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Tired of Yelling at Your Child?
Stop Screaming and Start Parenting Effectively

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Tired of Yelling at Your  Child?  Stop  Screaming and Start Parenting Effectively

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been there: your child says or does something that pushes your buttons, and the next thing you know, you’re yelling at the top of your lungs—and she’s responding in kind. Afterward, you feel drained, upset and frustrated and wonder why it always has to come down to a screaming match. Janet Lehman, MSW, explains how you can move from being “The Screamer” parent to one who communicates effectively.

Yelling at a problem does not usually make it go away—it only makes matters worse.

Why do parents yell and scream at their kids? I think most people scream because they’re frustrated. At the exact moment in time when you lose it, you don’t feel like you have any other options; it becomes like a knee jerk reaction or a trigger being pulled. In other words, you don’t think about what you’re doing, you just respond.

Parents can also let incidents with their child’s behavior pile up. They go from situation to situation compiling their frustration with their kids. Eventually, they react by screaming rather than with a response that really deals with the misbehavior effectively.

Related: Frustrated with your child’s behavior?

I’d like to point out here that it’s important for parents to remember that we’re not perfect, and that we can learn from our mistakes. A periodic scream or two doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.

I also want to stress that it’s okay to speak strongly to kids. But getting angry and then ratcheting up to screaming is not helpful, especially if it’s over anything and everything, because there’s no connection to the actual misbehavior.

My Story: “Homework’ for Parents

Let me tell you a story about my own family. I had a long commute home from work when my son was growing up, and from time to time I would be frustrated and in a bad mood when I got home. I would arrive late and find our adolescent son not doing his homework and sitting on the couch and eating and making a mess—usually with his feet up on the table. I like to keep everything in order, so this was extremely annoying to me. I won’t lie—there were some days when I was really tired and hungry and frustrated, and I did yell and scream at him.

Related: How to get through to your child—without screaming.

After that happened a few times, I felt like my personal homework was to think about how to respond better in the future. The first thing I realized was that I needed some space after work because it was a time where my emotions were triggered easily. I also took some time to look back at my behavior afterward, and reviewed the scene in my head. I would sometimes go over things with my son and apologize for yelling and explain that I’d had a hard day and that I was sorry I took it out on him. If you decide to do that, understand that it’s not about getting forgiveness from your kids, it’s really just about owning your behavior, learning from the situation and trying to do better next time. Also, James and I made sure our son was held accountable for his actions. Getting homework done and cleaning up after himself were his responsibilities, and he knew that failing to do either would result in receiving some consequences. My goal became to stay calm and handle his behavior without losing control myself.

Are You a “Chronic’ Screamer?

If you find yourself yelling at your kids much of the time, understand that it empowers your kids in a bad way, because it gives them the message that you are not in control. And if you aren’t in control, they might assume that they are the ones in charge. Both of these are fairly dangerous messages, in my opinion. It’s also important to understand that kids feel unsafe when their parents have no control.

Success is feeling good about how you’ve done your job in teaching your child how to behave—and you can’t feel good about yourself if you’re screaming all the time. When chronic screaming becomes the norm, children are also apt to think it’s okay for them to scream all the time, too. You’re teaching your kids that screaming is a suitable response when you’re frustrated or overwhelmed. It doesn’t teach anything positive, just that life is out of control—and emotionally, you’re out of control.

Here’s the bottom line: If you use yelling to get your kids to comply, you’re not teaching them better problem–solving behaviors. Yelling at a problem does not usually make it go away—it only makes matters worse. And if they’re screamed at all the time, your kids will learn that they never have to change their behavior, they will just take the screaming and do what they want to do. Eventually, your child will simply tune you out.

If you find yourself screaming at your child frequently, it’s not going to be easy to stop yourself—at least not right away. Learning how to change the way you communicate with your child takes practice. You might need a bigger bag of tricks because your kids are going to push your buttons to try and get you to lose control—which is what they’re used to. But you can learn to have control and communicate with them effectively. Here are some tips that will help you get back on track:

Remember, you can always get out of a screaming match: Here’s a simple truth: if you’re caught in a screaming match with your kid, it’s always okay to stop at any point. No matter if the fight is just beginning, if you’re deep into it or it’s been going on for ten minutes, you can give yourself permission to stop and step away from the situation. As my husband James used to say, “You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.’ Walking away from a screaming match will often stop the fight in its tracks, right then and there.

Stepping away—taking that time away from the heat of the situation—also helped me as a parent to figure out what my response should be. Sometimes it meant spending some time away from my child and then going back later and dealing with his misbehavior.

Wait ten minutes—or 24 hours: I think it’s fine to wait ten minutes—or even wait until the next day—to come back and talk with your child about his inappropriate language or behavior. Often, things with our kids are truly not that urgent. Most of us scream about things that are minor when you really think about it. They might feel urgent at the time, but that’s only because of whatever we bring to the situation—not usually because of our kid’s behavior. I also think that sometimes it’s good for a child to have to think about a situation or incident.

Disengage: A very simple thing you can do is count to ten while really disengaging yourself from the situation. So count to ten, walk away, go into a different room, do a different activity. Even if you don’t have a clue what’s triggering your frustration, if you know that you are overreacting, (and screaming is usually an overreaction unless you’re yelling at a small child running into a busy street) try to disengage.

Give Yourself Transition Time: Give yourself some time to transition when you come home. Take ten minutes to go wash up, gather your thoughts and then come out of your room and talk to your kids. They’ll act like they can’t wait ten minutes at first, but they’ll get used to it; they’ll learn to give you your space eventually.

Prepare yourself mentally: When I was on my way home from work, I also made preparations for how I would react. I would think to myself, “Okay, when I get home, if my son hasn’t done his homework and if he’s made a mess again, I’m not going to yell or scream. I’m just going to give myself time to unwind, and then come out and deal with his behavior.’ So if you know your triggers, you can plan your reaction.

Know your triggers: We all have triggers, and often they’re not the most rational things. I think it’s useful for parents to know what their triggers are, what sets them off. Is it the feet on the couch, is it backtalk, is it making a mess in the kitchen? Teach yourself what you can do when you’re triggered in order to respond more effectively.

Related: Do you know what triggers your child’s behavior? Teach him how to respond differently next time.

Review the screaming match after the fact: If you’re working on staying in control, I think you need to really look at yourself. Start reviewing what happened after the fact and try to practice more effective communication with your kids where you’re not out of control. Sometimes just having more positive interactions means there’s less time for the negative.

Ask yourself what kind of parent you’d like to be: Very few people want to be known as a chronic screamer, or feel good about yelling at their kids a lot. Ask yourself what kind of parent you want to be. And remember, you can stop at any point and at any time to make these improvements.

Get support: If you’re trying to get more control and would like to stop yelling, I recommend that you talk to your spouse, or your friends, and really acknowledge all of it. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about—almost all of us scream. Your spouse might have some insights or some ideas of what you can do; maybe he or she can even step in and help out next time when you start to lose it. They also might notice what some of your triggers are that you haven’t noticed yourself.

Parenting has moments of high stress, and let’s face it, we are living in a very stressful time. Meanwhile, life goes on—our kids continue to act out, fail to listen to us and misbehave. I think parents often scream because it has become an automatic response. We’ve often learned how to yell and scream from our own parents, but remember, you have more tools than your parents had. They did the best they could, but they had no courses on how to be effective; they didn’t have Empowering Parents or The Total Transformation Program. We have the benefit of knowing what didn’t work in the past and we have the power to change things. Changing the way we do things is a matter of mastering our self–control toward more responsible parenting and understanding that we have choices in our behavior.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

i liked this article. I will think about the techniques when challenged with a similar situation. I do scream alot and i don't like it.

Comment By : terry

My daughter and I recently had a heart to heart and she told me she feels like I am yelling all the time. I had already identified myself as a screamer. I made a conscious effort not to yell and speak in an even tone and it has made a world of difference. Of course, I still slip up now and then, but it was surprisingly easy once I made the resolve, to stick to it! We are both communicating better now. This is a great article and inspires me to keep at what I am doing.

Comment By : morgita

You have no idea how timely this article is. Thank you so much!

Comment By : debra

This article has some great info in it and is very true. I've noticed that Empowering Parents' articles are becoming too long, however, for what they contain. They would be more effective, I think, if they were more tightly edited. Thanks!

Comment By : Jane

Thank you for your article. It felt like you where speaking directly to me. Every night there is a fight for my son to do his homework. Homework that should take 45 minutes to do will take 2 hours because he finds anything else to do but the homework. He know the material, he can do it but we always end up fighting over it and then I end up angry and with a headache. I will try out your advise to disengage and give us time to cool down before we can talk. Thank you, your articles and your husbands have help me alot. We bought the program and slowly but surely we are all learning to commmunite better with each other.

Comment By : Sandra

“You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.’ I love that!!! Puts it in a wisdom nutshell for me.

Comment By : Momoffiveteens

Thanks for the great article. Very helpful.

Comment By : Helen

My husband often gets home before I do --he also waits until I get home to address this type of problem. My daughter is supposed to get at least 30 minutes of reading done before she goes to bed at 8:30. I get home at about 6:30. This leaves me 2 hours to heat up dinner (which I've prepared ahead), check her homework (I believe in helping her correct her problems before she turns them in, as opposed to leaving them wrong for the teacher to correct --which is a subject for another day), spend some quality time with her, get her bathed and ready for bed. I've tried to disengage, but my husband sees that as me acting like a little girl going to my room to sulk. So, does anyone have any advice on how to disengage and calm down without getting this type of response? I've excused myself and told my daughter that we will discuss consequences later and that I expect her to talk to me without whining and that "I don't know" is not acceptable.

Comment By : Grace

Remonds me of the old saying, "Yelling at your kids to get them to do what you want them to do is like trying to drive your car with the horn."

Comment By : Church Saufley

Yes we get ourselves yelling because we're tired of same old problems - homework undone or being done over expected processing time due to distractions, cleaning up mess, and everything else. This is a cool advice yet hard to do in repetitive circumstances; I guess so until the same old problems gets solved... how's that?

Comment By : Tired Parent

OK so I am a screamer and the problem is that is the ONLY way my children hear me. If I ask them to do anything or even a question such as how was your day. I can repeat it up to 5 times and until I raise my voice they do not respond. This of course is a very bad habit we have all gotten into (I am a single mom with 3 children). Any advise on how to break the cycle???

Comment By : rosie

Hi Rosie: I was wondering if you and others might find the simple reward system we use helpful. I may have read about it on this forum. We call it the First Time Request Club, and my son gets a sticker for every time he does something the first time I ask him to. When he gets thirty stickers, we go do something special together. I remind him of the system when he seems to be forgetting, and it is quite motivating. He seems to hear me better in general since instituting this, and we both are happy watching his progress and celebrating his success.

Comment By : susan

At my twins' elementary school they always tell kids to remove themselves from a bad situation, to take ten slow deep breaths and think before acting or REacting. I find I have a hard time doing this myself, making me a poor model for their behaviour. I grew up in a yelling household, and now I am frustrated to find I am carrying on a very bad tradition. Your suggestions will help, I think. To recognize that stepping back is not a "loss", but just a way to stop a pointless escalation of emotion and volume is probably the best lesson here. I hate being seen as wrong, so I guess I shouldn't fault my kids for probably feeling the same. Thanks for all you do for us as parents. James' spirit lives on in your work and our successes in helping our kids to grow up happy and safe.

Comment By : Colin W.

Very good article and can apply to any fight with anybody.

Comment By : Mansur

* Dear Grace: If I understand the question you are asking, it’s how to change your husband’s response to you; that he sees you as acting like a little girl going to your room to sulk when you disengage from your daughter. Taking a break in your room is not an immature behavior but the opposite. It takes self-control to recognize when you’re getting too upset, and to take a break to calm emotions and clear your head so that you’re not saying things to your daughter in an angry tone. I may be presuming here, and if I’m incorrect, I apologize, but it sounds like there may be some resentment toward your husband in regard to all the tasks you are trying to accomplish in the two hours between your return home and your daughter’s bed time. This IS a small amount of time and you might look at what you can delegate to someone else. You may consider sharing the task of checking your daughter’s school work with her Dad, or even allowing her teacher to do that for her—even though it may mean some of her homework will be incorrect. If you’d like more information about how to address relationship issues such as resentment you might consider purchasing the US Factor. This couples program includes a chapter entitled, “You, Me and the Kids” and also a chapter specifically on resentment in a marriage. We hope this information was helpful and wish your family the best.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Dear Mrs.Lehman, I am a constant screamer, yeller I go off the deep end for everything. My teenage son just really pushes my buttons but, I to often yell and scream at my other child who is more manageable.I am very frustrated more than I am happy. I scream at any and everyone that I am close to. I am currently and have been for years in counseling myself and my teenage son. I enjoyed reading your article. I also found some advice that I can use to try to help. I am a single mother so there is no other adult in the house that could rang me in when I am out of control, so what is your suggestion. Thank you for being human and helping me to understand that it is not only me who loses control because my support system (family&friends)explain they don't go thur this type of problem.

Comment By : frustrated parent 35

* To ‘frustrated parent 35’: Parenting can be very overwhelming and frustrating, and there are many parents out there who struggle to keep their cool when their buttons are pushed. It seems like you truly understand that yelling and screaming is not helping you to be an effective parent. In fact, when you yell at your children you undermine your own authority because the message they get is that you are not in control, rather you are their emotional peer—not an authority figure. The first step is for you to practice walking away and taking some time and space to yourself when your buttons are being pressed or when you are starting to feel angry, stressed, or emotional in any way. Tell your child you need a break to calm down, and you will talk more later, and then go to your room to take care of yourself and your emotions. I am including some articles with more information on how to calm down when your buttons have been pushed. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry
Temper, Temper: Keeping Your Cool When Kids Push Your Buttons

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What do you do when you try to step back, walk away, etc. from an arguement and your child follows you and continues to argue his point?

Comment By : driving me crazy

* To ‘driving me crazy’: Many, many parents experience the exact same behavior you’ve described and it’s very frustrating. When you walk away you show your child that you are in control, that you are the authority, and they often feel a loss of control. Because they feel they are losing control of the situation, they will try to pull you back in when you walk away. It is important that once you start walking away, you do not re-engage. Rather you want to set a limit and keep walking. For example, “I am not discussing this anymore. Continuing to follow me around and argue with me will not change my answer.” Many parents will go into another room and hang out in there until things calm down. If you have a teen and it is safe, you may leave the home and go for a walk or a drive. The key is to be consistent. If you re-engage in the argument even once in a while, your child’s attempts to follow and badger you will only continue over time. If you consistently set a firm limit and walk away, your child’s behavior should fade away over time. Remember, as James Lehman says: “You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.” Good luck and take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Dear Mrs.Lehman, I have a 13 yr old daughter that likes to talk back to me all the time she always has to have the last word I have 2 other small kids that she has picked on for a long time and they dont have no respect for her and they are also picking up what she does and want to do the same i find my self always mad or cryin or t yelling a lot because I do so much for them and I feel they dont care I see me wanted to push my self away what ahould I do please help me

Comment By : Hurt mother

* To ‘Hurt mother’: It can be so hard not to take your child’s disrespectful behavior personally. When we do so much for another person we almost always expect good things back and it hurts when we don’t get any appreciation or acknowledgment. James Lehman encourages parents not to ‘hold their breath’ for appreciation and reminds parents that it will come later, often much later. The best thing you can do is walk away when your kids backtalk you and take care of yourself emotionally. Debbie Pincus offers many suggestions in these articles that will help you do feel calmer and more in control with your children: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry & Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have 3 kids ages 6 and under . I dont know what to do anymore. My 6 yr old dont listen to anything I say, she talks back all the time, she want do anything I ask. I feel like a bad mom because I dont do nothing but scream all the time. I stay unhappy because of it. I just want to be a happy mom and bring positive things to my kids lifes. But its hard to do that when your not happy. I just want to stop screaming and yelling at my kids. This is not the mom I wanted to be. PLEASE HELP ME.Thanks

Comment By : unhappy mom

* To ‘unhappy mom’: Many parents feel like yelling at their kids is the only way to get them to listen. It’s good that you’re asking for help, that takes courage and we commend you for that. A really great thing to try with your six year old is a behavior chart that rewards her for doing things the first time she is asked. Every time she does something right after you ask her to, she gets a sticker, star, or smiley face on the chart and when it is full, she gets a reward. This will help you to motivate her without yelling. As you learned, yelling at her sends her the message that you are not in control. When you’re feeling frustrated with your six year old, it is important that you walk away and take a short breather to calm yourself down. I’m including a few links for you to take a look at. One is an article that goes over some skills for you to stay calm. There is also an article about behavior charts and a chart that you can use to reward your daughter for following instructions. We know you can do this and wish you luck as you work through this. Let us know how it goes for you. Take care.
Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry
Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively
Single Behavior Chart

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What can I do better? My 12yo daughter yells, hits, breaks things, and refuses to do what I ask. I've been reading some of the articles here, looking for something I can do differently. It seems like I've tried everything. I can't leave the house, or even go upstairs, or take a shower, because I can't leave her unattended. If she's in the middle of a fit, I have to stay right with her because she'll hurt people. I can't send her to her room because if she's upstairs she'll break her sisters' things. I'm afraid I'll have to call the police on her one day. If I refuse to talk to her, she will scream and scream at me for quite a while. My husband has done the same thing, although these days not often. I try to remain calm (and generally succeed), because if I don't it just makes it worse. And my husband doesn't think there's a problem. If he's home, I'm the one who has handle all the discipline, and sometimes he doesn't approve. I can't drive due to disability, and I can't get outside help without his driving us there--I don't have anybody else to help me. I don't want to see my daughter end up like her father or grandfather--angry all the time and abusing people. She seems so unhappy sometimes, and she's making her sisters' lives difficult, too. She has one older and two younger sisters, and none of them act anything like this. I have never allowed myself to be abused by my husband, but because of my disabilities (I am still trying to get government assistance) I can't get a job and leave. I try not to let the stress get to me, but having to deal with my 12yo is getting to be more and more difficult. I am also homeschooling, and I've started thinking that public school would be nice just so the rest of us could get a break, although I'm sure she'd throw these fits at school as well. Thank you for any advice you can give me.

Comment By : Trapped

* To “Trapped”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. It can be quite discouraging when you feel you have done everything you can and still the behavior isn’t changing. It may not be a question of what you can do better since it sounds like you’re doing a lot of what we would suggest now. When all is said and done, the only person who can change your daughter’s behavior is your daughter. So, we would suggest focusing on what you can control. Though you may not be able to control your daughter’s choices or behaviors per se, you can control how you choose to respond. It’s admirable you are able to stay calm in the moment. That’s the best thing you can do even if it is difficult. Continue to try not to get pulled into the behavior even if you need to supervise her to keep her and her siblings safe when she’s acting out. Also, you may consider having her siblings leave the area when she starts to escalate instead of trying to send her to her room. After things have calmed down you can work with her to help her develop better problem-solving skills. As Sara Bean points out in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems", acting out behavior is often an indication of the child having poor problem-solving skills. You can hold her accountable afterwards for her behavior. If she has broken anything, she’s responsible for replacing it, either by using allowance or doing extra chores as a way of making amends. You could also use a task-oriented consequence. For example, you may say something like “When you show me you can remain calm and not hit or break things for 2 hours, then you can have your computer time.” It’s most effective to give consequences after the fact since giving consequences in the moment can actually escalate many children. You may also want to read How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior for some more tools in addressing this very troubling behavior. It sounds like you are aware of some resources within your area. There is a service available to connect you to other possible resources/supports if you should need more. You can reach The 2-1-1 National Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or logging on to www.211.org We wish you and your family luck as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you for reading and responding to my last comment. I thought you'd want to know--my husband has finally agreed that my daughter needs professional help. Her behavior had gotten even worse, but I did have a VERY serious talk with her and she is making an effort to behave. I'm still glad she will be seeing a counselor--I don't know how long this quiet spell will last. I've also been using a few of the tips I've read on this website--although I've read a lot of material about angry children, this website has some good advice I haven't seen elsewhere. I've started telling the girls 'there is no excuse for abuse', and yesterday found myself asking how we could solve a disagreement between my 12yo and another sister so that neither of them would get into trouble--putting it into terms of what's in it for them. I've also reiterated our basic rules--no hurting people and no destruction of property. Thank you for your help!

Comment By : Trapped

HI. I have a 4-year-old son. He does not listen to anything, even eating his food, unless I yell at him. He does not respond at all when asked to do things, even eating. He is in his own world. If I scream, he will listen and do it for a while and then again the same thing. Please suggest what to do. I want to stop this yelling thing and make him listen to me.

Comment By : monadi

* To monadi: It’s pretty easy to feel frustrated when you have a young child who refuses to listen to you. While you cannot “make” him listen to you, you can influence him to “listen louder” as James Lehman puts it. A helpful technique to do this is to recognize when he is listening to you, and praising him for that. For example, you might say, “I really liked that I only had to ask you one time to pick up your toys before lunch. Great job!” You could even let him know that if he complies with your requests the first time you ask, he could earn a small reward, such as 10 more minutes doing a favorite activity. For more information about how to set up this reward system, check out Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively In addition, it sounds like you have concerns about your son’s eating habits. While we do not recommend using these tools to address issues around food, we do encourage you to check in with your child’s doctor to discuss this. We wish you the best as you continue to work on this issue with your son.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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