HomeHealthAdvice | How (and why) to stop yelling at your kids

Advice | How (and why) to stop yelling at your kids

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Yelling can make parents and children feel bad. Here are more effective communication methods that still deliver the desired result.

(Illustration by Shikha Subramaniam/The Washington Post; iStock)

Gwenna Laithland’s day couldn’t get much worse. Work was rough. Her car had broken down. And when she finally arrived home, Laithland discovered that the chicken she planned to cook for dinner had spoiled after sitting out all day.

In the midst of it all, her then-6-year-old-daughter said or did something that sent Laithland’s vocal reaction into the higher decibels. To this day, Laithland can’t remember what made her so upset, but her child’s response was one she’ll never forget.

“I just lost it,” said Laithland, a mother of two from Norman, Okla. “I didn’t like that my child was making herself small and pulling herself away from me. She was biting her lip so she wouldn’t cry — she was handling my big feelings better than I was, and I’m the adult. That was the point when I said ‘This isn’t working.’”

Even the most gentle, positive or responsive of parents aren’t immune to yelling at their children, especially when confronted with less-than-agreeable behavior or a failure to follow directions. But as Laithland experienced, yelling can often make parents and children feel worse, leading parents to search for more effective communication methods that still deliver the desired result.

When parents recognize that yelling is often a response to something deeper than the child’s behavior, it can help them modify their reactions, especially in times of stress, said Lisa Weed Phifer, a trauma-informed social emotional learning specialist in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. She’s also co-author of “Parenting Toolbox: 125 Activities Therapists Use to Reduce Meltdowns, Increase Positive Behaviors & Manage Emotions.”

“It’s important to figure out what’s driving that yelling,” Weed Phifer said. “Is it some kind of communication issue between yourself and your child? Is it work stress coming out at home as yelling? We yell as our emotional response to stress. Thinking about what it is in your environment or in your life that’s creating that stress can help you get a better grasp on it.”

Understand the science of a scream

Numerous researchers have examined the reasons that animals, including humans, emit higher-pitched sounds we’d characterize as screaming or yelling in response to certain stimuli.

A study from a group of New York University neuroscientists said screams have a distinct “acoustic signature” that stimulates the amygdala, the area of the brain that reacts to fear. While normal speech rates fall between 4-5 Hertz (Hz), the units of frequency that measure sound, speech that exhibits what they defined as “roughness” registers anywhere from 30-150 Hz. As researchers played samples of sounds from various sources, from normal speech to instruments, alarms and screams, the alarms and recorded screams registered higher in roughness.

The team then monitored subjects’ brain activity as they heard each sound, finding greater responses in the amygdala when the screams and alarms were played. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense — the unique acoustic signature of a scream could alert others to imminent danger or threats.

Another study, from researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, had similar findings, with participants reacting more quickly to voices perceived as threatening or aggressive.

Mom or Dad yelling at a child to take out the trash is far removed from a legitimate concern about the child’s safety if they run into the street or touch a hot stove, but the brain response is potentially the same. And the long-term effects of yelling can be harmful, with studies indicating children subject to regular harsh verbal discipline were at higher risk of depression and behavioral problems.

“If you’ve asked a child to pick something up multiple times, and now your voice is louder that final time, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a better outcome,” Weed Phifer said. “When we’re in that emotional and stressed state, we’re not really able to go through the problem-solving process of ‘Is this really going to get the reaction that I want?’”

In addition to addressing their own state of mind, parents should give clear and direct messages to their children to minimize the perceived need to yell, said Jazmine McCoy, a clinical psychologist and mother of two in Sacramento.

“Instead of asking, ‘Why don’t you go take the trash out?’ set a very clear time limit or expectation that you need them to take the trash out before they go play,” McCoy said. “I always recommend that parents get intentional about the instruction that they have, stop what they’re doing and make sure their child isn’t distracted. Make eye contact and get down on their level — especially for the little ones — and then give a clear instruction. That sets everybody up for success.”

In other words, your kids might not be deliberately ignoring you — maybe they’re hyper-focused on their toys, games, television or homework.

McCoy, who offers a free virtual workshop on yelling, suggests that parents figure out their own personal triggers — whether they’re messy rooms, tantrums, picky eating or just refusing to listen — and not take a child’s words or behavior in those areas so personally.

“Sometimes we feel yelling is the only thing that works because it gets our child’s attention,” McCoy said. “Although yelling might work in the short term, it could have the longer-term ramification of eroding the parent-child relationship, trust and rapport.”

That’s an outcome that Christi Rammel, a Centerville, Ohio, mother, wanted to avoid. Like many older millennial and Generation X parents, she grew up with spankings and yelling as a household norm, and initially wasn’t against either when she had her own children.

Like Laithland, a particularly bad day at work changed everything. Sleep-deprived and frustrated, Rammel remembers coming home and yelling at her young daughter for something that pushed her buttons. “When I saw her cowering in the corner, I asked myself ‘What kind of parent does this?’” Rammel said. “I decided I didn’t want to be that parent.”

Rammel also realized how difficult it was to hear the stories from young abuse survivors she encountered as a nurse at a children’s hospital and she began making connections to her own children’s responses to yelling. Now a mother of four in a blended family, Rammel said she aims to make her home an emotionally safe place for her children to express their feelings and make mistakes.

“Do I still get frustrated? Yes,” Rammel said. “But I find we all respond better when I calmly talk to them. Kids are going to have bad days just like adults. I remind myself daily that they’re human and they’re still learning.”

“If you feel yourself about to yell, take a deep breath and say ‘Okay, maybe they’re busy, let me go upstairs and see what’s up,’” said Yolanda Williams, a Sherwood, Ark., mother of one. “If you’re calling your kid’s name and they’re not answering, go and connect with them. Maybe put your hand on their shoulder or make sure that they can actually see your face. Change the way you communicate.”

How to unlearn parenting habits

Williams also grew up in a home where her parents yelled often, and she expected to parent the same way until she became pregnant at 36 and began researching brain development and parenting styles.

The idea of gentle parenting or positive parenting resonated with Williams, but she felt that cultural, socioeconomic and environmental issues were often missing from the conversation. She understands the deeper reasons that many Black parents might spank or yell, and as a positive discipline coach, she works to address those factors to help parents explore a different approach.

“We had to do things that were harmful to our children to keep them alive back in the day, but we’re no longer where we were back in the 1800s,” Williams said. “There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to why we do things, but we have to do that work to treat our children with respect and see them as humans.”

Stress can also be much deeper than a tough day at work, Williams said. Yelling at a child for eating too much food or wasting food, for example, could be a reaction to the sudden stress of having to figure out how to afford the family’s next meal. Williams said helping the parent with resources to obtain more food could help reduce that stress and generate a calmer response to their child’s action.

Laithland also channeled her desire to yell less often into researching and joining gentle parenting groups on social media in the early 2010s. She and her husband, Jackson, now run Momma Cusses, a platform about their ongoing journey with responsive parenting.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect parent and there’s no such thing as a parenting expert,” Laithland said. “You’re the best expert on your specific kids. While there are times I’m convinced that my children’s ability to listen and react is tied to how much demon I can summon with my vocal cords, I’m no longer making myself bigger, in size or in volume, to intimidate them into the behavior that I expect from them.”



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