Gwenna Lithland’s day couldn’t get much worse. The work was tough. Her car has broken down. When she finally got home, Lithland discovered that the chicken she had planned to cook for dinner had spoiled after sitting around all day.
How (and why) to stop yelling at your kids
by aparodyoflife ·
Yelling can make parents and children feel bad. Below are more effective communication methods that still achieve the desired result.
Advice by Shannon Shelton Miller
November 28, 2023 at 6:00 AM ET
“I lost my mind,” said Lithland, a mother of two from Norman, Okla. “I didn’t like that my baby was making herself smaller and pulling herself away from me. She was biting her lip to keep from crying. She was dealing with my big emotions better than me, and I’m an adult.” This was the point when I said “this isn’t working.”
Even the kindest, most positive and responsive parents are not immune to yelling at their children, especially when faced with unacceptable behavior or failure to follow directions. But as Lithland witnessed, yelling can often make parents and children feel worse, prompting parents to look for more effective communication methods that still achieve the desired outcome.
When parents realize that screaming is often a response to something deeper than the child’s behavior, it can help them modify their reactions, especially in times of stress, said Lisa Wade Pfeiffer, a trauma-informed social emotional learning specialist at Fairfax County Public Schools in the US. Virginia. She also co-authored the book Parenting Tools: 125 Activities Therapists Use to Reduce Meltdowns, Increase Positive Behaviors, and Manage Emotions.
“It’s important to know what’s driving this screaming,” Wade Pfeiffer said. “Is it a communication issue between you and your child? Is it work stress that comes out at home as screaming? We scream as an emotional response to stress. Thinking about what it is in your environment or in your life that is causing that stress can help you understand it better.”
Understanding the science of screaming
Many researchers have examined the reasons why animals, including humans, make high-pitched sounds that can be described as screeching or screaming in response to certain stimuli.
A study conducted by a group of neuroscientists at New York University said that screaming has a distinctive “sound signature” that stimulates the amygdala, the area of the brain that reacts to fear. While normal speech rates fall between 4-5 Hz, the frequency units that measure sound, and speech that exhibits what they know as “roughness,” register anywhere from 30 to 150 Hz. When the researchers played samples of sounds from various sources, from normal speech to machines, alarms and screams, the alarms and recorded screams registered higher levels of harshness.
The team then monitored the subjects’ brain activity as they heard each sound, and found greater responses in the amygdala when the screams and alarms were played. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense—the unique vocal signature of a scream could alert others to impending danger or threats.
Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland found similar results, in that participants reacted more quickly to sounds perceived as threatening or aggressive.
A mother or father yelling at a child to take out the trash is a far cry from a legitimate concern about the child’s safety if they run into the street or touch a hot stove, but the brain’s response is likely the same. The long-term effects of yelling can be harmful, with studies indicating that children who were regularly subjected to harsh verbal discipline were more likely to develop depression and behavioral problems.
“If you ask a child to pick something up multiple times, and now your voice is louder the last time, that doesn’t necessarily mean a better outcome,” Wade Pfeiffer said. “When we’re in that emotional, stressed state, we’re not really able to go through the problem-solving process of, ‘Is this really going to get the reaction I want?’
In addition to treating their mental state, parents should provide clear, direct messages to their children to reduce the perceived need to scream, said Jazmine McCoy, a psychologist and mother of two in Sacramento.
“Instead of asking, ‘Why don’t you go take out the trash?’ “Set a very clear time limit or expect that you need them to take out the trash before they go to play,” McCoy said. “I always recommend that parents be intentional about following the instructions they receive, stop what they are doing and make sure their child is not distracted. Make eye contact and get down to their level — especially for younger ones — and then give clear instructions. This sets everyone up for success.”
In other words, your kids probably aren’t intentionally ignoring you — maybe they’re just too focused on their toys, games, TV, or schoolwork.
McCoy, who offers a free virtual workshop on yelling, suggests that parents discover their own triggers — whether it’s messy rooms, tantrums, picky eating, or just refusing to listen — and not pander to the child’s words or behavior in those areas. Personally.
“Sometimes we feel like screaming is the only thing that works because it gets our child’s attention,” McCoy said. “Although yelling may work in the short term, it may have long-term repercussions of eroding the parent-child relationship, trust and familiarity.”
That’s the outcome that Christy Rammell, a mother in Centreville, Ohio, wanted to avoid. Like many older Millennial and Gen X parents, I grew up With hitting and yelling as a home rule, she was initially against neither when she had her children.
Like Lithland, a bad day at work changed everything. Sleep-deprived and frustrated, Ramil remembers coming home and yelling at her young daughter over something that pushed her buttons. “When I saw her cowering in the corner, I asked myself: What kind of parent does this?” Rammell said. “I decided I didn’t want to be that parent.”
Rammell also realized how difficult it was to hear the stories of young survivors of abuse she encountered as a nurse in a children’s hospital and began to make connections between her children’s responses to screaming. Ramil, now a mother of four in a blended family, said she aims to make her home an emotionally safe place for her children to express their feelings and make mistakes.
“Am I still frustrated? Yes,” Ramil said. “But I find we all respond better when I talk to them calmly.” Kids will have bad days just like adults. I remind myself daily that they are human and still learning.
“If you feel like you’re about to scream, take a deep breath and say ‘OK, they’re probably busy, let me go upstairs and see what’s going on,'” said Yolanda Williams, a mother of one from Sherwood, Arkansas. “If you’re calling your child’s name and they don’t respond, go ahead and communicate with them. Maybe put your hand on their shoulder or make sure they can actually see your face. Change the way you communicate.”
How to break parenting habits
Williams also grew up in a home where her parents yelled a lot, and she expected to be raised the same way until she became pregnant at 36 and began researching brain development and parenting techniques.
The idea of gentle parenting or positive parenting resonated with Williams, but she felt that cultural, social, economic and environmental issues were often missing from the conversation. She understands the deeper reasons why many Black parents may slap or yell, and as a positive discipline coach, she works to address these factors to help parents explore a different approach.
“We had to do things that were harmful to our children to keep them alive in that day, but we’re not where we were in the 1800s,” Williams said. “There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to why we do things, but we have to do the work to treat our children with respect and see them as human beings.”
Stress can run much deeper than a hard day at work, Williams said. Yelling at a child for eating too much or wasting food, for example, could be a reaction to the sudden stress of having to figure out how to provide the family’s next meal. Helping parents with resources to get more food can help reduce that stress and generate a calmer response to their child’s actions, Williams said.
Lithland also channeled her desire to scream less into seeking out and joining gentle parenting groups on social media in the early 2010s. She and her husband, Jackson, now run Momma Cusses, a platform about their ongoing journey with responsive parenting.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect parent and there’s no such thing as a parenting expert,” Lithland said. “You are the best expert on your specific children. Although I am sometimes convinced that my children’s ability to listen and react is related to the amount of devil I can summon with my vocal cords, I no longer inflate myself, in size or sound, to scare them into it. Behavior “What I expect from them.”