Wang said, does not mitigate the damage inflicted. Neither does the strength of the parent-child bond.
Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline, said Wang, can still be harmful. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad,” he said.
Just in case you didn’t get that, let me summarize: Even if you are a loving, supportive, and affectionate parent to your teen, the occasional yelling fit negates all that and inflicts permanent damage.
Holy schnikes! Is this guy a parent? Of a teen? Did he have parents when he was a teen? Does he not know that every single parent of a teen on the planet is going to lose it at some point? And that most of them don’t do it because they think it’s helpful, but because they are just plain frustrated and mad? Why would he do this? I don’t know, but I would bet my therapeutic bag of dark Ghiradelli chocolates hiding in my underwear drawer that this guy is not a parent, and certainly not of teenagers.
The thing is, I consider myself an extremely patient parent. Maybe even to the point of leniency or even apathy. I am extremely non-confrontational and would rather watch an episode of Honey Boo Boo than get angry and yell at one of my children. But it happens. Because that’s life as a parent. Especially the parents of teenagers. And this guy should know that. So why browbeat the poor parents of the world who are already going out of their minds trying their best to raise these maddening adolescent creatures?
Let me share with you my latest relationship destroying indiscretion. I was low on sleep because it was that time of the month and that’s when I happen to get insomnia. (Talk about being kicked while you’re down.) So it was during this unfortunate time that my middle school age son came home on the bus for the second day in a row when he was supposed to stay after school and finish a project that was already overdue. I had sent an email to his teacher making a specific request for him (which was granted), so I didn’t want him to push his luck. To make matters worse, he also forgot (for like the 157th day in a row) to borrow a cello bow from the school since the orchestra director accidentally sent his in for repairs with some of the school bows. And, of course, he had his private cello lesson that night.
So guess what happened? Mom lost it a little bit. I yelled. I was visibly angry. I drove him back to the school a little too fast. It was not one of my prouder parenting moments. But again, it happens, and in my case, not too often. And because it doesn’t happen that often, and because I have a good relationship with my son, and because I have no problem apologizing for my bad behavior, I really didn’t sweat it. Until I read this stupid study.
But you know what? The more I thought about it, the more I resolved to reject this latest guilt trip. I have enough to feel guilty about thanks to all the “experts” and opinion-ators out there constantly piping in on all the ways I am ruining my children.
I feel guilty that my children are full of toxins from the hygiene products I buy and the PCB laden dishes and toys they’ve been using their whole lives. I feel guilty for all the days I put my to-do list and my iphone over making homemade play-doh with my younger children. I feel guilty that I let my older children veg out on their phones when we should all be outside together gardening organic produce or some such thing. I feel guilty for signing all of them up for too many extracurricular activities since we should be simplifying our life and taking things slower even though the requirements for college continue to get more competitive and rigorous. (What do you want them to write on their college applications? That they enjoyed life slowly with their parents?) I feel guilty about spending too much time writing these posts every week even though it’s in the name of supporting mothers and motherhood. (Sitting here in my bathrobe at 11am…) I feel guilty about our horrible bedtime routine. I feel guilty that I don’t make my children do more of the housework when I see how much homework they have and I just want them to have some free playtime. (That whole “take life slower” directive.) I feel guilty about letting my one child who likes it eat nasty hot lunch at school a couple of days a week. I feel guilty that I’m not doing my Room Mom job very well. I feel guilty that we haven’t finished our backyard so our kids can have a fun outdoor space to play in before they go off to college (and grow that PCB-free organic produce in), and then I feel guilty because I’m probably spoiling them enough already. Why should I feel pressure to make a dream backyard for them? Can’t they just go play kick the can in the street or something? Like they did in the “good old days” before America was so first-world spoiled?
Do you see? I know this sounds crazy to some people, but other moms know EXACTLY where I’m coming from. Yes, these are first world problems, as they say, and I guess that’s my point. We have enough first world problems, don’t give us another one.
So today, I am NOT going to feel guilty that I occasionally yell at my kids when they do stupid things and I’m already in a bad mood. ESPECIALLY if I know I have a good relationship with them, and ESPECIALLY if I make sure to show them how important it is to apologize for bad (but totally normal) behavior afterward. So really, apologizing to my son and talking to him about his day while tickling his back before bed that night didn’t make up for my yelling fit at all? Really?
Sorry Dr. Wang, but that is real life in a family. I’m not saying it’s okay to yell, I’m not saying I’m proud of it, but I am saying that occasional yelling followed by love and an apology is totally normal in happy, healthy families, and it happens all the time. I think it is absolutely crazy for you to suggest that parental love cannot make up for parental mistakes. I reject that, and the guilt trip that goes along with it. So, nope. I’m not going on your guilt trip today, Dr. Wang. I’m going to take my energy and put it toward positive interactions with my kids trusting that it does, in fact, matter.
QUESTION: Do you yell at your kids occasionally when they do stupid things? Do you apologize and show love afterward? Do you think you’re doing irreparable damage to your kids through this process and feel guilty about it?
CHALLENGE: Take a day off from the guilt trip. Most of the things you worry and feel guilty about are first world problems and don’t matter as much as you think they do. Keep loving your kids with all your might and trust that everything will be okay in the end.
Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Alisha Gale says
Ha! Your reaction to is similar to my reaction when I read that the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a warning that parents shouldn’t ever put their babies or toddlers in grocery cart seats: “Does anyone from the AAP actually have babies or toddlers? Have they ever taken them to the grocery store?”
You’re right that a yell-free household is a near impossibility for a lot (most?) of us. When faced with studies like these, I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves: No child is ever raised perfectly. EVER. That’s just a fact of life.
I grew up in a house where my parents were really really in control of their temper and their language. I admire that they NEVER swore at us, and NEVER EVER had a fight in front of us.
However, I think that when I got married I didn’t know how to have a fight, and apologize and make up. I felt like if I did, that my marriage was over or something.
I think that there is a great deal to learn actually from seeing our parents lose it and then pick up the pieces. I think what we can take from this Wang study is that if we are yelling at our kids every single day that it will negate our loving efforts, and our kids will feel abused. However, the occasional flip-out and loving follow-up……I consider that super-valuable life EDUCATION.
The AAP actually said that? For crying out loud! Thanks for the comment, Alisha.
I am a mother who definitely yells more than I should. I am not terribly patient, and while I know I need to forgive myself, I also need to be convicted about my yelling. That being said, I did think this study was a little extreme. For one thing, it would definitely depend on the type of yelling (for it to be as detrimental as spanking). And, I totally agree with you ladies that no household is yell-free, and an occasional yell is not worthy of a guilt trip.
Koni Smith says
I love you, Allyson! Thanks for making me feel normal and real. I think that it is important that our children see that we also make mistakes and that we apologize too! We can be examples to them for what we expect them to do with their siblings and others. I think that we do the best that we can – and when we haven’t done our best, that is what saying we are sorry and forgiveness is for. If we don’t teach our kids that, they are REALLY missing out on something important!
I just spent an hour locked up in the bathroom because if I didn’t I would have seriously regretted what I might have done or said to my family. And yes… all those guilty feelings were swarming around me like bees!! This article was exactly what I needed. This was so truthfully said and the first thing that made me smile all day. Thank you, thank you! I think I’ll read this about a dozen times today because it felt so good. Hang in there moms!
Beth NC says
It seems to me that “harsh verbal discipline” encompasses a lot of behavior. Raising one’s voice and yelling “NO! You CANNOT do that!” or “WHY didn’t you do that? HOW MANY TIMES must I remind you?” is one response of an exhausted, frustrated parent.
That’s very different from name calling or sarcasm “You’re an IDIOT! You’ll NEVER get this!” 30 years later, I still remember my parents’ sarcastic comments to me. (I turned out OK and have good relationships with them – but I do remember their comments.)
As a parent, I do lose my cool and yell sometimes, but try never to name call or use sarcasm.
Did study authors distinguish between types of harsh verbal interactions? Don’t you think that would make a difference?
This is a very good point! There’s a difference in WHAT i being yelled. And in what circumstances. And how often. Would be interesting to know how exactly they were measuring harm and what type of yelling happened during that research.
I am reading an interesting book that talks in part about guilt. It’s called “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.” I can’t say I agree 100% with everything the author writes but I do agree wholeheartedly with her view about how girls (and their moms often)struggle with perfectionism and then feel tremendous guilt when they are not perfect. The author makes the point that guilt and striving for perfectionism limit our potential to learn and grow and become better. That makes sense to me. I believe we are here on earth to learn and grow anyway so I’ve decided it’s ok if life isn’t perfect! It’s ok to feel mad and frustrated and if we loose it every once in a while, we can apologize and strive to be better where we need to improve. I CAN relate to this. There are times when I am so frustrated at a child that I feel like smoke is coming out of my ears!
Desiree Harris says
You hit it on the head Allyson.I loved reading this. That is exactly how I feel-guilty about most everything. And I’m tired of it.
My favorite part of your post is the super-long paragraph listing some of the things you feel guilty about. It sounded so familiar, as if I could have written it myself. That’s what I needed today, to know that I’m not alone in feeling like I’m not keeping all the balls in the air all of the time. No one can juggle that many things without dropping a few balls, right? I think we have to keep a sense of humor when we read what “experts” have to say, and I thank you for reminding us that we’re human and we make mistakes and we’re still okay.
Amen! I do yell at my kids, no excessively and never belittling but sometimes I lose it! I do a lot of things right and I hope those are what my kids will remember.
Rachel Winter says
Thank you for this post. I needed to read this and realize that I am not alone. Yes, I yell sometimes, but I do feel bad about it and I always try to talk about it later when we are both calm and I apologize and give a hug. I am trying the best I can with 4 little ones (10, 8, 6 and 3) and every SINGLE THING you wrote that you felt guilty about I am guilty of too, and was afraid to admit it.
Thank you for such a great article. I really appreciate it.
Cecily smith says
Thank you so much for this article!! By nature I am not a yeller, I am a ” holder- inner”, so in my early motherhood years I would take those normal frustrations out on me and be so hard on myself. Now that I have 4 children and 1 almost 2 teens, an active 6 year old and a baby ( all boys) I have found my quiet temperament shift to yelling sometimes and I have felt so guilty! So thank you for saying this is normal, because the older I get, the more I parent and the more life throws at you with kids of all ages and needs, thst just seems right, because I know trying to be ” perfect” and holding it all in is just as damaging. ( maybe they need a study on that!) I just have to remind myself that sometimes! And now I have to break another “rule ” and leave my napping baby for 2 min. While I run a kindergartener to school, so exhausted mom might get some rest too! Again it’s a choice between trying to he a perfect parent or trying to be the best and healthiest mom I can be. And I’ve learned the hard way, being the best you can be is much healthier!
Of course we should try not to yell at our children, but when it happens, we need to be able to apologize and move on and keep trying, not get mired in guilt and self-doubt, feeling that we have done irreparable damage to our children, and since we slipped up we might as well stop trying!
Sorry for the run-on sentence, but I agree that this “expert” takes his views too far! I guess we should cut him some slack, since he’s not a mother and therefore will never understand how counter-productive this kind of judgement is to those of us who are giving our all, trying so hard, and fighting guilt from every side!!!
The kind of Moms who should read that study and feel remorse and stop yelling will likely never do it. My Mom yelled at me at least every week while I was a teenager and she said some nasty hurtful things to me which still hurt. I am trying to forgive her and she has no idea how much pain I have gone through because of her yelling. And if I ever try to bring it up, she just falls apart and says she was a terrible Mom and what a failure she is, but she never apologizes for it. While I was growing up, she would apologize sometimes (not often) and when she did apologize it did feel better. So I don’t agree that being loving and apologizing later doesn’t do anything. I do think that it depends on what you are yelling, how frequently, and whether or not you do apologize. I feel like I don’t have a very good relationship with my Mom now. I wish I could cut off ties with her to tell the truth, but she loves my boys and my boys love seeing her so I don’t want to make my boys suffer because I am still hurt from things my Mom said to me. My Mom has depression and is emotionally handicapped in my opinion. She has no idea how her problems affect her children and I don’t think she ever will. I don’t want Moms to feel guilty about losing it and yelling every so often (I am definitely not perfect myself), but I do know by experience that yelling does hurt so be careful what you say. I still cry because of things my Mom said to me and because I feel unloved by my own mother. I guess I would just like to add my 2 cents that yelling does cause damage.
I agree that yelling can cause damage. I’m sorry that the yelling in your home caused hurt. Maybe the point is that yelling will happen, it’s normal, but we need to be careful with the things we yell and how often. I think there is a difference yelling, “I’m so frustrated” versus “you make me so mad.”
I think we would be creating naive children if they never saw a parent lose their patience. If a child never experiences being yelled at in a home (by a loving, frustrated parent) how would they handle a situation where a boss, co worker, spouse or friend loses their patience with them? I’m not saying we take advantage and continually yell at our children just to show them what it feels like but we should help them understand emotions, some good and some bad, are normal. I want my children to know that it’s okay sometimes to be mad and upset, feelings are feelings and they may need to be expressed. I do want to teach them how to properly handle those feelings or how to apologize if they happen to lose it. I want to show them that disagreements can be worked out and upset parents still truly love and care for them even if they lost their cool. Wouldn’t it be better for our children to see imperfect parents continually trying to be better then giving them a false sense of parenting reality?
Ugh.. Just got home from 40 minutes of having to drive my daughter to school because she missed the bus by five minutes AGAIN! I lost it! Now that 40 minutes lost out of my already crazy busy day will turn into much more because of the guilt i will feel about the damage i have done letting the word “idiot” slip out of my mouth in my whirling dervishness. I was such a patient mom when she was little and now that she’s old enough to be my biggest critic, i can’t hold it together.
Frustrated Mom says
“I was such a patient mom when she was little and now that she is old enough to be my biggest critic, I can’t hold it together.” I think this exact thought several times a day. What happened? Teenage years are very difficult and I have not figured it out yet. I think I yell not just out of impatience, but because I want so much for her, and when she does things like miss a bus or not stay after school for an assignment I wonder how she is going to succeed. The future is so uncertain & there is no way to know if you are doing anything right.
My parents raised SEVEN kids. They probably yelled at me. Who wouldn’t lose it once in a while with seven kids in the house? They never said demoralizing things. I’m sure they yelled at me at some time or another, but I don’t remember it. I’m sure I was not permanently damaged by it, because overall they were loving and supportive.