As a mother, I know why parents yell at their kids, and why they feel guilty about it. As a child psychologist, I know that they shouldn’t feel so bad.
We feel guilty about yelling because we don’t use it as an intentional discipline strategy; it probably represents frustration. “In my clinical and personal experience, yelling goes hand in hand with overwhelm,” says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, clinical psychologist and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide.” “Something about the situation is overwhelming for parents, whether it’s a time crunch or a long and exhausting day separate from parenting. We don’t yell when we feel calm and regulated.”
The science of yelling
A widely circulated article once equated yelling with physical discipline; it labeled parents who yell as “weak” and the practice as “stupidity.” Hershberg asserts, however, that “the science does not support the shame.” The article referenced a 2014 study that found negative effects associated with “harsh verbal discipline,” which included three components: yelling, name-calling and giving insults. Clearly, there is a difference between “Put on your shoes now!” and “You idiot! You can never find your shoes!”
The content matters more than the volume, as does the effect. “Yelling driven by anger is shaming, [and if] oriented toward the child’s character and their core self, it doesn’t matter what tone that is in,” says clinical psychologist Dana Crawford, founder of the Crawford Bias Reduction Theory model.
In my experience with families, typical yelling does not include verbally abusive elements, and it should not be considered the same thing. The reality is we don’t have a scientific basis that the yelling that most families engage in harms children.
Family conflict — and its resolution — actually serves important developmental functions for children. A widely known concept in studying family interactions, “rupture and repair,” describes the importance of the repair process after a negative interaction. A regrettable moment can become an opportunity to model positive conflict-resolution behaviors while also maintaining closeness.
Shame interferes with this process by taking us out of the moment. When we feel shame, we are unable to engage in the “repair” step, which only leaves the rupture. If we can admit to our child that we were frustrated and that we feel badly about yelling, this allows for the diffusion of the negative emotion — and for the all-important hug to close out the interaction with warmth.
How to yell less and better
A worthy parenting goal is to decrease yelling for the benefit of the whole family, but we can let go of the impossible “never yell” goal. Try setting more realistic goals; we can use strategies to yell less often and to use yelling for its powers of good.
Aiming to never yell can be counterproductive, because repressing the negative emotion builds it up to explode. Hershberg offers this alternative: “The strategy I use and tell my parents is that yelling can discharge frustration and feel good, but do it playfully. ‘I’m going to melt cheese on you and eat you like a pizza!’ So, I feel the same satisfaction, but the impact isn’t bad, because my words are bonkers, so they can laugh and can actually connect with us while doing something with that energy.”
Because yelling represents a state of dysregulation, strategies for our own self-regulation can also help. For example, Crawford recommends one-minute meditations, mantras such as “I am here now” and naming the emotions out loud to your children. “I will say when I raise my voice, ‘I feel really frustrated right now, and I’m raising my voice. I’m going to stop yelling and take deep breaths,’ ” she says. “I’m revealing my method right then and right there.” This converts the experience of feeling out of control to a lesson for our children about self-regulation — a healthy step for everyone.
A foundational part of having secure, healthy attachments with our children is being emotionally responsive to their needs. We can use this knowledge of how our children operate to anticipate probable yelling triggers, whether those occur with certain behaviors or times of day. The more we feel prepared, the less reactive we are. One of my triggers is running late. With three children, I find that happens on a regular basis. Knowing that I’m most likely to yell during our morning routine, I have deliberately planned to leave the house at least 10 minutes early. This cushion keeps me calm as the inevitable delays pop up.
In a recent moment of frustration with my 6-year-old engaging in a battle of wills, I briefly erupted, then looked into his sweet, brown eyes and held out my arms to hug him, saying I was sorry. He lunged into the hug. Children can be quite forgiving. It’s time we learn from them and forgive ourselves for the yelling as the first step in doing it less. But not never.
Emily Edlynn is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents and is the author of the Art and Science of Mom blog.