For me, mornings are the worst. Get up! Get your shoes on! Eat! Worry about your own self! Don’t forget your lunch! Are you still not up?! These are the things I yell at my kids, again and again. At ages 13 and nine, I think they should know what is expected of them by now—for goodness sake, it’s the same stuff every day!—and this is why I yell.
But, I’ve learned that yelling rarely produces the result that I’m looking for. Instead, it emotionally elevates the situation, everyone gets angry, and the process repeats itself.
I know I’m not the only yeller out there, but as I often tell my children, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it OK.
According to a Mother Jones article by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of The Good News About Bad Behavior, harsh verbal discipline (shouting, cursing, humiliating a child) is associated with an elevated risk of depression, aggression, and substance abuse, increasing a child’s likelihood of alcohol abuse, for example, by more than tenfold.
I’ve talked to experts to develop strategies to reduce the amount of yelling in my house. Here’s what I learned.
The Effects of Yelling
Anya Beebe, licensed counselor and founder of the Whole HeARTs Family Center, says that the number one thing she hears from kids in therapy sessions is that they wish their parents would stop yelling.
“When I meet with kids for the first time and talk about their family, I always ask what they wish their parents would do differently,” Beebe explains. “Even in families where they don’t yell a lot, kids hold on to that.”
The kind of yelling that does the most damage, Beebe says, includes put-downs and shaming of the child. “There’s yelling for safety, like ‘get out of the street,’ and nagging, and the most extreme form is name calling,” Beebe says. “[Yelling that includes put-downs] is most harmful, can cause a lack of self esteem and confidence, and it affects the relationship with the parent.”
Charles Fay, Ph.D., parent and president of the Love and Logic Institute says, “[Yelling] tells the child, ‘If you need to be yelled at, then you must not be really capable.’ And children tend to live down to that, unfortunately.”
If you have a neurologically atypical child who might be on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, or another condition, yelling can be potentially more damaging.
“Many atypical kids already struggle with low self-esteem or regularly get the message [from educators, coaches, peers, etc.] that there is something wrong with who they inherently are,” says Deborah Reber, parenting activist, founder of the TiLT Parenting community and author of Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World (Workman).
So how do you stop?
Stop Yelling in the Moment
You’re frustrated and ready to holler. Here are some fast ways to sideline your natural instinct to raise your voice.
• Remove yourself from the situation.
Say to the child, “Let’s talk when we are calm” or “I need to take care of myself so I don’t yell,” suggests Beebe.
Reber says that she uses this method currently, with her 13-year-old son. She goes to another room by herself and repeats a breathing cycle: deep inhale, hold for a count of five, slowly exhale.
• Use one empathetic statement.
Fay suggests using “Oh, that’s sad,” or “What a bummer,” when a child misbehaves, rather than yelling. Follow up that statement with an action. For example, if you are playing a game and the child overturns the game board, use your empathetic statement, then quietly put the game away as the consequence.
• Repeat a phrase to yourself.
Fay encourages parents to repeat the phrase, “actions speak louder than words” when tempted to yell. He says it’s important for parents to remember that what they do can have consequences. Tell yourself, “I can enforce limits and be strong without saying much of anything,” says Fay.
• Don’t engage.
“Some parents feel they have to respond every time a child is frustrated, but you don’t have to engage with them,” says Beebe. “Acknowledge them, but don’t have a power struggle. Then do the side step: ‘I hear you feel that way…hey, what do you want to do for dinner?’” She says this works especially well with teenagers.
While disengaging from a child’s behavior, Beebe suggests trying any activity that engages the prefrontal cortex of your brain (the part that helps with problem solving), including drawing, sequence counting (six plus six is 12; 12 plus 12 is 24), counting ceiling tiles, counting freckles on your arm, listening to audiobooks, or looking at social media on your phone. Reber suggests keeping a book or magazine close by, and reading as a way to calm down.
Planning in Advance Not to Yell
With advance planning and discipline, parents can work to reduce instances of yelling for the long run.
• Identify triggers and develop a plan of action.
If you don’t already know the times that cause you to yell the most, take some time to think about it, and make a list. “Come up with a plan of action ahead of time for how [you] will respond to each and every one in a way that is calm and respectful,” recommends Reber.
Beebe suggests thinking of little things that could reduce stress in situations that often lead to yelling. Do you need to get up 15 minutes earlier? Set a timer? Give a five-minute warning? Carry snacks or games in your bag to diffuse a meltdown? Plan for such moments based on what you already know about your kids and your schedule.
In addition, Reber suggests coming up with a coping routine for yourself, so you can “get back to a place of calm as quickly as possible.” It might mean counting, taking deep breaths, or listening to music. “Likewise, by utilizing a coping routine, we’re modeling the kind of strategies we want our child to enlist when they are upset,” she says. “It’s a win-win.”
• Create situations to practice discipline.
Fay suggests parents set up little times when they anticipate the kids will act up, so they can practice following through with discipline that doesn’t involve yelling.
One single dad, Fay explained, took his child to a restaurant where he was always misbehaving. “Dad said that he used to threaten and yell and not follow through,” says Fay. “But just as the child started to act up, he left the restaurant [rather than yelling]. The dad said, ‘I felt like a million bucks because I finally had control of the situation.’”
By incorporating these moments, children learn how you will react when they misbehave. Doing so can reduce the risk that you’ll yell in the moment, or have to leave a special event in the name of discipline, because you’ve already set the expectation during your practice situations.
• Create picture charts.
Use picture charts so kids remember their routines, with less yelling or reminders. “Take them around the house with you, and take pictures of what they need to do,” Fay suggests, noting that the method works for both older and younger kids. Print the pictures, number them, and post them in the house. “When a child can be responsible for getting ready in the morning, that can translate to other things,” he says.
• Take a night off from parenting, when possible.
Beebe recommends parents practice self-care, so they can be more present and less short-tempered with their kids. “[Kids] can sense when you are in a good emotional place,” Beebe says.
• Don’t beat yourself up for yelling.
Many parents don’t know any different if they got yelled at when they were kids, Fay says. “They are good people who don’t know how to parent, but they came by it honestly and don’t know an alternative.” He encourages parents to take one baby step at a time.
In my own home, I’ve added a couple of baby steps to decrease the amount of yelling I do. When it’s time for the kids to get up, I turn on music and all the lights instead of repeatedly telling them to get up. When it’s time for me to drive them to school, I go to the car about five or 10 minutes before we actually need to leave. Sure enough, about five minutes later (sometimes less!) they come out. Nine times out of 10, they have everything they need for the school day without me saying a word. Now, as I drop them off for school each day, their last memories are not of the last thing mom yelled at them. And that’s something to shout about.