If yelling worked, parenting would be easy, wouldn’t it? We’d simply shout, “Do it!” and our kids would comply. But here’s the truth: yelling doesn’t work.
I tell parents that if screaming at our kids was effective, I’d be out of business. You’d just be able to yell at your child, and he’d change. Or you’d bring your child to my office, I’d shout at him and call him names for 45 minutes, and then he’d go home and be nice for a week.
When a parent tells me they’re yelling to get their child’s attention, I understand—I’m a father myself, and I’ve worked with parents and kids all my life. Let’s face it, parenting can be frustrating. And it can be frustrating being a child. And there are times that we all want to yell.
“Yelling turns you into your child’s emotional equal.”
Personally, I believe people end up screaming at their kids because they’ve simply run out of other ways to solve the problem. Instead, they rely on power to get the job done. And that works as long as the other person is weaker than you.
But realize that once your child learns to yell back, your shouting will have no effect. And make no mistake, those skills are harder for kids to unlearn than they are to learn.
No parent should get in a screaming match with their child. It gives kids too much power and does not help you with the problem at hand, whether it’s getting your child to take out the trash, to stop playing video games, or to come home on time.
Worst of all, yelling turns you into your child’s emotional equal. When you’re out of control, they know it—and for the time you’re in that fight with them, your authority is undermined.
Your child learns that his parents can lose control and that by pushing the right buttons, he can get you to lose control. Make no bones about it, once you’ve started using yelling as a behavioral management tool, you’ve told your child everything he needs to know about pushing your buttons.
Your child learns that power is how things get done. More precisely, he learns that overpowering somebody is the easiest way to get things done.
Your child learns how to shut you off. Mentally and emotionally, he quickly learns how to stop listening when the yelling starts.
There are two ways people shut down emotionally during an argument: (1) they either stop paying attention and reject what they’re hearing; or (2) they start yelling back. When people yell, usually they are not feeling anything but anger, hostility, or frustration. And during a screaming match, no one is doing much—if any—listening.
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I’ve talked with many parents who think: “If I yell at my child, he’ll stop his inappropriate behavior. I’ll overpower him.” Parents simply want their kids to do what they ask, and sometimes yelling seems to be the most effective alternative.
But here’s the problem: it doesn’t teach your child coping or problem-solving skills. It doesn’t get him to understand the relationship between responsibility and accountability. All it says is, “I’m bigger than you, and I’m louder than you, and you’re going to do what I say.”
But after a while, kids stop listening. By the time a child is ten years old, you hear parents saying things like, “You’re grounded for a month,” in an effort to keep control. They do this because shouting no longer works. The shouting falls on deaf ears.
It’s as if parents reach for a bigger and bigger club every time there’s a conflict. But with adolescents, the bigger club is not effective. At this age, your child is meeting other kids who see their parents as nuisances at best. As your child develops that kind of peer group, your efforts to control him are more difficult. He doesn’t need you any longer because his need to belong is being met by his peers, not by his family.
So again, many parents just resort to upping the ante. They threaten to ground their child for many days or even weeks. But who wants to ground their child for thirty days? That means you’ve got to live with them for thirty days, too.
I used to tell parents, “You want to ground your 16-year-old for a month? What, do you hate yourself?” I said this in a joking manner, but it was my way of stating that long, drawn-out punishments don’t work—for the child or the parent.
These kinds of consequences are ineffective and often only succeed in getting your child to shut down emotionally. And they certainly do nothing to stop the yelling and arguing between you and your child.
If you want your child to listen to you, you need a system in your home where it becomes the child’s responsibility to listen to you. Here are five things you can start doing right away to stop the yelling and screaming:
When you talk to your child, look them in the eye—don’t yell from the kitchen. If you want to communicate with your kids, turn off the electronics and talk to them face-to-face. Don’t yell up the stairs at them. And tell your child that this is the new plan. You can say:
“Hey Connor, I want to tell you that, from now on, I’m going to come in and shut off the electronics when we talk. I’m also going to ask you to come downstairs so we can look at each other instead of yelling. That way, we can talk about things face-to-face.”
Be sure not to get stuck in a glaring and staring power struggle. Face-to-face does not mean eye-to-eye.
Work on having positive regard. In other words, wear a positive look on your face when you talk to your child. Your expression should be calm rather than angry or frustrated. Believe me, children will read your face and immediately shut down if you look angry or frustrated.
I think it’s important for parents to realize that kids get agitated during emotionally-laden discussions, just like adults do. If your boss calls you in and tells you that you’re not going to get something you want, you feel upset and uncomfortable, but you probably don’t scream. The difference in your reaction is that you have better coping skills than your child does and that you know it’s unacceptable behavior to scream.
I recommend that you work on wearing an expression that does not look angry or frustrated, even when you’re talking about something difficult with your child. Some studies show that children get upwards of 70 percent of your meaning from the look on your face.
Time and time again, I’ve seen parents resort to yelling at their kids when they don’t have structure. Without structure, each day is different—and the plan is always geared toward what the parent wants (or allows) the child to do next. Requests then become personalized, which creates fertile ground for a power struggle to escalate quickly.
When you use structure in your home, you immediately have a way of de-personalizing requests. You can simply point to the schedule and say:
“6 p.m.—time to turn off electronics and do your homework.”
I recommend that you post it in a central location in your home, like the kitchen.
When kids have structure, they are far less likely to challenge every request you make. They may still moan and groan, but the focus changes from you to the structure you’ve set up.
I always suggest that you talk to your child ahead of time about any changes you’d like to see. Pick a calm day when things are going okay. Say:
“Hey Jessica, I think we’ve been yelling and shouting too much, and it’s just not helpful. I want to work on not doing that anymore. And if you start yelling, I’m going to turn around and walk away, and I’m not going to talk to you for 15 minutes.”
Say this simply and matter-of-factly. Don’t get into any deep discussions or spend a lot of time talking about it. I recommend that you keep it to two minutes. You don’t want to process anything or get into emotions. You just want to say it and then get on with your day.
I think as a parent, once you’ve reached the stage where you’re in an argument with your child, your job is to get out of it as quickly as possible. The next time your child starts yelling at you, calmly say,
“Don’t talk to me that way. I don’t like it.”
Then turn around and walk away. That conversation is over for you, which stops the fight immediately. Know that when you leave the room, all the power leaves the room with you. Your child is left to yell at the empty walls. If your child has a tantrum anyway, that’s not your concern. You do not have to engage with him or stay there and watch it.
Finally, remember that for a child living in an environment where parents yell a lot, yelling becomes normal. Thus, a normal kid will learn how to yell back. After all, it seems like the appropriate response. Strive to establish an environment at home where yelling is not normal.
The truth is, the earlier we teach kids a broad repertoire of coping and problem-solving skills, the less yelling and acting out there will be. Appropriate coping skills include compliance, negotiating, and assertiveness. These skills can all be used effectively to circumvent the default mode of shouting and yelling.
I always recommend that parents make the decision not to yell—and really work on it. Believe me, the screaming matches in your home will die a natural death once you stop engaging in them.
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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.