Stop Yelling!

By keeping their cool, parents can teach their children self-control and make for a calmer, happier home 

Beth Arky

Child Mind Institute

Before hopping aboard the rollercoaster ride called parenthood, people sans kids have likely witnessed exasperated moms and dads losing it in Aisle 5 and thought smugly, "I'm never going to yell at my kids."

And then they have families of their own and reality sets in. For as their munchkins reach each much-anticipated developmental milestone, they acquire some less desirable skills as well, something the experts forget to include on the charts. So a 2-year-old who "scribbles spontaneously" may very well exhibit her newfound talent all over freshly painted walls and prized furniture (see Sh*t My Kids Ruined), while emerging language allows her to repeat certain choice words again and again, including the ever-popular "No!" and, worst-case scenario, the four-letter variety.

Parents know that in the midst of the mayhem, staying calm (aka not yelling) is a golden rule. But unless you're made of stone, it's pretty tough to maintain a measured tone when you're dealing with kids day in and day out. They can be unruly and messy. They dawdle when you're rushing. They push buttons. They. Don't. Listen. And then there are the true high-anxiety scenarios, like when your 3-year-old is trying to flush six pairs of socks down the toilet or your 16-year-old crashes the car through the garage door.

When parents yell, "they've lost it," says Dr. Steven G. Dickstein, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. "They're overwhelmed with anger or frustration. But parents don't like going off on their kids."

There are very few situations that merit yelling, other than when a child is doing something dangerous or harmful. Yet "I don't think there's a parent who hasn't yelled," says Alice Long, who blogs at Mother L about son D, 3, and daughter Em, 2. "This will happen. Let it go. I used to beat myself up all day." And just as parents need to give themselves a break, onlookers with and without kids need to stop judging, adds Kara Gebhart Uhl, a mother of three and the blogger behind Pleiades Bee who addressed this issue recently in The Huffington Post. "A mom who is yelling for the safety of her child or even because she's had a bad day, her child has had a bad day and they've both slipped up.... Well, that's not for me or anyone else to judge," says Uhl, who has a 3-year-old daughter and almost-2-year-old twin sons. "Because I get it. And I imagine the same regret I've had, they have, too."

When the Child Mind Institute solicited comments on its Facebook page from those who had attempted a no-yelling policy, Alicia Kammerling, the mother of two boys, 8 and 10, responded, "Every day I try to implement this and every day I fail miserably." Lara Ross, another mom to two sons, 6 and 7, quickly consoled Kammerling: "Alicia you are NOT alone. I yell much MUCH less. But it's incredibly hard."

Not yelling does not mean kids are off the hook, says Dr. Melanie A. Fernandez, director of CMI's Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) Program. "It's still important to be firm. Disrespectful language is not OK." But addressing this behavior calmly has benefits, Dr. Fernandez says. "I'm in better position to teach him and follow through with better consequences. Otherwise, I feel badly, he feels badly, and neither of us has learned anything." Perhaps if parents understand this and other reasons why they shouldn't yell, they'll be more motivated to give it a try.

Modeling Behavior Is Major

"We know that modeling has a profound influence on behavior, whether we're a child or adult," Dr. Fernandez continues. When parents practice healthy self-regulation, she says, "It teaches kids how to self-regulate better." Mom Regina Myers testified to that fact on CMI's Facebook page, noting that when she turns the volume way down, her "teenager responds much better and yells less himself!" Screaming at your kids most likely just makes them cry or scream back, now or years from now when they have kids of their own.

When children and teens already have trouble self-regulating, as is often the case when they have mental-health diagnoses, "they provoke harsher parenting," Dr. Fernandez adds. "But if parents can work on specific strategies that help themselves feel calmer, they can help their children learn to regulate better," helping put an end to a vicious cycle. (Learn more about parent-child interaction therapy here.)

Yelling Doesn't Work; Authoritative Parenting Does

Harsh, out-of-control parents don't get their point across because emotions can overcome the message. They will also likely escalate the situation and their children's aggression, be it verbal or physical. And if parents yell all the time, Dr. Dickstein notes, "kids may either shut down or ignore it because it's nothing new." Adds Uhl, "Sometimes, a whispered 'I'm very disappointed with your actions' is much more startling to a child than a three-minute, screaming rant."

The best style of parenting features "a high degree of nurturing, firm but kind," Dr. Fernandez says. As much as children and teens may act like they want control, what really makes them feel safe are calm, consistent, fair authority figures. (There's a reason why some parents look to Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan for child-rearing tips. After all, good parents must be leaders of their pack, um, family.)

Yelling Takes a Toll on Kids and Parents

"We know that yelling and harsh parenting are associated with lower self-esteem for kids," Dr. Fernandez says. "There's also some evidence to suggest that parental yelling can affect their grades in school. Verbal aggression is associated with kids being more physically aggressive and creates a risk factor for disruptive behavior."

Dr. Dickstein cautions that when mom or dad yells, the child may feel the parent doesn't "love them or even like them" and can only criticize. "We all want our parents to like us," he says, "so they feel worse." And who wants to please someone who makes you feel bad about yourself? When yelling is the chronic mode of communication, both children and parents are missing out on the chance to form positive, affectionate bonds. And for kids predisposed to anxiety and depression, internalizing these negative interactions may be the tipping point.

Meanwhile, blowouts can leave parents feeling guilty, frustrated and demoralized. "I feel better when I stay in control," Ross says. "It shows my sons the respect they deserve. I do yell sometimes, but I feel horrible during and after." They may also be putting their health at risk. Adults who express anger in negative ways increase their chronic stress, which can result in higher cortisol levels in the bloodstream. This can lead to everything from higher blood pressure to lowered immunity to increased abdominal fat, which is associated with heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.

Tips for Parents

Drs. Fernandez and Dickstein say parents must first pinpoint what recurring problems are always setting them off. If getting out the door for school in the morning is a chronic issue, solutions might include "laying out clothes and showering the night before and waking up earlier," says Dr. Dickstein. "Try to break it down into steps." With younger kids, it helps to create a set routine with simple, one-step directions that could include visual aids, not to mention plenty of labeled praise and rewards. Adds Dr. Fernandez, "Having a broader context of the situation allows for calmer responses. If we only hear a sassy response, we don't think about the fact that the child missed his snack, or someone said something nasty at school today." She advises considering other triggers such as too many activities.

It's also important for parents to know and understand their children's capabilities, since this can help them become more patient. "Kids have different strengths and weaknesses," notes Dr. Dickstein. "We have to tease apart what a child is being asked to do, too. Sometimes there's a diagnosis. Maybe it's ADHD or anxiety, or processing issues."

Understanding her son's issues was "a game changer" for Long. She says she didn't yell until just before D turned 3, when he developed not only expected defiance but also "disturbing behaviors like slapping himself when he became upset. When he started fighting back more, saying no, throwing things at us, we started yelling at him." His diagnosis of sensory processing disorder led her to understand parents can become calmer when they "accept kids as they are, love them as they are and recognize that half the problem is how you react. Know and accept how your child deals with changes and emotions and approach him differently." This will require more patience and the willingness to try different techniques than you might with a typically developing child.

Long agrees with Dr. Fernandez's observation that when parents say it's impossible to not yell, they're not setting themselves up for success. "The times I lose it are the times when I'm already overtaxing myself," Long says. "The time to do bills is not when the kids are at the table doing an art project. I'm a young mother. Other young mothers feel it's boring to sit with their kids when they eat their lunch. Well, get over it! Once you sit down with them, you can engage with them. Just be there with your kids; it's less likely they'll throw their breakfast on the floor."

All the parents interviewed for this article had one key piece of advice: Take a break and breathe. It's important to recognize when you're about to lose control so you can step away from the situation, even leaving the room when you can do it safely. (A mom who tells her child she's taking a time out is modeling self-calming behavior.)

"I'm not a yeller," Uhl says. "But when I feel myself becoming hot with frustration and I hear myself getting louder and louder, I stop, check myself, take a deep breath and start over." Long adds that it also helps to have a safety net of friends and relatives for those extremely bad days when you don't feel you can calm yourself down and need to call in reinforcements. Blogs, support groups, other parents and clinicians can all help by assuring parents they aren't alone.

Actively ignoring problem behaviors is another strategy that helps stop parents from yelling. If you disengage from the situation until you regain your composure, you won't be feeding the fire. (This cannot be done when a child is being aggressive or destructive.) Instead, by responding positively to only desired behavior, parents reinforce what they want vs. what they don't want. They're also buying themselves time to calm down. Plus, by allowing kids to practice "slowing their engines down" on their own, without parental prompts, they're learning how to handle frustration.

Dr. Fernandez notes that techniques such as active ignoring are best practiced first during less challenging moments, usually at home, when there's no set schedule or other pressures. When parents are more confident, they can be applied in tougher situations. She adds that PCIT can be a powerful tool, since it allows clinicians to watch parents in action and offer suggestions.

Along with ignoring comes learning to loosen up. "If the snack ends up on the floor," Long says, "instead of getting mad at the kids, I'll say, 'Oh no, you made a mess, let's clean it up together.' I'm hoping they're learning responsibility. And in that moment of 'Oh, there's peanut butter on the TV,' you can be so upset. But if you recognize that sometimes toddlers make a mess, you can safeguard your house. Do what you have to do to make it easier on yourself."

Long has found two books to be helpful: Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller and No More Meltdowns by Jed Baker. Dr. Fernandez also recommends Step by Step Help for Children with ADHD, which she says offers helpful ideas applicable to all kids, not just those with ADHD. Ross is a fan of Dr. Stuart Ablon and his Think: Kids. Other parents recommend Kirk Martin's Celebrate Calm program.

Depending on the age and developmental level of the child, parents may also use cognitive behavioral strategies after things have calmed down where they model for their kids how to talk about feelings. "You can tell them you're not feeling respected or you're feeling ignored," Dr. Dickstein says, which can make for a more productive discussion and potentially a bonding moment. Dan Janzen, who has had "a hotheaded moment or two" with his son, 9, and daughter, 6, says he tries to give them "a way to understand the yelling—it's not because they're bad kids; it's because I lost my temper. 'I'm sorry I lost my temper—that was kind of rough, and I shouldn't yell at you. But do you understand why I got little frustrated?' And then we have a brief conversation about the situation."

"I also make a point of always following up quickly with something along the lines of, 'Even when I lose my temper, I still love you,'" Janzen adds. "I think the running theme is to try to keep the eruptions from undermining their trust or security. No matter what happens, I'm still the same slightly ridiculous but well-intentioned daddy who loves them."

"I'm a work in progress," says Ross, whose older son has ADHD, mild dyslexia, anxiety and some sensory issues. "I'm proud of how hard I try, though I often fail. Since understanding that my son has needs that are special, I have learned to parent to his needs and not as I reactively parent. My younger son is neurotypical but needs me to be present and yelling serves no one. I try to breathe and remember that I'm the adult and I need to act like it."

Dr. Fernandez offers tips on active ignoring and other ways to prevent yelling in Managing Problem Behavior at Home.

Published: March 13, 2012

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theorangerhino · Mar 26 2012 Report

Wow. I am so glad I fell upon this article. I actually have promised to my kids, 4 boys under the age of 5, to stop yelling for 365 days straight. It was needed and the results thus far are awesome. I have gone 48 days and plan on going more. This article was just what I needed to read to be inspired about the value of not yelling. Thank you!

kimia · Mar 19 2012 Report

Wow, I really needed this. I often know what I need to do but reminders and specific advice is so important. I am reigning in. Thank you.

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