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I Hate Myself for Yelling at My Kid

Are we better at parenting than our dads, or repeating the same mistakes?

young teenager sitting on floor at end of long hallway appearing sad

I don’t remember why or what I yelled at my 9-year-old son, Ollie, but I remember his response. He froze, started to cry and, with his lower lip trembling, said, “Please don’t yell at me.” 

By bedtime, when I tucked him in, he’d forgotten about it. I sat on the couch, feeling crappy about myself, and said to my wife, “I have to do better.” I’ve continued to say the same phrase every time I exploit my dominance over him by yelling. 

It happens the same way every time: I’ll gently ask Ollie to do something, repeat the request, ask a few more times and eventually escalate to yelling in a voice that compels him to oblige.

I’m not modeling behavior I grew up around, either. I had an extraordinarily patient father. I don’t recall him ever yelling at me, not even when I couldn’t memorize single-digit multiplication or when I had car accidents in his tan Ford Maverick — on two consecutive days.

Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker, wrote a book called How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids, which sounds like it was written with me in mind. 

“Our generation seems to yell more than previous generations did,” Naumburg told me. “But they hit their kids a lot more than we do, and ignored them.”

A light bulb switched on in my head. I’d always thought of my dad as patient, but I was mistaking indifference for patience. He didn’t feel personally responsible for my behavior, never thought it reflected on him and didn’t feel obliged to be my pal.

“The idea that there’s a ‘right way’ to parent is a new concept which our parents didn’t have,” Naumburg explained. “The underlying message — that if parenting feels hard, that means you’re doing it wrong — is incredibly anxiety-provoking.” 

My dad was a low-expectation-having son of a gun, which I’m not, in part because I’m so determined to be a better parent than he was. And that sets us on a merry-go-round, through a sequence of related maxims: 

1. Parenting is stressful.

2. The more parenting you do, the more stressed you are. 

3. The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to yell.

So what’s a yelly dad to do? Regardless of how it feels in the moment, “We can screw up and still be good parents,” Naumburg said.

After you yell, you’ll feel guilty, which is good. “That means you’re not a psychopath.” But we should respond to ourselves with compassion, she added. Like, “I screwed up. That’s OK, because everybody screws up.

“When we feel awful about yelling at our kids, all we have to do is find a way to forgive ourselves and have a little grace for that moment.”

Knowing that nearly everyone yells at their kids doesn’t free me, because I can’t control what other parents do. But I can control — and judge — what I do. Or at least that’s my insane hope.

One night, after a minor scuffle about taking a bath, I tucked Ollie in and he said, “I’m sorry I’m not a perfect kid.” 

I immediately felt awful; did he think we expected him to be perfect? Then I realized he was, in the halting language of a 9-year-old, saying that it’s OK that we fight sometimes. 

“That’s OK, Ollie,” I replied. “I’m not a perfect father.” 

And he went right to sleep.