My Childhood: Where it all began
H ave you ever had someone yell at you as a child and you swore when you grew up you would never yell at your child? You became a parent and as your child grew, you found yourself yelling or sounding just like your parents? Caught you off guard didn’t it? Let me share how I overcame yelling at my children. Hi, my name is Shelley and I am a recovered yeller. Hi Shelley!
We grew up in Philadelphia in a 3-bedroom row home in a neighborhood called Mount Airy. My two younger sisters, our friends and I would play in the rear of the house about five houses down near the corner of the block. It was our favorite spot to play rope. I fondly remember the warm breezes and delicious smells wafting from the houses as our neighbors prepared dinner for their families. We were playing rope and it was my turn to get the ends. In the quiet of the early evening, as I started turning the rope, this loud, deep voice called my name from my house. It startled all of us and we giggled. I yelled back, “I am coming daddy!”, as I hurried down the driveway to my house.
My father was a large man. His imposing figure was 6 feet and 3 inches tall and 300 pounds, mostly muscle. He was a construction worker and a boxing trainer. His voice was deep, he could yell very loudly, and he could also sing. I loved to hear daddy sing. Well he wasn’t singing now. I was embarrassed! No one else’s parents called them as loudly as my dad! He was only calling us to come in for dinner. It always sounded like I was in trouble every time he called me. How I miss that voice today. Dad has been gone now for over a year.
Workshop Training: Admitting I have a problem
Thirty years later, I found myself sitting in a crisis intervention train-the-trainer workshop. We were on the topic of communication. The trainer started the section by asking questions. She asked, “Are there any parents in the room?” Over half of us proudly raised our hands. Then she asked, “Do you find that you repeat yourself over and over again?” I thought to myself, “Sheesh, always!” Her next question was, “Do you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day?” All I had to do was think about the night before and how I fell asleep on the couch. I heard myself say, “Hmmm hmmm, almost as if I was in church listening to a sermon. The only words missing were, “Well and Amen!” Then she asked, “Could the reason be that your children are not listening to you?” “Tuning you out?” “Ignoring you?”
That is when the realization and conviction hit, all at one time! I had become my father and my mother! I was a yeller. I think I got lost in thought for what seemed like an eternity, but it was only for a moment. I had to get my head back into the session to figure out how to undo the damage if that was even possible.
The workshop trainer continued to teach the content and as she spoke, I brainstormed my next steps. There was a tremendous sense of urgency since I just separated from my (ex)husband, the father of my children. I swore a lot of things. If I married, it would be forever. I would never divorce and hurt my kids like my parents’ divorce hurt me and my sisters. Now I’m worried. In that short amount of time, I am remembering how hurt and angry I was. I felt like I was alone and had no one to talk to or who could understand that I felt like my soul was ripped in half and I was bleeding profusely. My kids were young adults and teenagers now. So much time had passed and so much damage done. The guilt started flooding in. What if it is too late? Well, I have to start somewhere, and God will help me with the rest.
Ok Shelley, start with why they are tuning you out? Why did I tune my parents out? Because that was a defense mechanism. Either they were correcting, criticizing and in some cases dumping on me because they were hurting and needed to release. I learned how to fake listening to my mother so well that when she was fussing, I would say yes Mom, on cue. I never missed a cue and could repeat everything she asked me to repeat. I miss her too.
Taking Action: I am my Children's Safe Haven
When I started having children I wanted them to feel safe and be able to tell me anything. I always told them since the age of two, “You can tell mommy anything.” I had a pretty good relationship with my kids. I thought they told me everything. Are you satisfied with your relationship with your children at this critical point in your lives? No! I need them to feel safe and free to communicate and vent, especially now! I can’t have them walking around angry, and pent up, full of negative feelings because the enemy just can’t wait to help them turn that anger inward and make poor decisions and critical mistakes.
I had a plan that started with an apology. I could not wait to get home. I got to the house, unlocked the door, greeted the dog quietly and entered my living room. I could hear that someone was home, I just couldn’t tell who was upstairs. Normally by now I would yell “Hello!” I stopped myself and decided to not say anything as I continued to plan the next steps. My thoughts drifted again as I recalled the trainer asking, “How can someone feel safe if you are yelling?” Wow! That is true! Why should they want to talk to me at length? I had different relationships with all four of my children. For the most part, all of them talked to me when they needed to, except for my oldest son. He kept a lot to himself, even to his detriment, I would learn later. He was away at college. I would have to call him later. Shouldn’t that be enough? No, not now! I need them to be able to tell me how they feel right now, and we have not had check ins lately.
I walked into the kitchen and the first thing I saw were dirty dishes. How am I supposed to start dinner if my kitchen isn’t clean? Who was supposed to wash the dishes? Everyone has a day. Not Jacob according to my kids. They say the youngest never had chores or he had the easiest chores. Whatever! By now, I would be yelling about why my dishes are still dirty, but this is the new Shelley and I have to make this work. No yelling! I walked over to the sink and started washing the dishes. Three minutes into washing the dishes, I hear footsteps coming downstairs and into the kitchen. It was my oldest daughter, Tasha. She was a little startled to see me and more surprised to see me washing the dishes without fussing. “Hey mom! We didn’t hear you come in. How was your day?” I replied, “Hey Tasha, it was okay.” Before I could tell her about my day, she said, “Sorry I didn’t get to the dishes mom, I forgot. I can do them now if you want me to?” I said, “That’s okay, I got it.” She left the room with a curious look on her face. I heard her footsteps go up the stairs and into a room and could hear Tasha talking to my other two kids, Shelley and Jacob. “One of you need to go downstairs and check on mom. Something is wrong with her. She didn’t say anything when she came in, she didn’t yell about the dishes and she is downstairs washing them herself. She didn’t even look mad or upset!” Tasha continued, “Shelley you go and check on her!” I heard Shelley say, “Okay.” Two seconds later, I heard footsteps once again and then I saw Shelley’s face slowly but cheerfully appear around the corner.
In her most bubbly tone she said, “Hi Mom! How are you today? How was work?” I said, “Work was fine. How was your day?” She replied, “It was great. Is there anything I can help you with?” I said, “No, I’m about to start dinner.” She said, “Okay, I’m going to finish my homework, call me if you need me.” I said, “Okay.” I heard Shelley’s footsteps as she went back upstairs and then I heard her report to her siblings, “There is definitely something wrong with mom!” “We need to get to the bottom of whatever it is.” I giggled to myself, “My kids were actually having a conference about me, isn’t that something!” It’s time to talk to them.
I called upstairs, “Tasha, Shelley, Jacob can you come downstairs please?” “I need to talk to you.” One by one they came downstairs. I asked them to take a seat in the living room. I started out talking to them about communication and how important that is in our relationship; I wanted a real and close relationship with my children and is it critical to fix it now. They looked puzzled. Jacob said, “Mom, I think our communication is fine.” I replied, “I’m glad you feel that way, but it could be much better.” “I deeply apologize for how I have yelled at you all of your life. I never intended for that to happen. I told you all as soon as you could understand the English language that you could tell me anything but how could possibly feel safe to do so if I yelled all of the time? I promise from this day forward that I will never yell at you. I want to you to be able to come to me about anything especially at this time.” I know you may not understand why your dad and I have separated. We can even talk about the fact that you may be angry with me as long as it is shared in a respectful manner. I would rather you share your feelings, get help or answers for what you don’t understand than to have you get sick because you are holding your feelings in.”
Road to Recovery
That was the beginning of an awesome relationship with my family. Now what was the recovery? I could be loud and cuss like a sailor, at times. When I used to argue with my ex-husband, you could probably hear me a couple of houses down the street. I am so glad God blessed us with the gift of communication. My relationships have never been the same. Yes, I have had slip ups, like when I was scared of losing my mother before she passed away, but for the most part I have kept that promise.
I prayed to be a safe place to share. Someone who will listen without criticizing or judging. Listening to see how I can support them. God brought us through those difficult times. Yes, my children challenged me in a respectful way. Yes, they asked difficult questions. I answered them without being defensive. I knew they were hurt and confused but they needed to vent and understand. I offered to get therapists for them if needed. I told their schools what they were going through because I needed their village to know they needed them. I needed eyes on them when my eyes were not available. We got a ton of amazing support from many friends, family, clergy and school staff, the village. I thank God for the village. Next column I’ll share how this communication style can enhance your relationship.