Cartoon of an adult yelling at two kids

The Day I Realized I Was Bullying My Kids

Coming to the realization that I was bullying my kids was NOT easy. We don't always realize how powerful our words and actions are.

I had just watched a video about bullying with my kids from Playful Learning called Power of Words (no longer available, unfortunately). I remember thinking it would be helpful for my kids. I was hoping it would decrease sibling squabbles. I didn't realize I would get an emotional 2×4 to the head as I listened to the description of put-downs.

Identifying an Angry Rut and Bullying

I'd been working on handling my anger better with my kids. For a couple of months, I had been doing great on not yelling. I was feeling pretty good about getting a handle on my anger triggers. However, that didn't last. I wanted to think I'd “conquered” my yelling habit, but it turns out I had more work to do. After some emotional upsets and long days alone with the kids, I was operating on a very short fuse.

In the video about bullying and put-downs, kids describe both verbal and non-verbal put-downs. Put-downs are not just in the words you use, but also in the tone of voice or the way you look at someone. You know how you can feel someone's disgust or annoyance just by a shift in their face or the way they say something? That's the feeling of a put-down, and put-downs make us feel horrible.

Put-downs are a type of bullying. Bullying is when a person with more power deliberately continues causing harm to a person with less power. Bullying can be verbal, or physical.

Suddenly, I had an “Oh $#!+” moment as I watched the kids in the video demonstrating put-downs. ‘That's what I've been doing to my kids!' I had been in a foul mood for a couple of days – really snapping a lot at the kids, speaking harshly, and doing more yelling than I care to admit.

I suddenly saw my own yelling at my kids as a bunch of put-downs- verbal bullying. It struck me hard. 

Yelling wasn't effective teaching. Yelling didn't get my point across, nor did it even make me feel better – it made me feel worse, and it most certainly made my kids feel worse.

Why Am I So Horrible to My Daughter and Sons?

I had heard my son describe yelling like “being hit” before. Here was another analogy for me to reflect on. My yelling and annoyed/angry voice was a big put-down on my kids, and like most put-downs, they came from a place of not feeling great myself. I'd been tired, lonely, and a little sad – those were MY emotions, but instead of taking care of myself, I had been taking out my emotions on my kids, bullying them because I felt bad.

The tough part is that sometimes my kids annoy me. More than annoy me, they open wells of anger I didn't realize I even had before I had kids. The button pushing. The limit testing.  And sometimes life happens – you don't get a break, the dryer breaks, the dog pees on the carpet, you lose sleep.

Sometimes, you get into a dark parenting rut, and that's where I was. I didn't really even want to connect with my kids. I just wanted a break, but one wasn't coming soon, and my kids still needed me.

They didn't need my put-downs.

forefinger and thumb holding up pink heart
Image Credit: Alissa Zorn

Don't Be Your Child's First Bully – Using Put-Ups

I had been putting down my kids with my body, my voice, my face. It made me feel bad, which added to the bad feelings. I needed out of this horrible cycle. I decided in those moments when I wanted to snap, I would find a way to remind us of who we all wanted to be instead of harping on the bad behavior – put-ups instead of yelling.

I was really stressed and needed a visual cue to cut out this put-down behavior in myself, so I cut out a bunch of bright pink hearts and explained to my kids that I was feeling sad lately and having a hard time being nice, and I wanted that to change. I told them I would give them a heart when I wanted to remind us all that we were kind people and we could treat each other with love. I gave them a couple of hearts in case they wanted to give them out, too.

Using Put-Ups to Reset

I got a chance to try this out right away. At the grocery store, my six-year-old tried to shove me aside to get onto the cart. I wanted to bark a ‘Hey! That Was RUDE! You need to SLOW DOWN!!' type response, but that's what he's been seeing, and it hasn't been working. He's simply been imitating the rude voice.

I took a breath, remembering the hearts, and stopped to kneel beside him.

In a calm voice, I said, “Hey, that was rude; you just pushed me. I need you to treat me kindly.” I handed him a pink heart (visual cue!). “I know you are kind. Can you tell me a kind thing you do?”

He thought I wanted to hear something kind about me and said, “Mama, it's kind when you take us to lunch at the grocery store.”

“Oh, thank you. And what kind things do you do?”

“I help my sister get out of her car seat.”

“Yes, that's kind. I love you. Are we ready to shop now?”

And with that, we were reset, and I had not added more fuel to my anger, nor had I added shame to my six-year-old. He remembered that he was capable of being kind.

At home, I started to flip out about…uhhhh….something I can't even remember (must have been super important 😉 )….and my oldest waved a pink heart at me, “Mama….remember!!” he said warningly. Ah, yes, trying to be loving…

Later, I interrupted an angry pre-dinner outburst between the boys by giving them both hearts. They didn't want to stop their argument/play, and it took a while for me to get them each to say something kind (“Nope, when you have said something kind about yourself and your brother, THEN you can go play again…”) By the time they were done, they were happy to head away from the crazy mama giving out hearts and play a bit more peacefully in their rooms until dinner was made.

Out of the Anger Rut

The pink hearts only lasted a couple of days, but it was enough to get us out of that grumpy, resentful space. The physical reminder of how I wanted to be acting helped me break that yelling cycle. It also started a new positive cycle of showing kindness that my kids could imitate rather than yelling. It's not the perfect be-all-end-all solution to yelling, but it's a good way to break the cycle.

Alissa Zorn is the author of Bounceback Parenting, A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection. 

Alissa Zorn

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching