Yelling in Parenting

I recently encountered a reminder of the reason I created The Art & Science of Mom. A widely circulated New York Times article trumpeted that yelling at our children means we are weak. It shamed parents. It misused research. I’m here to talk back to it, and to all the other voices making our jobs as parents harder every day. I’m here to say “everyone yells,” but we are not stupid or weak, and there is hope. We can work on yelling less because our instincts know that’s better for everyone; and as we work on change, we can be guided by hope and perseverance instead of fear and guilt.

 Weird Science: Reader Beware

I have previously confessed that I yell at my children, and that I’m not going to beat myself up for it. Parents are human too, and let’s be real: kids can push our buttons like no other human being on the planet. I am known for my calm, gentle demeanor (it works great as a psychologist), but ignore me repeatedly or “whatever” me and I can lose it. I don’t like it. I’m not proud of it. But I’m honest, and I know I’m not alone.  

This is why this recent New York Times article pushed my buttons almost as well as my children do. Just for a taste, the last sentence of the opening paragraph reads: “Yelling may be the most widespread parental stupidity around today.” But wait, he’s not just calling us stupid, “you’re yelling . . . because you are weak.”

He does admit he also yells as a parent, and he includes some useful nuggets of information from a well-known child psychologist. But I’m afraid this message gets lost as we slouch further into shame from being called stupid and weak for doing something every parent does.

What really riles me up is how he cites research in an exaggerated, imprecise way: “yelling produces results similar to physical punishment in children: increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression along with an increase in behavioral problems.”

As part of my Art & Science of Mom mission, I offer a more productive and positive counter-message about yelling.

I looked closely at the study he cites, and his mistake starts with what the study is actually examining: “harsh verbal discipline.” What most of us do with our kids is only 1/3 of what constitutes harsh verbal discipline, which is a combination of yelling, insulting, and name-calling.

This combination is verbally abusive and reasonably would result in anxiety, stress, depression, and behavior problems in young teenagers. But this article frames all yelling as the same. It oversimplifies for a better headline, a better hook for all of us parents already feeling guilty and like we are continuously failing our children. I have sat in therapy rooms with families who use harsh verbal discipline, and it is categorically NOT the same as the yelling I do at home.

Should we be making concerted efforts to reduce and minimize yelling at our children? Absolutely. I know I don’t feel good about it, and I’m not doing it as a deliberate discipline strategy. Yes, I get frustrated. I mean, how many times can a person ask their kids to pick up stuff off the floor and be ignored before yelling, “PICK UP YOUR STUFF!”

I am the mother of a 4-year-old with temperamental traits that can make every step of the daily routine fraught with power struggle. I could yell at him from getting dressed in the morning to getting out of the bathtub at night, but I know it doesn’t achieve anything. Every once in awhile, though, when he refuses to get in his car seat and we are running late, I raise my voice. This is a very different scenario from “harsh verbal discipline.”

 At the end of the article, the writer concludes: “If our kids behave better, then we won’t feel like yelling. And if we don’t yell, our kids will behave better.” I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but again it is over-simplistic and leaves us feeling like there’s this realistic dichotomy of being a parent who yells or a parent who doesn’t. And it leaves out those times that our kids are just going to act out, even if we are doing everything “right.” It’s not always our fault.

Doing Better: parenting self-improvement

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As part of my Art & Science of Mom mission, I offer a more productive and positive counter-message about yelling. We CAN work on changing, but because it feels better to parent with less yelling, not because we are “stupid” or “weak.” Because we know our kids will respond better to our calmer responses, not because we are causing psychological damage equivalent to physical discipline.

I suggest thinking about three phases of behavior change that work together in a circular loop as our kids change, we change, and our triggers change (is that enough change?):

 Awareness: Am I Yelling Too Much? Why?

  • The first step is figuring out if you even think it’s a problem. And what would “too much” mean? For me, when my kids’ negative behaviors are escalating into patterns, I look at how my response may be contributing. If I’m feeling guilty at the end of the day more than occasionally, I know that’s not good for anyone.

  • The second step is identifying triggers that may or may not have to do with our kids. When my husband and I were both working full-time in demanding academic medical centers with three young kids, we both yelled a lot more. Stress. Fatigue. Being depleted. All of it. (See Prevention below for what to do about it.) Or there’s something about our child’s temperament or certain situations that set us off. Most likely – both.

  • The third step is making the choice to work on changing.

 Realistic Goals and Reinforcement:

  • The hallmark of behavior change is being realistic about goals so we feel successful. I do not expect to never yell at my children. But I focus on triggers, and work on staying calm in those situations. I do better if I think ahead of time, “when he refuses to get out of the bath, it drives me crazy,” and take a few extra deep breaths as bathtime starts.

o   Example: My youngest is fully capable of washing himself at bath time, getting out of the tub, drying off, and getting dressed. Does he do it? Of course not. And I don’t expect him to, but he often does NONE of it. Bath toys thrown. Water splashing all over me. Little fists swatting at me.  And that’s BEFORE I would even start yelling. Last night, I took him out of the bath when he started this nonsense, encouraged him to “calm his body and breathe,” and said we would have to take the toys out of the bath if he kept throwing them. I was winging it. But he surprised me when he calmly got back in and proceeded through the rest of bath with minimal problems.

  • Reinforcement helps us do it again. When I had this moment of success last night, it will be more of a motivator the next bath time when things go off the rails. The more I practice deep breathing instead of yelling, and focusing on how do we get to our goal, and how it all went haywire last time I lost my cool, the more likely I stay calm next time. And the next time. Take home points: take it one situation at a time; when there’s a setback, it doesn’t erase the other successes. Keep going.

  • We will all yell, but a more constructive challenge than never yelling is how do we yell LESS?

Prevention: What do we need to do for ourselves so we have the energy to stay calm?

  • Sleep. I know – some of us have kids that refuse us this basic need. Ask yourselves: is there a way to alternate with a partner so we can take sleep-disruption turns? If not, can the sleep-deprived parent do less of the discipline the next day? Or at least take a nap?

  • Stress. There are think pieces published every day about how stressed the modern parent is. I have personally experienced the contrast of who I am as a parent in a high stress job and a lower stress one, and I can attest: it’s very different. We need to better manage our stress to be able to reach our self-improvement parenting goals.  

  • Breaks. This can mean mini-breaks like telling your partner, “I’m about to lose it so I need your help,” to longer breaks, like a weekend away with friends. Or calling in reinforcements like babysitters or grandparents even if there’s not a special occasion.

Raising three kids for the last 9 years has taught me that parenting is a process of never-ending self-improvement. As soon as I feel improved, those kids just go changing again and I have to figure out a new part of my parenting self.

And just as we act as ushers for our kids’ change process, we need our own guides and mentors.

Doing Better: Our Virtual Villages

This is where media can be risky – what kinds of guidance and mentorship are we getting? The writer of the New York Times article was borderline insulting us parents (even though that’s exactly what crosses the line from commonplace yelling to harmful yelling, by the way). It’s ironic that this positive message of “we need to yell less and be more positive” came wrapped in negative, shaming language of “stupidity” and “weakness.”

We need to do better for ourselves as the virtual village of parents having common struggles and unifying experiences. Should we all stay aware of what we might be doing to unintentionally harm our children, and stay open to changing? Of course. But just as it’s easier to get my son to bathe himself when I’m more positive, it’s easier to get us to listen and think when the parenting guidance around us is uplifting, supportive, and accepting that we too are only human.