Parents: 6 ideas for how to yell less, but why you don't need to panic

Last week I shared an article from the Huffington Post on our developingminds facebook page titled "Yelling at our kids could be as harmful as physical discipline".  Since then, I've had a few messages inquiring about the article.  A few readers have said they have been feeling uncomfortable about their parenting since reading it.  I can relate.  Over the last week or two, I've yelled at my kids a couple of times (yep, we all do it), remembered this study and cringed inside! 

So, I finally went back and read the original study.   It made things a little clearer, less worrying and somewhat changed the impression given my the news paper reports.  My sincere apologies for not doing this sooner, I should have done this before sharing it.  

Here's what I found:

The researchers in this study were not just looking at the effects of raised voices, but instead were looking at the effects of "harsh verbal discipline". In their questionnaire for parents they bundled the item "yelling, screaming and shouting" together with the item "swearing or cussing at the child" and the item "calling the child a name, such as lazy or dumb".   Any "yes" for any of these behaviours gave the parents a point towards their "harsh verbal criticism" score.  The higher the harsh verbal criticism level, the more likely it was their children (aged 13 and 14) experienced negative effects on their social and emotional well being.   So without seeing a breakdown of the actual data, it is possible that for the parents who scored above average on "harsh verbal criticism" were those that consistently swore and insulted the child, not those that "just" yelled.

I went back and looked at the literature generally over the last 10 years and there is not any research that I could find which examined the effects of parents raising their voices, without also considering (arguably) harsher forms of verbal punishment.  

I suspect this is partly because researchers would find it hard to actually find children who have never been yelled at! Some of the surveys I found indicated that between 75% and 90% of parents say they have yelled at their children at least once in the last 12 months.

So as far as the research goes, the jury is still out.  We do not yet have any evidence that finds that raising our voices at children is demonstrably harmful in any way.

I think I can speak for many of us when I say:  "phew".


Instinctively as a parent, I don't really want to yell at my kids.  I don't think it helps anyone or works very well in any long term way.  I think many parents feel the same.  We yell because we are frustrated, not because we think it works any better than speaking in a firm, steady, calm voice.   

Incidentally, I think there are two reasons that yelling does not work that well.  First, our own yelling prompts a FURTHER increase in our own frustration.  Yes, that's right - not only do we yell because we are frustrated, but we get more frustrated after we yell.  It increases guilt, annoyance and general "overwhelm" in us as parents.  Not the most ideal state to be thinking strategically and carefully about how we can manage a tricky parenting situation.

Second, once we yell at kids, their own "fight/flight/attack/defence/attack" systems are probably on the rise.  Adrenalin rates, muscle tension and emotional systems tend to ramp up when someone is raising their voice at us, and I suspect kids are no different.  Now while this might not cause any long term damage, it does nothing to help kids learn at the time.  Learning happens best in kids when they are calm.

So overall - let's conclude this so far:  we don't have any evidence to say that yelling harms our kids, but we can make a pretty solid guess that it doesn't help them or us either.  

Back to the drawing board then - how can we work on doing less yelling? Here are a few quick ideas that I think help:

a) Consistently allow extra time to do anything with our children.  

Kids take far, far longer to do things than seems reasonable. How could it possibly take 10 minutes to tie your shoelaces?  Well, when you are 10, yes it does appear to take that long.  It also takes them a long time to switch "off" from other activities and "onto" the things we want them to do.

Bottom line:  whenever we need to be somewhere at a certain time, we must factor in the "child slowness".  This also goes for teens.  Teen brains are also less developed than adult brains.  They have to cope with higher levels of distractibility, a focus on how they are coming across to others and a myriad of other mood changes.  Allow extra time for them also.

b) We need to talk to kids and teens in advance of trouble spots.  

Take a second to stop reading for a minute and think about the answer to this question:  what will make you lose your temper in the next month with your children/teens?

No really, pause just for a minute and try to predict the three most likely scenarios.

Got them?  Probably wasn't that hard.  So now we have that information, lets use it. How can we help our children/teens and ourselves to avoid that situation before it happens.  What do we need to coach, teach and rehearse with them to be able to do better in that situation?  

Having conversations prior to the problems is essential.  We need to talk with them in the car, when we are all calm, the night before at bedtime when they are feeling relaxed, we need to get them to walk through the steps of doing better on the weekend when there is less pressure, we need to find times beforehand or afterwards.

By the way, parents tell me their kids/teens don't want to do this.  Understandable.   It's not fun for anyone to talk about trouble spots when they aren't happening, no one wants to discuss unpleasant topics if they don't really have to, but we have a much better chance of dealing calmly with the issue if we don't wait until emotions are high and time is tight.  Allow kids/teens choice as to when they talk about it, make it brief, but don't make make this conversation or rehearsal optional.

C) Get Closer

Whenever we need to talk to our kids and teens, where at all possible - we need to get closer to them.  When we have to give an instruction, or ask them something, we need to immediately take three steps to get closer to them.  Wherever possible, looking them in the eye and having a gentle hand on the shoulder is even better. When we get closer to kids in talking with them, two things happens.  

First, we get their attention.  Some studies show they are almost twice as likely to listen.

Second, instinctively we are less likely to yell at someone when we are close to them.  We tone it down a little when someone's face is *right there*.  This will help us control our own frustration.  

(Quick note:  if you feel you are out of control of your anger and might strike your child, ignore this advice and instead walk away).

d) We should make ourselves a little more accountable.  

Anytime we set a goal, if someone knows about it, we are more likely to try to stick to it. Reducing yelling is no different.  Tell your partner, a close friend or another parent:  "I'm really working hard on talking calmly to the kids at the moment.  It's something that it's important to me, and I want to do it more often".  Next time, you go to yell, you will remember this conversation and it might help, a little.

We can also make ourselves accountable by telling our kids themselves that we don't want to yell at them.  Say "Mum/Dad is working hard on not yelling at you too much and talking in a calm and quieter voice, even when I'm frustrated.  It's really tough sometimes, but I'm going to try hard".  When you do slip up, apologise to them, "I wish I had said that to you in a calmer voice, I'm sorry for yelling".  Not only does this help keep it uppermost in our mind, apologising ourselves is a great way of teaching kids and teens about making amends.

e) Breathe

When you find yourself extremely frustrated, running late, stressed, incredibly disappointed at your children's behaviour:  Breathe.  Slowly.  Take a deep breathe three times.  It really does help.  It changes brain activation patterns and allows us to think more clearly.  Try it now, and see.  Breathe deeply, slowly and let your shoulders drop.  You can probably feel a reduction in your muscle tension. What you can't observe as easily is the changes in your brain - but they do happen.

Finally, be compassionate towards yourself AND the children.  

Parenting is one of the most incredibly frustration, annoying, hurtful, disappointing, confusing and scary things we have to do in all of our lives.  

We all make mistakes, we all lose it - it's okay to be kind to yourself.  Start again tomorrow.

Good luck!

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Our online resource Calm Kid Central has a video and tip sheet for parents/carers on calmer before-school routines, and a few videos on helping kids with tricky behaviour. For more information click below: