I consider my circle of peers to be pretty good parents. We read parenting books and trade advice. We limit screen time, attempt to not over-schedule our kids and know to praise them for effort, not innate ability. We try hard to do what’s right.
But there’s one guilt-inducing area in which many of us admit we fall down on the job. We yell at our kids, more than we’d like to. And then, we feel lousy about it.
Not surprisingly, we’re hardly alone.
"I think parents are very worried about how much they yell at their kids. A high percentage of parents do yell at their kids," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids.
The prevalence of parental yelling is not well documented, but a 2003 survey of nearly 1,000 American parents found that almost 75 percent reported shouting, yelling or screaming at their children during the previous year. On average, they reported doing so at least once a month. But the authors of the study of "psychological aggression" by parents, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, assumed it happened more often because yelling is "so ordinary and so taken for granted" it does not stand out in one’s memory.
So, if everyone does it, does that make it okay? (Think about your response when your kids make that argument.)
Why You Shouldn’t Yell
You absolutely shouldn’t scream, say parenting experts, for two main reasons. Yelling can be harmful – and it is bound to fail.
Carter, a mother of two girls, says that yelling can trigger an actual physical response.
"Once you’re yelling, you both have a pretty strong fight or flight response. Those stress hormones are not good for learning," she says. "You don’t want your kids to have a stress response to trying to get ready for school. It’s not good for you, mentally or physically."
Furthermore, says Marin psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph. D., "yelling is threatening. It creates fear."
"Yelling and fear can induce temporary behavior change, but generally not long-lasting behavior change. When the fear isn’t present, when the threat – you – are not present, they have no inducement for engaging in whatever behavior you were yelling at them for," adds Taylor, author of Your Children Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.
Taylor says kids don’t hear the message, just the yelling.
And our yelling models to them that screaming is an acceptable way to treat people to get what we want. (I admit I have caught myself yelling at my kids: "Stop yelling at your sister! We don’t yell in this family!!")
"When parents have a tantrum in response to their kids’ bad behavior, they are reducing themselves to their kids’ age," says Taylor, who has two young daughters. "You lose your power by losing control. You demonstrate that you’re not in control anymore, and that’s scary to kids."
Carter says yelling may be less scary – and damaging – for kids whose parents raise their voice frequently, whether due to culture or temperament. But that doesn’t make yelling more effective, because those children get used to it enough to tune it out.
Michele Eisenberg was not a yeller by nature. But about five years ago, when her son was 4 years old, she was dealing with the aftermath of a divorce and an unexplained illness.
"One night, he wasn’t listening. I was trying to get him to bed, and I had a fever. I couldn’t get him to stay still and brush his teeth. We were both getting more and more upset, until finally I yelled him," she recalls.
"I saw his face crumble… I could see he was scared," she says. "I felt so horrible and so sorry. I knew in that moment I had broken some kind of trust."
Eisenberg tearfully apologized and promised never to yell at her son again, a pledge she has worked hard to keep.
How to Stop
But keeping a promise not to scream is easier said than done. How many times have you told yourself you won’t yell at your kids, only to lose it when you’re running late, refereeing yet another sibling squabble or telling them to do something for the umpteenth time?
Perhaps the problem, says Hal Runkel, author of Screamfree Parenting and founder of the nonprofit Screamfree Institute, is that you’re trying too hard to control your children.
"It’s not your job to manage their behavior. Our job is to help our kids manage themselves," says Runkel, a marriage and family therapist near Atlanta. "Control the only one in the equation you actually can: yourself."
"We say: ‘They’re pushing our buttons.’ We have to ask: ‘How did I give them access to my remote control in the first place?’"
Runkel advocates allowing children to fail and learn from the logical consequences, whether it’s being late for school or having to work to replace a bike that’s been stolen when left out overnight.
Yelling about it "is harmful to the relationship and our kids," he says. "It teaches them to be scared of making mistakes." Instead, he says, you want to make sure you’re the person they’ll turn to first when they inevitably do fail.
Carter, who teaches parenting classes, including an anti-yelling class, advises parents to know their triggers and make structural changes to prevent being set off.
"Just saying, ‘I’m not going to yell anymore’ doesn’t work," she says.
"I don’t yell all that frequently, but probably half the time I do, it’s just because I’m tired and at the end of my rope," says Lyssa Friedman of Mill Valley, who has a 9-year-old daughter. "It isn’t fair, and I wish I hadn’t."
Carter knows she’s more prone to yell when she hasn’t gotten enough sleep, when the time pressure of picking up other people’s kids for carpool makes her stressed and when her daughters bicker in the car.
"So in the afternoons, they’re required to sit in different rows in the car," she says. Another "big structural change that a lot of parents need to make is just allowing more time."
Sometimes, that’s still not enough, so Carter recommends working on one’s response to the triggers. Take three deep breaths, give yourself a time-out or narrate aloud how you’re feeling.
Eisenberg, who hasn’t yelled at her son in five years, calls it "bookmarking" her feelings.
"I might let him know, ‘What you’re doing right now is upsetting me and I’m starting to get angry.’ When I’m really upset, I make sure I walk away. I’ll say, ‘I need some time to cool off. If I continue talking about this, I’m going to say something I regret,’" says Eisenberg, who is a life coach who works with parents.
Some families use humor to defuse the situation.
I have a friend whose family talks in British accents when they’re starting to get ticked off at each other. She says it’s hard to stay mad when you’re fighting to keep a straight face.
Mallory Stevens of Redwood City, whose children are 10 and 12, has found advice from Love and Logic parenting books and classes particularly helpful.
"For me, it’s the tenth time I’ve had to ask somebody to do something that really sets me off," she says. But instead of nagging until she loses her temper, Stevens has learned to leave a to-do list for her children and let them know they can do something fun once they’ve checked off their chores.
She also tries to give them more autonomy and choices, saying, "I need somebody to unload the dishwasher and somebody to take out the trash."
Personally, I have found that really making an effort not to yell does make a difference. I secretly gave up yelling at my children for Lent one year, and focusing on my behavior – and making a conscious effort to use some of the suggested strategies – really helped.
What to Do if You Blow It
It’s not foolproof, and none of us is perfect.
"It’s unrealistic to think you’re never going to yell," says Carter.
So if you blow it and blow your top, wait until you’ve had a chance to calm down, then apologize.
"This is a grand opportunity to teach how to offer a sincere, authentic apology. It’s important for kids to see it’s okay to make a mistake," Carter says.
"If (my daughter) does something that pushes the limits and I truly get angry and lose my temper and she crumbles, I’ll go back and say, I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sorry I lost my temper," says Friedman.
That doesn’t mean you have to excuse the behavior that led to the yelling, says Carter.
"You can say, ‘I’m not saying what you were doing is okay. It’s not okay to make me ask you 5,000 times to put your shoes on. It’s disrespectful. I’m sorry I was yelling to get you do that,’" she says.
But if yelling "gets them to put their shoes on, but you feel crappy about it, I would argue it’s not working."
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.
Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents by Christine Carter, Ph. D., Ballantine Books, 2010.
Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Edward Runkel, L.M.F.T., WaterBrook Press, 2007.
Your Children Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You by Jim Taylor, Ph. D., The Experiment, 2011.
Christine Carter: www.raisinghappiness.com
Jim Taylor: www.drjimtaylor.com
The ScreamFree Institute: www.screamfree.com