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How to Curb Your Anger

"Okay, let's get going. Get your shoes on. Get your coats on," I said urgently as I burst into the living room, where my two boys were playing with some toy knights. They slowly started to get up from the floor. I'd just noticed the time and realized we were going to be late for an art class 45 minutes away. "C'mon, c'mon," I said a bit louder, irritated with myself for having lost track of time. Gus, 7, started to say something, but I cut him off. "Just get your shoes on. NOW," I shouted.

"What's happening?" Gus asked in a panic.

"We're going to be late for art class. Now let's go," I said brusquely as I picked up my purse and led them out the door. When we were pulling out of the driveway, Gus spoke up from the backseat. "Mommy, don't do that again," he said.

"Do what?" I answered, buckling my seat belt and calculating how late we were actually going to be.

"Don't come in and start yelling like that. I thought the house was on fire. That wasn't very nice, you know."

I stopped the car, the wisdom of a 7-year-old hitting me. It was only an art class. That sinking feeling I know so well as a mother  -- guilt  -- seeped through my body. "You're absolutely right," I said, turning to the backseat and putting my hand on Gus's knee, hoping the incident wouldn't be fodder for too many adult therapy sessions. "I shouldn't have yelled like that. I'm sorry." As we drove to the art class  -- more slowly now  -- we talked about how I could have handled the situation better.

Parenting contributing editor Jeannie Ralston writes from her family's lavender farm in Blanco, Texas.

A lack of reason?

I'd like to tell you this is the only time I've ever yelled at my children, and you'd rightly suspect I was lying. But other times I've raised my voice, I've been the one to come down on myself afterward. For my son to point out my lack of reason  -- and for him to do so, so reasonably  -- caught my attention like nothing else.

Since that afternoon, I've become much more conscious of my volume, and I've become more curious about where I fit in among other parents. How much do other moms yell? What's okay, and what's not?

Apparently, my occasional yelling (I'll fess up to an outburst two or three times a month) puts me right in the mainstream. In a recent study, 88 percent of parents say they've shouted or screamed at their kids in the previous year (the figure shoots up to 98 percent of parents with 7-year-olds, which any mom of a 7-year-old can understand). Another study shows that 56 percent of mothers of 4-year-olds yell at their kids in anger at least once or twice a week.

Calls to 15 friends and acquaintances revealed that almost everyone yells at their kids at some point and in some way. There seems to be three degrees of yelling:

The most acceptable is warning or prevention yelling, to stop a child from running toward a busy street or touching the burner on a stove.

The most common is compliance yelling  -- raised voices brought on by kids who don't do what you want, even when they've been asked several times, or somehow frustrate or defy their beleaguered parents.

The third degree is the beyond-the-pale yelling, when you not only cross the volume barrier but say things you wish you hadn't.

Monique Guilbeau, an Austin, Texas, mom of a 7- and a 4-year-old, thinks that yelling at your children in the first two degrees is almost unavoidable, since anger and frustration are such natural emotions. What's more, it does them some good: "Would you not cry in front of your kids? They're going to have to learn that anger and yelling are a normal part of life," she says.

"If yelling's done occasionally, if it's done constructively, it can teach a kid to be able to handle it," says Lori Beveridge of Austin, Texas, a mom of two, ages 8 and 1. "Not that it makes them think it's how people treat each other, but when a situation arises in the future  -- a boss who yells or something  -- they'll be prepared to deal with it."

I also believe that releasing your frustration through a good yelp every now and then lets kids know that you, like any human on the planet, have limits. There's also the sad fact that sometimes yelling just plain old works. Plenty of misbehaving children have been set back on the straight and narrow by a sudden, sharp increase in parental volume.

But too much yelling can build up a child's aural immunity. If she gets used to yelling, it won't have the power to grab her attention or put her on notice. "I keep thinking, What have I done to make it so that they won't respond to me until I yell at them ten times?" my sister Janyce Dudney, a mom of four in Kingsport, Tennessee, laments.

For yelling to have any positive effect whatsoever, it can't become routine. "If on a scale of one to ten everything is a seven to begin with, then what will you do when your kid runs out in front of a truck?" says Julie Ann Barnhill, author of She's Gonna Blow! Real Help for Moms Dealing With Anger.

The problem with the "third degree"

The third degree of yelling is the most problematic. Few parents will admit to such withering outbursts as "Just shut up!" but Barnhill does, and after mending her ways, she wrote her book to help other moms get control of their anger. The zinger she commonly aimed at her son, who was 3 or 4 at the time, was, "Good job, Einstein." "But fortunately, there is grace in all these areas of mothering," she says. "Nothing is undoable."

Even if you don't go that far, many of us still slip further than we'd like. "The few times I've crossed the line, I knew it," says Terri George, a mom of three kids, ages 8, 6, and 3, from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. "My body language is different. I'm clenching my fists, I'm rigid and shaking and probably bug-eyed. They look so surprised and scared. It breaks my heart."

Research shows that when someone is yelled at, his adrenaline and other stress hormones rise. "Even infants recognize when there's a threat in the environment," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents and Power Struggles. "Being constantly in a high state of alert can affect brain development." Yelling at your kids can produce a vicious cycle, where they respond by throwing a tantrum or becoming clingy, which only makes stress soar even more.

The amount of harm that yelling can do depends in great part on your child's sensitivity. For instance, my 5-year-old, Jeb, appears to be hardly bothered when I raise my voice. He seems to shrug me off with a "There she goes again."

Many moms reported that one child seems almost impervious to their yelling, while another is much more fragile. "Natalie is really sensitive," says Martha Outlaw, of Wilton, Connecticut, of her 3-year-old. "But my five-year-old, Isabelle, pretty much just yells back."

Beating yourself up after losing your cool

With two boys of my own I can understand better my own mother's acoustic extremes  -- she had six of us, after all. But despite all the squawking in my family, I never remember feeling wounded by it. Any screaming was leavened with plenty of love and affection. Ultimately, yelling should be looked at in context. "There's a difference between intensity that's full of anger and is hurtful," says Kurcinka, "and intensity that's full of passion and strong emotion. That kind of intensity can be joked about afterward, but not feared."

While yelling may not be the worst parental sin, most of us can't stop beating ourselves up after losing our cool. "I can't bear thinking anyone would hurt one of my children, but to know I did it really makes me feel awful," says Beverly Henry of Blanco, Texas, whose sons are 8 and 6.

Much of the guilt and grief come from the gap between how we thought we'd be as parents and the cruel fact that sometimes we react like the imperfect beings that we are. "As an educated person and a motivated parent, I've read all kinds of books about how you're supposed to handle difficult situations," says Monique Guilbeau. "But things don't always happen the way they do in books. You find yourself losing your patience and thinking, Wow, this wasn't the way I envisioned it being."

Repairing the damage

Speaking lockjawed like a ventriloquist is only one way moms say they keep themselves from going into anger orbit. Bringing kids into the loop of what's going on helps them not take the yelling personally. George tries to give her three kids a heads-up if she feels a bad day brewing. Recently she hasn't been sleeping well because of a back injury. "I tell them I'm cranky because I didn't get enough sleep," she says.

If you're particularly tired or frayed, you might scale back your plans, to reduce the chance you'll end up in a screamfest. Henry tries to avoid her trigger situations. Mornings were so fraught for her as she got herself ready for the day that she finally decided to give up on her ideal of hot breakfasts and a spotless kitchen before leaving. Weekdays now are cereal-only days; pancakes or other potentially messy options are reserved for the weekends.

"Correcting a lifelong habit is not an instantaneous process," says Kurcinka. "You need to give yourself time for learning. If you decide you're not going to lose control, you'll first catch yourself after you've slipped. Next you might catch yourself in the middle of a slip. Finally, the goal is to catch yourself before you yell."

If Outlaw breaks down and loses it, or feels she's about to do so, she removes herself from the situation. "I announce I'm going to my room for a Mommy time-out before I do anything mean or lose my temper," she says. "I try to stay a minute or two until I'm calm enough not to yell."

A sincere apology can go a long way toward softening the stomach punch of harsh words, and it also shows that even Mom and Dad need to take responsibility for their actions. "But don't think it's okay to yell as long as you apologize. You need to do something about the yelling," says Bonnie Harris, a parent educator and author of [I {When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.}]

Knowing this  -- and knowing that rushing around prompts my tornado imitation  -- I now keep a kitchen timer nearby, since my common problem is getting too immersed in whatever I'm working on to notice the time. I've made a vow that when the buzzer goes off, I cut loose where I am, overriding my natural tendency to squeeze in one more task, one more e-mail before leaving.

I'm hoping our predeparture moments can be calmer and saner, and I can save the yelling for if and when the house actually is on fire.