What do you do when yelling at kids...works?

Susan Goldberg doesn't want to be the parent who yells. But what are you supposed to do when shouting at your kids is the only thing that works?

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Thunder Bay, Ont., writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

Hey! Let’s talk about yelling!

But before we get talking, let me state here for the record that I do not think yelling is an optimal parenting strategy. Why? Off the top of my head, I can reel off a bunch of reasons: Yelling is, by definition, loud and upsetting. Yelling escalates already tense situations. Yelling sets a bad example: if you yell at your kids, you’re essentially giving them tacit permission to yell back at you—or other people—immediately or later on. Yelling hurts: it hurts feelings, it hurts parents’ and kids’ self-image, it hurts throats. As with love (and sex), yelling simply begets more yelling.

Read more: Is yelling at your kids as bad as spanking?>

But you knew that. Just like I know all that, and more. I’ve read the books. Hell, I’ve even written a book. I’ve seen the Orange Rhino website (it’s good). And, in the face of kids who are being frustrating, rude or who won’t listen, I do my best to practice alternatives to yelling: deep breathing, whispering, walking away, changing the subject, empathizing. And yes, I aspire to a parenting career in which I yell as infrequently as possible, if at all. Sometimes, though, despite all that, I still yell.

But here’s the thing: sometimes it feels as though yelling is the only thing that actually works.

Read more: How to boost your child’s self-esteem>

Please tell me that you know what I’m talking about. For example, a kid just gets going on something, anything—breakfast, the wrong socks, leaving the house, making a sibling miserable—and keeps going, no matter how much you breathe deeply or whisper or walk away or empathize or distract or acknowledge emotions or crack jokes. Sometimes they go for an hour—or more—down that path designed to rub raw every parental trigger. Sometimes they go on and on until they hit your (my) version of “enough” and you (I) finally lose it, and yell.

Then, sometimes, the kid stops. Or he listens. Or she eats the freaking toast or puts on the terrible socks—and her shoes, and her coat—and gets in the car, and you move on.

It’s like they’re waiting for you to yell. And you (I) wonder why you (I) just didn’t yell in the first place, and maybe you could have got back the previous wasted sixty minutes of your life.

And what do you do with that?

Logically, I know the answer: you still don’t yell. You recognize that your kids have been conditioned to respond only to yelling, and you see it as a long-term project to try to recondition them to respond to other, more productive, strategies.

Read more: 6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them>

But in the short term, sometimes I think that maybe yelling, while not desirable, is some version of “logical consequences.” Maybe kids occasionally need to know that when they push too hard, too long, too often, they might get yelled at.

Is it the right thing to do? Probably not. Am I advocating yelling? No. Does it backfire on me often? Yes. Do I wish I could keep myself from yelling at my kids all the time? Absolutely.

But sometimes the uncomfortable and ugly truth is that—as a short-term strategy, at least—yelling works.

And what do you do with that?

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