When your child's first reaction is to yell

brain development in children emotional management Apr 13, 2023
My child reacts by yelling

When you ask your child to do something, do they respond by yelling?  I had a Mom tell me that her biggest issue is that her son’s first reaction to anything he doesn't like is to yell, and I can share that she is definitely not alone in this struggle.  

As a coach for parents that are struggling with kids that have BIG feelings, I hear many parents tell me that their kids are defiant, difficult, and strong-willed.  They feel like they’re walking around on eggshells, because they’re not sure what will set their child off.

They tend to think that their child acts out because they aren’t getting their way, but that is usually not the case.  It’s not that they won’t control themselves — in most cases they can’t control themselves at that moment and here’s why:

Our children are born with a fully developed downstairs primal brain, which I refer to as the “monkey”.  The downstairs monkey brain is responsible for our basic body functions (blinking, breathing, etc), and survival instinct (fight, flight or freeze).  

They are also born with an undeveloped upstairs thinking brain (prefrontal cortex), which I refer to as the “wise owl”.  The upstairs wise owl brain is responsible for logical thinking and problem solving, and it’s the part of our brain that gives us the ability to control our body, impulses, and reactions.  Because the upstairs thinking brain is not fully developed, children are not born with these thinking and control skills — they have to learn them. 

Keep in mind, when kids don’t listen we are usually asking them to stop doing something that’s fun for them, to do something for us that’s not fun.  I invite you to consider that it’s normal and expected for them to get frustrated.  Imagine that you were sitting on the porch enjoying a conversation with a friend, and someone in your family came out and asked you to stop what you were doing and go clean the kitchen.  I’m guessing that you would be annoyed and frustrated too.

When kids get frustrated, it wakes up the monkey and their downstairs brain.  The monkey gets all worked up which makes their wise owl fly away.  When the wise owl flies away, their thinking brain and their ability to control their body and reactions has gone off-line.  The monkey is in charge and the monkey only knows how to fight, run away, or shut down.

When your child’s first reaction to anything they don’t like is to yell, it’s usually the monkey talking…  and it’s not by choice.

As a parent, it’s easy for us to get frustrated when our kids are yelling, as well as completely understandable.  Unfortunately, it’s also very unhelpful because our giving into frustration only puts us in our own monkey brain which has us escalating as well.

So my first recommendation to parents is to recognize when your child’s monkey is in charge and have a separate name for the monkey.  So instead of thinking that your child is being difficult or defiant, you recognize that “Morty” has shown up.  It’s not that your child is choosing to yell, it’s that Morty the monkey can’t help himself.

When you recognize that you’re dealing with the monkey and know the monkey can’t control himself — you are less likely to get frustrated, giving you the opportunity to respond differently.  This is key, because your response to your child’s yelling will have a direct impact on whether they escalate or calm down.

Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen and cooperate?  This month in the Confident Parenting Club we are discussing tools to help kids listen better, and strategies to avoid the battles before they start.  And if you struggle in dealing with the monkey, we have a whole parenting protocol for BIG Feelings and dealing with the monkey.  Click here to learn more about the Club and start parenting more confidently today!  

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