By Lisa KadaneUpdated Mar 07, 2023
"Bennett! We don’t flush our underpants down the toilet! Do you understand?! No underpants! Only pee and poop and toilet paper!” I bellowed.
My then four-year-old son, caught red-handed with his fingers on the flusher, looked at me with wide-eyed shock and then covered his ears with his hands, while his Nemo briefs swirled down into the sewage system. I’d been telling Bennett for weeks not to flush toothpaste, shoes and even a book down the commode. This underpants transgression was the last straw. I went berserk, morphing from rational parent to screaming psychopath in seconds. To make matters worse, the bathroom window was open, and the neighbours had been serenaded with my crazy-lady tirade.
I don’t yell often, but when I do raise my voice, it’s because something has pushed me over the edge. I am not alone in exercising my vocal cords with my kids. Whether parents yell because they believe in old-school discipline or just lose their cool sometimes, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that close to 90% of the nearly one thousand parents surveyed copped to getting shouty with their children in the previous year.
What’s more, for families with kids older than seven, almost 100% of parents admitted to yelling.
“Parents yell because they’re getting pulled in a million different directions and something happens that makes them frustrated. They see their kids fighting or the child is doing something they don’t approve of, and so they just kind of let loose. It’s some kind of automatic response,” says Nina Howe, professor of early and elementary childhood education at Concordia University.
Clinical counsellor Elana Sures describes it as going from zero to 60. “The anger just sort of parachutes in,” she says. “It sneaks up from behind, and we know we have been triggered. Our hearts are pounding and our jaws are clenched—it’s clear something’s hijacked us.”
If one universal truth of yelling-as-discipline is that we all do it, another truth is this: It’s not very effective. Not only are you modelling screaming as a conflict-resolution strategy, but you also might be making things worse. A 2013 study found that harsh verbal discipline doesn’t curb problem behaviours for tweens and teens and could, in fact, make them more likely to continue doing whatever it is you are railing against.
The research went so far as to compare aggressive and ongoing verbal reprimands with physical discipline, such as spanking.
Has yelling become the new spanking? It’s a more socially acceptable way to deliver a reprimand and get kids’ attention. Many in our generation grew up being yelled at and even spanked, so it’s what we know. But then the final truth about yelling reveals itself: We don’t feel very good about ourselves when we launch into a tirade on our progeny. And it often frightens them (like it frightened us as kids) to be on the receiving end of angry words, making them anxious and, logically, more prone to yelling themselves.
“Yelling is something we can do to relay urgency to a kid,” says Sures. “What’s harmful about it, though, is that kids have sensitive nervous systems, and yelling is scary for them. It’s aggressive and intimidating. The facial expressions that accompany yelling are really angry and scary. So when we get the results we want from yelling, it’s because they’re scared and they just want us to stop yelling. It’s not because they actually made a decision to alter their behaviour.”
Indeed, what makes yelling insidious is that it can seem to work in the short term, but over time, kids will either shut down or learn to tune it out, say experts.
Kelly Dueck, mom to two boys ages 10 and seven, wishes she yelled less at her sons. She rarely raised her voice when they were little, but now she has higher expectations when it comes to behaviour. When she says, “Get your pyjamas on,” she wants compliance. “I expect them to act more quickly than they would have when they were two,” says Dueck. “It’s the frustration that they’ve chosen not to listen. It’s those moments when I yell.”
Afterward, she feels badly. She knows there are other ways to get them to listen or respond, but in the moment, yelling is what comes out. “I sometimes try other approaches but then still resort to yelling,” she says. “You can read all the things that say, ‘Count to 10. Leave the room.’ But it’s hard to do them in the moment.”
So what can parents do instead? Lots. Think of this as your yelling rehab manual, a 10-step guide to gaining control over the outside voice.
Yelling doesn’t happen out of the blue—it’s usually a response to a specific behaviour. In other words, something triggers it. If you can discover what causes you to blow a gasket, you will have a greater chance of avoiding it. “Figure out what those triggers are, because they vary across parents,” says Howe.
“I’m tired, it’s been a stressful day at work, I’m coming home, and I’m going to have to make dinner. All these things are adding up, and there may be the likelihood you are going to lose it.” That self-awareness will help you make better choices, like preparing simple sandwiches for dinner or putting on a show to distract the kids while you cook.ljubaphoto/ Getty Images
It’s fair to caution children, as they are stalling bedtime or fighting in the car, that you are about to get shouty. “Say, ‘You’re pushing me, and I don’t want to yell to get your attention. If you don’t listen now, I might lose it,’” says Howe. That sober warning can sometimes be enough to get kids to tone it down.
Warnings also let kids prepare mentally for a transition, says Howe. Perhaps they’re not responding to your repeated pyjamas directive because they’re engrossed in a Lego project or book.
“It’s giving them the heads-up,” says Howe. “So it’s time to go to bed. Do you need five more minutes? OK, I can handle five more minutes, but then time’s up.” I use this strategy with my son, and it works like a charm.Studio4/ Getty Images
Child development specialist Judy Arnall’s favourite calm-down strategy is to go into the bathroom, yell into the toilet (instead of at her kids) and then flush it away. It’s the equivalent of taking a time out—physically leaving the room and then having a strategy to compose oneself, whether it involves squeezing a stress ball or sending in your spouse to deal.
“If we’re committed to mindfully changing our behaviour and just taking a few minutes of time out before we do anything, it really helps us practise better self-control,” says the Calgary-based author of Parenting With Patience and Discipline Without Distress.JGI/Jamie Grill/ Getty Images
As Dueck can attest, taking an adult time out is easier said than done. That’s why Arnall recommends families sit down together and create a Yes List. On this list, which can be taped to the fridge, are acceptable things to do before you scream or say something you’re going to regret.
It varies from family to family, but it could include actions such as jogging in place, winging the Chuckit! ball for the dog or typing a social media rant you’ll never post.Prostock-Studio/ getty Images
“It’s good if parents have a plan in place,” says Arnall. “If you do things on your Yes List—go into the bathroom and deep-breathe—kids are watching that, and they’re going to pick up on those things and do them, too.”
Shouting isn’t communicating—it actually undermines the legitimacy of parents’ concerns and encourages children to shut down instead of listen. So Arnall and other parenting experts want to dispel the myth that children need to be taught in the moment, as if they’re puppies who can’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago.
It can be hard to wait (feel the anger parachuting in?), but exercising self-control in the moment will deliver a stronger message overall. “The teaching moment comes later, and it’s way more effective when you’re calmer. But as with oxygen masks on an airplane, you have to get yourself calm first,” says Arnall.
Then you’ll be able to talk it out or, with younger children, explain your behaviour expectations and the consequences. Kids made a mess? Clean it up together. Your daughter was being sassy? Ask how her day was, and explain how her words made you feel.fizkes/ Getty Images
Sometimes, just realizing your children’s sibling rivalry, whining, mouthiness and bedtime aversion are normal and age-appropriate makes the action less personal. They become behaviours to cope with rather than tactics intended to drive you crazy, says Sures.
“It was really helpful to me to learn from a fellow psychologist that eye-rolling from my nine-year-old daughter is normal behaviour. The mocking and the sighing happen because they don’t feel like they have control in the situation,” she says. “Putting it into perspective helps take the edge off. It’s normal for kids to be kind of sassy to their parents.
What makes us yell is the idea that they shouldn’t be that way, that there’s something wrong with my kids and there’s something wrong with me. If you remove that, then it just becomes something to deal with.”StefaNikolic/ Getty Images
If getting out of the house in the morning always escalates into a shouting match, for example, prep the night before. Sures calls this a “strike while the iron’s cold” approach to parenting. She actually sends her two daughters to bed wearing socks so she won’t have to nag, nag, nag and then yell about socks in the morning. This simple shift has made a huge difference.
For others, being proactive might take the form of always bringing snacks to head off mid-hike whining or packing activities to keep kids busy (and less likely to fight with one another) while you’re running errands.Prostock-Studio/ Getty Images
With kids, keeping expectations realistic is key. Part of the reason we yell, says Sures, is because our high hopes for an outing or event don’t meet the reality. This happened to her on a summer holiday, when her youngest daughter became defiant, sat down and refused to budge in the middle of a temple complex in Asia.
Sures says it felt like a parenting failure—that she hadn’t raised a six-year-old world traveller—when heat and jet lag would have made any child resistant to a drawn-out cultural tour. This advice applies to simpler scenarios, too. Plan a shorter hike. Run fewer errands. Issue one directive at a time. Or abandon your expectations altogether (for example, there’s no shame in ditching a full grocery cart in an aisle).fizkes/ getty Images
One summer day in 2015, Mila Fischer* was stirring tomato sauce when she lost it on her kids for no good reason. Looking back, she realizes there was just no mental space for whatever the request had been that caused her eruption. “It’s like taking it out on them because there’s something wrong with you,” says the Calgary mom. “I certainly felt guilty and truly sorry. I wished I was doing better by my children.”
Around the same time, Fischer started seeing a doctor about issues related to stress. The doctor recommended meditation, so Fischer tried an app called Calm that guided her through seven days of reflection. She started sleeping better, feeling more present at work and at home, and realized it had changed her interactions with her children. “It almost completely erased the yelling,” she says.
Sures believes yelling is often about more than a misbehaving child—it can be an outward manifestation of our own unmet needs. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s going on for me that I yelled at my kids for the past three days in a row? Did I not get enough sleep? Do I feel unappreciated? Apart from my kids’ behaviour, what else is going on for me?’”FatCamera/ getty Images
So you lose it. You weren’t prepared, and your chill went down the drain with the underpants. What now? Apologize, say experts. “It takes the sting out of an ugly situation, and it reminds our kids that we’re human and sometimes emotions lead us to speak in ways we’re not proud of,” says Sures.
She adds that saying sorry models appropriate behavior for children to follow when they lose their temper. “It helps them cement the link between the big feeling and the resulting yelling.” Then, talk about what prompted the yelling, because it’s not always just about the parent losing control, but it’s also about the child needing to modify his or her behaviour.
“It has to be a team approach here,” says Howe. “Something has set you off—some behaviour in your child is irritating you. Talk about it and find a way to solve it so it doesn’t happen so often.” It’s a win-win: Yell less, and you may soon find you have fewer reasons to get shouty.Phynart Studio/ Getty Images
Besides the obvious situations when we yell out of happiness or excitement (“Happy New Year!”), or to cheer kids on at a soccer game; experts agree that it’s OK to yell to get a child’s attention when he or she might be in danger. “You want to save it for those times when you really need them to listen, such as when they’re not stopping at the end of the sidewalk,” says Judy Arnall, a child development specialist and parenting author.
“That’s why you don’t want to rely on yelling continuously, because yelling does sometimes work, but it doesn’t work if you use it all the time.”Prostock-Studio/ Getty Images
There are three types of yelling parents generally use. There’s yelling that is more like stern, loud talking—you may consider it “raising your voice.” This kind can often be tuned out by kids, as it doesn’t tend to generate fear. Then there’s the yelling that’s caused by anger and rage—this type can scare kids and emotionally damage them when it’s chronic.
Finally, there’s the good type of yelling, which parents use when their child is about to touch a hot stove or walk into the road.Twenty47studio/ Getty Images
Some cultures are certainly more emotionally expressive, and yelling may be more culturally normative, but that doesn’t make it OK to scream at your kids. Angry outbursts directed at children frighten them, but sometimes—no matter where we come from—we lose it on our loved ones. Therefore, regardless of which culture we belong to, it’s really the aftermath that counts.
“Most children can handle seeing their parents ramp up, as long as it is followed up with a cool-down and resolution in the form of debriefing, hugging and working it out,” says Elana Sures, a Vancouver-based clinical counsellor.SolStock/ Getty images
*Name has been changed
Get parenting news, expert advice, info on secret sales, discounts and the best-ever products. Sign up for the Today's Parent newsletter.
This article was originally published online in December 2017.