Stop the Yelling!

It may seem that yelling at your kids will make them listen -- but the result may be the opposite of what you'd expect.


Parents who resort to yelling -- usually in a desperate attempt to get their child's attention or in response to some misbehavior -- often find that not only are angry words upsetting, but also ineffective. Indeed, says Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, "the more you yell, the less they hear. When you're yelling, the only message most children hear is, 'Oh, they're mad at me.' Kids are not listening to the content of what you're saying." To avoid yelling and to resolve conflicts, consider the following expert advice.

Anger is a warning sign.

It's okay to feel angry, but what counts is how you handle it. "Anger is not bad," says Dr. Lyndon Waugh, a clinical family psychiatrist in Atlanta. Instead, he says, it's a "signal" to resolve a problem -- a warning signal, not a green light to go ahead and shout. Once you learn to work through conflict in a healthy way, underlying issues can be aired -- and both parties can leave feeling better, not worse. Elizabeth Pantley, a parenting educator in Kirkland, Washington, and author of Hidden Messages (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2000), says "controlled anger," in which you are annoyed but rational, can be helpful if it is directed appropriately -- for instance, to stop your child from running toward the street. But when anger becomes furious or frantic, it can be hurtful. "At these times, we no longer act. Instead, we react," Pantley says.

You're a role model.

You need to take responsibility for your own inappropriate angry behavior; blaming it on your child's misbehavior is no excuse. For instance, when a child yells at you, you may feel justified in shouting back. But you're the one who has to set the good example of alternative behavior. While Dr. Waugh says children should respect their parent's authority, kids don't need to be afraid of their parents to respect them. "Parents need to out-mature, not out-power" their children, he says. A parent also needs to teach, not just control. "Make a deliberate decision about whether something is worthy of a confrontation," he says. Think about what things are enforceable and important -- not because it matters to you, but because it's important for the child to learn. If you've got kids entering their teens, accept that you don't have as much control and work on tolerating differences.

It may mask the real problem.

You may need to dig to understand what's really going on with your children. Often the original triggering issue -- how money is spent or who does the dishes -- is not the driving force in an argument. Rather, a person is angry because he or she feels ignored, for instance, or hurt. Be an active listener, says Dr. Waugh. "If you are in a conflict, draw them out to see how they genuinely feel," he says. By yelling, you may cause your child to withdraw or become defensive -- neither of which is conducive to open communication in the future.

Be specific.

If you can identify situations that repeatedly invite anger, you can be more effective. "The best antidote to anger is usually prevention," says Heitler, author of The Power of Two (New Harbinger Publications, 1997), a book about marriage. Avoid generalizations. There is danger in saying "You never..." or "You always..." rather than focusing on the issue. Instead, concentrate on being specific about the problem at hand.

Make sure routines are clear. When rituals are practiced, they become habits. "If [kids] are acting in a way that is bothersome, the best assumption is that there is a problem in the system, not the kids," says Heitler. For example, if it is your child's job to help clear the table after dinner, but he or she fails to do it for several nights, you might be tempted to lose your temper and yell. Instead, call the child in for some one-on-one time, and talk in a calm voice, suggests Heitler.

Don't focus on the child. Rather, talk about the problem: dishes being left on the table. Then, practice getting up from the table and putting away the dishes. Do this as many as three times. You've shown how to do it correctly and set up positive goals, so the child can feel like an achiever.

Mean what you say.

Speak firmly, not loudly. "If you are brief and specific, they are more likely to hear you and respond," Pantley says. And choose your words carefully, so there is no ambiguity. For example, say, "Please put away the blocks." Don't say, "It would be nice if you'd put away the blocks."

Don't let misbehavior continue too long. For instance, if your child plays with food, immediately clarify that food is for eating, not playing. When parents repeat themselves with no follow-up, the words lose their meaning. "When you say it, mean it the first time," says Pantley. If you only mean it when you are red in the face and yelling, kids will assume they can ignore you up to that point. Instead, Pantley advises parents to think, warn, and act. Develop a system of consequences.

Control your outbursts.

What if, despite your best efforts at prevention, you still feel you are about to lose your temper? Dr. Waugh, the author of Tired of Yelling (Longstreet Press, 1999), suggests rating your anger on a scale of one to 10. If it's just a one or a two, simply let go of the anger. But if the anger is at an eight, nine, or 10, it's almost impossible to do a good job at resolving the conflict until you calm down. When you start to feel rage, exit the situation. The same principle applies to teaching your children to manage anger. When they have an outburst, remove them from the scene. Or, for instance, if a toy is being fought over, take away the toy.

Amy Bonomo, a 38-year-old mother from Boca Raton, Florida, had to model restraint in order to teach her son to handle his anger appropriately. Sometimes, when told he couldn't watch television, he would yell and punch her. Amy learned to manage her own anger by walking away, breathing deeply, and, later, talking through the issue with her son. "I'd step away and say I needed my space," she says. Is yelling ever justified? Dr. Waugh says if yelling is rare, if it's more firm than demeaning, and if it denotes a very serious situation, then some kids might take you more seriously. "But it should be, indeed, rare," he says.

Be positive overall.

Although it's a normal part of parenting to be on the lookout for misbehavior so you can correct it, Dr. Waugh recommends avoiding an "evaluative atmosphere" in which kids feel constantly monitored, resulting in the kids becoming defensive. Smile, hug, give your kids high-fives, he says. Be sure you also watch for opportunities to notice what your kids do right. "Praise comes naturally," Dr. Waugh says. "Relax and let it happen."

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