Parents want tools for their children to behave better. In my family counseling practice, I provide children with a lot of behavioral and cognitive counseling tools. I help kids learn how to calm down and solve problems. But I often find it is the parents, while loving and well-intentioned, who really need some tools, too.
All the tools in the world, however, won't work if parents don't have the proper mindset to support the use of the tools. Let me first mention a few tools. I encourage parents to practice deep breathing, muscle relaxation, cognitive therapy strategies (to stop destructive labeling and all or nothing thinking patterns), positive visualizations, positive psychology to catch themselves doing healthy behaviors, and I teach empathetic, reflective listening strategies.
When it comes to the optimal parenting mindset, I recommend parents to be calm, firm, and non-controlling. This is the approach embraced over 10 years by parents who read my parenting book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. Here is an example of what calm, firm, and non-controlling looks like.
Susan sees her 10-year-old son, Robby, get frustrated and he shoves his 8-year-old sister, Sara (who has long mastered the art of pushing Robby's buttons). Susan is tired and frustrated from struggles at work. She raises her voice and demands that Robby apologize to Sara. Robby sneers and says, "Make me!"
Now what? Susan takes a deep breath. She remembers that yelling further at Robby will only stir up more drama and make things worse. She also knows that when she punishes Robby by taking things away, sometimes this works, but sometimes it does not. Most disconcerting, Susan's corrective, teaching message never really seems to get through to Robby.
Following the calm, firm, and non-controlling approach, Susan calmly says, "Robby, I can try to make you, but I don't think that will work out well for either of us." She firmly adds, "So I am asking you please to apologize to your sister because I know you can behave better than this." (Susan is firm here because she is taking a position and setting a boundary). She then is non-controlling by adding, "Making you do this won't help but I think you will feel better about yourself if you apologize." Susan is non-controlling because she guides Robby but is not attached to the result. Susan lets go and trusts that she disciplined (vs. punished) Robby. After all, isn't discipline really about teaching? Robby, five minutes later, says "Fine, sorry Sara." Robby's tone is not overflowing with warmth, but Susan thanks him for making the effort to apologize.
In the above example, Susan becomes an emotion coach, which goes a lot further than being limited as a yelling parent who doles out over-the-top consequences that will likely backfire! She models a calm, firm, and non-controlling mindset, setting a strong, positive, example to show her son how to calm down and solve problems. This is clearly much better than Susan yelling and just modeling an adult temper tantrum.
Is there a guarantee that my calm, firm, non-controlling approach will always work in the short-term? No, there is no guarantee it will always work. But having 25 years of observation in my family psychology practice and being a "yeller in recovery" myself, I will tell you that this approach works most of the time to reduce defiant behavior and improve relationships between parents and children.
Now let's look more at the deleterious impact of yelling on children. In the fall of 2013, the journal Child Development published research findings stating that yelling at your kids can be just as bad as spanking and could cause behavior problems and emotional development issues. According to the study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor determined that severe verbal discipline from parents was particularly destructive to tweens and teens. Adolescents whose parents had been using yelling as a discipline method were more likely to have behavioral issues and to act out (including with vandalism and violence). The effects of frequent verbal discipline and insults were comparable to those of physical discipline (like spanking and hitting) over the course of the two-year study.
This topic has long been explored by child psychologists. A study published back in 2003 in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that in families where there are 25 or more yelling incidents in 12 months, children can end up with lowered self-esteem, an increase in aggression toward others, and higher rates of depression. From what I have seen in my psychology practice, yelling increases anxiety in children, as well. Considering how often parents can lose their temper, these findings are good reason to stop yelling, particularly doing it in a condescending manner.
In addition to keeping that calm, firm, and non-controlling mindset I described above, here are three more powerful, effective tips from my book 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child to help you avoid the yelling trap with your child or teen.
1. Be an active listener.
If you are in a conflict, draw your child out to see how he genuinely feels. Avoid being overly judgmental, which leaves your child feeling criticized and will cause him to become defensive. One of my clients, Ken, shared with me how he found it helpful to say to his 12-year-old son, Troy: “Please help me understand why you seem upset.” Just that simple statement helped Ken remember to listen to rather than lecture his son. Even if Troy did not give Ken an immediate answer, Ken realized that by asking this question, he left the door open for Troy to share his thoughts and feelings later on. This question also helped prevent Ken from going into what Troy referred to as “lecture mode.”
2. Use understanding to slow yourself down.
Listening as described above helps you to dig deeper and understand what's really going on with your defiant child. This is perhaps the best antidote to yelling. While understanding alone may not stop you from yelling, it will help. Try to analyze what it is that you'd like your child to change, and then rationally explain it to him. For example, in the case of a messy bedroom, ask yourself what is okay and what you'd like him to stop doing. Kayla, the mother of 13-year-old Gordon, realized that she could live with some clothes on the floor but not with two-week-old potato chips in the corner. As another example, is it possible that your son refused to get ready for school because he has a test he is not ready for? Or is your daughter scared of being rejected by her new group of friends and is taking it out on you? Stay mindful that understanding what is going on with your child will help slow you down emotionally. The more you slow down, the less emotionally reactive you will be, and the less likely you are to yell.
3. Don’t take it all so personally.
In his book The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz writes, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you …” This is valuable wisdom to keep in mind. If you stop and think about it, most of the time you yell at your defiant child, it’s because you are taking her behaviors too personally. Realize that your defiant child, even if trying to provoke you, is really behaving in this manner because of his or her own struggles, not yours. Remembering this will help you not get so frustrated and your risk of yelling will be much lower.
I am a psychologist, personal and executive coach, and motivational coach in the greater Philadelphia area, and the author of four popular books, including 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.