One Simple Trick to Break the Nagging/Screaming Habit

(This article is part of our series on Habits.)

quote_first_we_form_habits_then_they_form_usHas this ever happened to you?

You decide very firmly that you will not nag and scream at your kids, come what may.

And the very next minute your kids do the one thing that you just cannot stand. And before you know it, you are screaming at them like only a raving lunatic, or a very frustrated parent, can. And things go downhill faster than you can say “Not agaaaain!”

Yep. We’ve all been there.

I just happened to be there (for the umpteenth time!) while I was reading the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

And suddenly a light bulb went on.

Often, when I nag/scream at my daughter, I’m not really thinking at all. Something she does triggers me, and I respond with my standard routine – nagging/screaming. Well, according to Charles Duhigg the author of The Power of Habit, this is the classic signature of a habit. In other words, my nagging and screaming at my daughter happens to be a very bad habit.

Habits, Demystified

Based on some solid research backing, author Charles Duhigg explains in the book that a habit, any habit, can be thought of as a loop.


A cue triggers the brain to execute a routine to handle this situation. If this results in a reward, the brain determines that this routine is worth committing to memory. If there is an associated craving that ties this all together, then we repeat the routine over and over, until it is so firmly etched in our brain’s memory circuit that at a later date, even if the reward is removed, we will continue to execute the habit loop.

Think for instance, smokers who started smoking because it made them look cool — the original reward. Once the habit is established however, even if they realize that instead of making them look cool, smoking is actually killing them, it is still hard for them to quit the habit.

It’s the same with our nagging/screaming habit. At some point when our kids were little, and they started acting out, we nagged/yelled at them. Maybe it is what we had seen our parents do. Maybe we were sleep deprived. Maybe we just had enough that day. Whatever.

To the little child, this was scary. So she responded by stopping the misbehavior. Is there a bigger reward for a frazzled parent? It satisfied a deep craving in all of us – a feeling of control over what is without a doubt a very chaotic time in our lives. We got hooked.

As our kids grow up however, nagging and screaming is not nearly as effective any more. And many of us realize that screaming can actually hurt our relationship with our kids rather than help us in the long run. But now, we find it hard to quit the habit.

Just like the poor smoker dude.

So, How do We Break Out of This Bad Habit?

I’ll be honest, there was a time when I was convinced that I couldn’t break this habit… I’d resolved and failed so many times that it just didn’t seem possible.

I’ve come a long way since. I believe that acknowledging that my screaming/nagging may be a habit, and understanding how the habit loop works, was pivotal in making this change possible.

The key thing to realize while breaking this bad habit (like most others) is that we are only trying to change the routine — not the cue, not the rewards and not the cravings.

In other words, we do NOT try to stop ourselves from being annoyed, frustrated or angry. Those are normal emotions that every parent feels at some point or the other as we raise children. And we do not give up on wanting to get our kids to behave — I don’t know about you, but I’d go nuts if I had to live with a bratty child!

What we want to do is acknowledge the cue and the reward, and make a conscious choice to replace the old routine that takes us from that cue to the reward with something more effective.

Like the smoker dude who chooses to chew gum instead of lighting up when he starts to sense the urge — and eventually breaks out of the smoking habit.

One Simple Trick to Break the Bad Habit of Nagging and Screaming at Our Kids

The magic bullet that helped me dramatically reduce my nagging and screaming came from a book called Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children. Even though the title of the book is rather cheesy, and I don’t remember how I even came across it, I remember that it is very similar to the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (which in my opinion is a if-you-can-read-only-one-parenting-book-let-it-be-this book), so that’s saying something.

The idea that’ll help us stop screaming/nagging is simply this – replace all your “You-messages” with “I-messages”.

Consider for example this scenario:

It’s almost dinner time and you are scrambling to get food on the table. Your kids are starting to fight over wanting the same toy. The younger one snatches the toy away from the older one which makes him so mad that he gives the younger one a solid whack. The younger one starts bawling and the older one starts screaming — “He started it!”

Your you-message response would be something along the lines of: “You are in so much trouble, young man! How could you hurt your little brother? Just look at how small he is? Why can’t you just share some of your toys with him — after all he is your brother [and so on]”

The alternate I-message response: “I get very upset when the two of you fight. In this house we share our toys and take care of each other. And when we don’t, it makes me very sad/angry/<the true emotion you are feeling>. And if I have to keep coming here to sort things out between the two of you, I won’t be able to get dinner on the table on time. That makes me even more upset [and so on]”

Notice that in both the cases the cue is the same – your kids fought and that made you angry/upset.

And the reward is the same – you want them to stop fighting!

The routine on the other hand, is very similar but not quite the same. And that’s the slight shift that will eventually get us out of the nagging/screaming habit.

Why the I-Message Routine is Better

The main focus of the you-message is blame, judgment and evaluation. Consequently, each sentence you utter makes you more mad, and makes your son more defensive and rebellious. It’s the vicious cycle that spirals you downhill.

The I-message on the other hand is a statement of facts. With each sentence, you are putting out your emotions, which by itself is cathartic and reduces the need to get back at your kids. Additionally, the longer this goes on, the chances are you realize you are over-reacting to a perfectly normal (though unacceptable) part of raising kids. In other words, its a cycle that keeps you from going further downhill.

From your kids perspective, this message offers better clarity. When you are not fixing blame on them, and they don’t have to deal with nasty feelings of shame, they are in a much better position to respond more reasonably. Consequently, they are more likely to cooperate than rebel.

And last but not the least, the you-message fuels sibling rivalry, because face it, you are taking the younger one’s side. With the I-message however, you are not singling either child out and telling your feeling about “their” behavior as one unit. Also, you are stating clearly what the expectations in your family which sets up a cohesive environment instead of a fragmented one.

Consequently, most issues tend to fizzle out well before they turn into a full blown power struggle.

In other words, just like the smoker chewing gum, even if it you scream out your I-message, it is a lot less harmful than a you-message, and eventually paves the way for completely breaking free.

I’ve been trying this for a couple of years now and it has really worked for me. At first, I would actually scream/hiss out my I-messages. Sometimes, I still do, but these days more often than not, I can keep my calm and just state how I feel. My daughter sometimes turns around her misbehavior immediately, sometimes it takes longer — but we don’t have explosive flare ups like we used to.

The 3 Components of An Effective I-Message

Of course, when we are angry and ready to snap, we won’t stop to craft the perfect I-message. That just ain’t happening.

So, what say we spend some time now to think of this and internalize it as best as we can, so when we are indeed very angry, we have a better chance of getting it right?

According to the book Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, an effective I-Message has 3 components. While the message will work with even just 1 component, the more of these you can craft in, the more effective your message is.

#1 A Description of The Unacceptable Behavior

Use simple words to describe the behavior as is – without labeling or judging.

So, in our little example above it is – “you two are fighting”. Not how bad they are for fighting or how mean or any of that.

#2 Your Feelings About the Behavior

How does the behavior make you feel? Does it make you angry? Upset? Or does it merely annoy you?

While this part of the message makes it clear to the kids the effect it has on us, it is also a great way for us to get in touch with ourselves! When I started doing this, I realized at at first, most of my feelings were on the dark end of the spectrum – angry, frustrated, furious and so on.

The more I did this, the more I realized how much I was over-reacting to mundane everyday situations. Now a lot of my feelings are toned down – first offenses usually get a “I get annoyed when you…” response, with repeat offenses resulting in “I don’t like repeating what I say, I am starting to get angry now…

#3 The Tangible and Concrete Effect this Behavior Has On You

Why do you feel that way? What is the consequence of this behavior (real consequence, not made up ones for the sake of disciplining)?

In the example above, if the behavior continues, “we won’t be able to have a strong family that supports each other in times of need” or “I can’t finish making dinner if I have to keep coming here to sort the fights” are valid real consequences.

Again this part of the message helps in two ways – (a) it helps the kids connect the dots and show that their actions have real impact on the things in their lives (and us!) and (b) it helps us sieve through our idiosyncrasies and sort through irrational expectations.

In Conclusion…

Next time you have the urge to scream or nag, or for that matter catch yourself already nagging/screaming, stop (even mid sentence if you must), and rephrase whatever it is you meant to say with an I-message. That’s it. It’ll play out it’s course and over a period of time, ever so slowly, you will find yourself nagging and screaming less and less. It’s not an instant solution by any means, but a guaranteed one. I can attest to that!

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

For our 2-minute action today, pick a recent situation in your life where you lost it –

  • Did you respond with a you-message or an I-message?
  • Did the message focus on the behavior or was it about blame/labels/judgement?
  • Did you state clearly how it makes you feel?
  • Was the real consequence of the behavior clear to you? Was it clear to your kids?
  • Was your old routine effective in nipping the behavior for good, or can you benefit from trying a new routine?

These questions are just meant to get you thinking. Obviously, we’ve all been there and done our share of screaming — so this is not about judgement. Let’s figure out what makes us scream so much, and if it is out of habit, let’s change those habits for something better — sounds good?

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

The task for this week is simple – replace as many you-messages with I-messages as possible when you respond to your kids.

And if you really want to see major improvements in your life and not just parenting, try this with everyone – your spouse, your boss, your friends and even the telemarketer who calls you at the most inopportune moment and drives you nuts! You’ll see a difference soon enough – I sure did!

Click here for more from the series Habits

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    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Good luck, Suzanne! We’ve had some great success with this – to the extent that sometimes when my daughter is upset, she will tell me — “I am angry at you because you did not […]” instead of throwing a tantrum like she used to. As long as we don’t let it devolve into blaming and labeling, I think it is a great communication tool – for a parent, or otherwise!

  1. says

    Great article Sumitha. I am very fond of yelling at my daughter especially when she is in danger. But with this practical post, I will be able to stop yelling soon, hopefully completely. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      It’s very hard not to react instinctively when we see our kids in danger, Marcus… I’m hope that with some of these little tricks, we can keep from habitually screaming at them!

  2. valli says

    Great Post! Thank you so much for this article. Good on you to read lot of parenting books and give us the crust. We don’t have time or know which book to read. One thing for sure if I read your article I will get the essence. It always comes to mind every now and then what you tell and I do apply most of the time. By following the ‘I’ technique we really express our true emotions in words and allowing our kids to respond on their own to appropriate behavior. older kids like to take proper decisions themselves rather than we advising them what to do. Our children never want us to be upset or unhappy.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      I know exactly what you mean, Valli! I quit my regular job last year to go on a 2-year break… so I have quite some time on my hands now to read books. Before that, I’d be lucky if I could make enough time to catch up on the daily news and a few of my favorite blog posts!!!

      Also, you seem to have a very good grasp of psychology of raising kids… such a great observation that when we express our feelings and step back, it gives our kids the space to make their choices and un-upset us on their own accord… every book that I’ve read so far suggests encouraging this kind of autonomy in our kids! Thanks for pointing that out… you know, I learn more from keen observations shared by readers like you than from the books :)

  3. SimpleRyan says

    Great post Sumitha!
    I can’t tell you HOW MANY TIMES I’ve just completely lost it and gone ape-crazy yelling at my daughter for not behaving, or for doing something that I repeatedly tell her not to do – which she KNOWS she should not do.

    When I reflect back – I was raised by the “old school”. My parents…or should I say mainly my dad – was the disciplinary parent. When I would get out of hand – he would yell at me which came along with the occasional good old fashion spanking using whatever was closest by. Which was usually his slipper or whatever he could pick up quick enough before I ran away. lol

    Now that I think about it – some of that is probably engrained in me now with how I react to my daughter. But, I have to admit that I have been slowly trying to implement some new age disciplining as well using some of the things you have mentioned above.

    All in all – I have found that a mix of both has been working so far. But I really like using the “I ” instead of “You” phrases as I find that my daughter understands better and relates better to feelings. Especially when I use “It makes me very sad when you do/behave like…..” “Do you want daddy to be sad?”

    She usually understands that and doesn’t want her dad to be sad. :-)
    At the end of the day – repetition is king! Repeat, repeat, repeat..and eventually, they will learn the lesson.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      You captured it so well, SimpleRyan — repetition IS indeed king. The only problem is keeping the cool past that 3rd repeat, repeat, repeat… :)

      I used to be a big yeller (still am on occasion)… it’s not something that I’m proud of, but it is what it is. Over the course of time though, I have noticed that as my yelling has reduced, my daughters co-operation has increased, making it less and less necessary for me to yell. It is a wonderful virtuous cycle. Sticking with those I-messages and all the other tricks I’ve come across so far and hoping to get through the next 20 years in a manner that let’s me rest in peace :)

      Good luck to you with your daughter! Sounds like a spirited little one with a heart of gold :)

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