When a man first imagines himself being a parent, he tends to imagine parenting a baby, who is probably a terrible conversationalist. This makes sense because most parenting careers begin not with articulate teenagers, but babies instead; because those babies start communicating with only coos and cries, eventually, parents imagine having actual conversations with their kid about important things, like the meaning of life or why the designated hitter is the worst idea in history.
But few new parents ever imagine the existence of the most ubiquitous conversational category: things that your child will yell at you. The reasons they yell vary; amazingly, not all of them are because kids are a-holes. After four children and many years of parenting experience, I’ve identified the five most common reasons why children yell and how you should respond appropriately.
1) Kids are Ignorant
Frequently, smaller children yell out of frustration with their own ignorance. I once asked my son to try putting on his underwear correctly, when he came downstairs with his penis hanging out. Without missing a beat, he yelled at me, “You didn’t tell me my penis goes INSIDE the underwear!” I realized that, like all children, my son needs to have absolutely everything in the world explained to him. So the best response when a child is frustrated, is to resist the urge to get upset and instead teach my son the correct way. The “penis goes inside the pants” incident became a teachable moment that made me proud to be my son’s father, even if it eventually made a very awkward anecdote in my next teaching portfolio.
2) They are blatant truth tellers
When kids yell at you sometimes, they state something so matter-of-fact, that it achieves a level of profundity that makes it Truth. Like when my 3-year-old daughter got frustrated when I asked her if she needed help one afternoon. “Of course I need help! Why would I come to you if I could do this myself?!” Or when her brother yelled, “Of course I need markers to do this coloring sheet: my fingers aren’t markers, you know!”
They are so right, there really is no point getting upset when you respond. Just acknowledge that they are right and move on. No use arguing over the epistemological nature of reality with a toddler.
3) Hurt Feelings
Sometimes, though, the child really is upset about something that is bothering him, and while what they yell might hurt or be funny, deep down it shows that something isn’t right. Like when I told my son his sisters wouldn’t like him if he kept hitting them, he yelled, “No one loves me, so I’ll just go and get eaten by a bear!” Sure it might be hyperbolic and show how much my son loves histrionics, but deep down, he felt unloved: the feeling was so strong, he was motivated to find a bear deep in the Maryland suburbs, then slather himself with a slurry of honey, berries and salmon in order to entice that bear into eating him. That level of commitment from a boy who usually can’t be bothered to put on underwear, indicates how bothered he truly was that his sisters didn’t appreciate being hit like he thought they should’ve. The best response is to let them calm down before you try to help them process what is bothering them. Then, depending on the child’s age, you can discuss the best way to solve the problem. When in doubt, a hug and some screen time solve most problems.
My oldest daughter went through a phase when anytime we told her “no,” she wanted to run away–a very common occurrence at 6 or 7. But she would run away by primarily announcing she was doing so, standing by the front door, then yelling some scathing (for a 7-year-old) indictment of our parenting skills, primarily to get a rise out of us so we could become enmeshed in the DRAMA!!!
One morning at breakfast, we told her she couldn’t put more than one tablespoon of sugar in her tea. Because she wants to put half a cup in each cup, she got upset, and commenced Running Away Routine. She went upstairs, got dressed, and then spent twenty minutes standing with her hand on the front door threatening to run away. Finally she yelled, “You don’t care. Good-bye! I’m going to go find a family that loves me! NOT YOU!”
This situation is a little more complicated since it deals with a child’s desire to win an argument and their need for the dramatic evidence that they are loved enough that their parent becomes distraught at the thought of losing them. So when yelled at, you have to avoid yelling back (I’ll admit my [only] parenting weakness) because that only makes things worse. And in most cases you must also avoid laughing out loud because 1) it will usually just upset them more since they can tell when someone is making fun of them, and 2) if you laugh, any chance of winning the struggle is lost.
No, the best response is to play along, neither putting your foot down, nor caving into their demands; hopefully you can insert some perspective into the situation. So when my daughter was constantly trying to run away, I tried because I love her, and want her to feel better; I made sure she knew what she was getting into. “If you get picked up by the police,” I told her, “make sure to tell them that you ran away because of how much sugar was in your tea. That way they’ll know to stop trying to catch murderers and thieves and get to work protecting you in your quest to add a cup of sugar to your cup of tea.”
Then she really said the darndest thing a kid could say: nothing.
Occasionally, though, the reason could be they are just a-holes and/or having a bad day and/or tired, etc. In which case, good luck trying any of these strategies while resisting the urge to put a muzzle on them and lock them in a tower without a window (reading “Rapunzel” a million times surely taught you something useful, right?).
Let me admit here at the end that I don’t have teenagers yet, so all my advice might have a shorter shelf life than I realize. In that case, a more experienced parent than me can offer useful tips and the best help of all: the anecdotes to enlighten and amuse us through the frustrating moments trying to communicate with children that aren’t as far removed from coos and cries as we’d like to think.