Why We Yell at Our Kids (and Why We Should Stop Yelling)
I Heard Yelling on My Walk
It was such a beautiful, sunny morning. I was returning home from my walk through my neighborhood, and I heard a parent calling to one of their children: “TYLER! ZOOM! NOW!” The parent’s voice and words sounded frustrated, exasperated, and authoritarian. I watched as this parent marched across the front yard and pushed opened the gate into the fenced-in portion of their property that would lead to their front door. I could see that the family had been spending some time in their flower and vegetable garden. The yard was beautiful and blooming. The parent was tall and fit.
One of the children followed through the gate with bare feet as their parent held open the gate. Tyler was still at the far end of the yard looking at some vine vegetable, maybe green beans. I continued walking and tried not to stare but could see out of my periphery as Tyler made their way to the gate. I could still hear the exasperated muffles of the parent talking at Tyler as they went into their home and I continued walking down the street.
We're All Just Trying to Get Through the Day
This event occurred during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. As I walked, I engaged in an internal monologue as I thought about what I had just witnessed. I thought how hard it must be for some families to be together ALL THE TIME. Most parents in the United States usually work while the children are in school. Due to the pandemic, parents at this time are either out of work or attempting to work from home while trying to keep their children on track with distance learning.
Many of you can relate to how it feels to be spread so thin. It can be so exhausting keeping up on the housework, keeping everyone fed, working from home, and keeping children up on their school work when the children are having a challenging experience as well. Children are not used to their parents taking this role as teacher and manager. Children miss their friends and their schools.
Home has always been a place for rest and play and family time. Now, home is taking on a new role. Parents are taking on a new role. Our bodies and brains are struggling to make this shift as we live on edge, not knowing what other changes are to come.
The Concept of Gentle Parenting
I am an advocate of gentle parenting. I am on the admin team of a Facebook group called Gentle Parents Unite. We help parents stop yelling at their kids. When I hear a parent yelling at their children, I don’t judge them. I was that parent once. Parenting is hard, and we are all doing our best in every moment. At the time of this writing, everyone is feeling the tension in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and so much uncertainty. We all lose our cool some times.
As I was walking away after Tyler went inside that morning, I was imagining what might have preceded the incident I witnessed between the parent and Tyler. I imagined that the parent reminded Tyler that the class Zoom meeting was scheduled to begin in a few minutes as they went out to look at the garden. Tyler wanted to come out just for a few minutes to see the garden and spend time with their parent and sibling.
When the time was running out, Tyler’s parent might have told him that the meeting was about to start and he should go in and get set up. Tyler wasn’t ready yet and continued to look around the garden. Maybe Tyler’s parent asked calmly a few more times leading up to “the last straw” when they yelled at Tyler: “TYLER! ZOOM! NOW!”
Why Do We Yell?
I’m writing this article as a reminder that yelling at our children like this can be counterproductive. I want to take another look at why we reach our limit and yell at our children, and why our children might not have listened to us the first 50 million times we asked calmly. I think I need this reminder sometimes just as much as this parent.
I don’t believe anybody wants to yell. It doesn’t feel good. I also don’t believe we should feel ashamed when we reach our limit and don’t always respond to situations with perfect grace. We are human, and we are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.
I DO believe that when we yell, we can take that as a red flag to go down our checklist of needs and also our child’s checklist of needs and troubleshoot the situation so we can respond more effectively.
Reasons Why Parents Yell
Most of the time, parents yell because their children didn’t listen the first (or seventh) time they asked their children to do something.
- Feeling Threatened: Sometimes, parents feel their children are ignoring them to intentionally disrespect them. Feeling disrespected can be a very threatening feeling. When we feel threatened, it can trigger the fight of flight response, and yelling is often the fight response we are reacting with because we feel threatened when our kids don’t respond to us.
- Motivation: Some parents feel that their kids won’t listen unless they “motivate” their kids to listen. Yelling is sometimes used as motivation. Sometimes it works. Other times, the child shuts down or pushes (or yells) back and the parent and child end up locked in a power struggle.
- Desperation: Sometimes parents yell because they are desperate for their child to respond to them. There might be a lot of pressure mounting and there could be some consequence if the child doesn’t listen.
- The Child Can't Hear Them: Maybe a parent yells because they genuinely believe that their child can’t hear them for whatever reason.
Unpacking the Reasons
1. Feeling Threatened
A common traditional value that has been passed down for many families throughout generations is that children should respect and listen to adults. It is so valuable to teach our children to be respectful. We want to teach children to help out around the house and listen and care about the feelings of others. These are really good things to teach a child.
Yelling doesn’t actually teach these values and can actually be counterproductive to teaching these values. Yelling demonstrates “THE WAY I FEEL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HOW YOU FEEL! MY PRIORITIES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOURS! IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO CARE ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL, WHAT YOU SAY, OR WHAT YOU NEED, YELLING AND BEING SCARY IS HOW WE GET PEOPLE TO LISTEN!” etc.
These beliefs are all contrary to respect. Respect means that we care about the needs of everyone. Respect goes two ways. The most effective way to teach respect is to demonstrate respect. When everyone yells, nobody is listening and that is how conflict resolution and problem solving get blocked in our world.
Sometimes, we feel threatened when our children don’t listen to us because it triggers our deep lack of self-worth. It feels good to be listened to. We feel cared for, and powerful, and valuable. When our children don’t listen, our subconscious thought patterns from our own childhoods are triggered that we aren’t valuable, important, or powerful . . . and those are scary thoughts and feelings. These scary thoughts and feelings trigger our fight or flight response causing us to either shut down or yell.
If we become conscious of our subconscious patterns, we can establish new patterns and beliefs. We can teach ourselves that we have worth and power even when our kids don’t listen. We don’t have to panic. We can problem solve and use mutual respect to find ways to get our kids to listen and also break cycles so our kids grow up feeling listened to.
Children won’t listen unless they have a reason to listen. This is generally true. I think this is true for adults too. If I, as an adult, was walking down the street and a random person told me to take off my shoes, I would likely continue to walk away from them. I wouldn’t listen to them because I have no reason to. The situation might be different if I was walking into someone’s home and they asked me to take off my shoes. I would have a reason to listen to them because I know that the cultural expectation for some people is that shoes are removed before going into the home and, as their guest, I want to respect the culture of their home.
Similarly our children might not be motivated to listen to us for several reasons. One being that they don’t have the same perspective or understanding as you. They might not value the Zoom meeting the same way you or their teachers do. It is their prerogative to have different perspectives and priorities than other people in their lives.
Yelling at them might motivate them to listen out of fear, or their own self-interest to get the yelling to stop, but that isn’t getting to the root of the issue. If we want any person to be open to understanding our perspective, we have to have a connection with that person. Yelling has a way of closing people off and creating a disconnect, which is ultimately counterproductive to what is really needed: open connection over time to allow mutual respect and shared perspective and understanding.
The appeal to yelling is that when it works, it works fast: instant results. One problem with yelling is that when it doesn’t work, it really back fires: broken connection, push-back and power struggles.
Connection is the most genuine motivation.
Sometimes we yell when we feel desperate and panicked. Things have built up and everything feels like it’s going to fall apart. Personally, it’s when I needed to get my kids to school on time so I could get to work on time. My kids aren’t moving fast enough, their getting distracted when they are supposed to be getting their shoes on and I’m trying to pack lunches so we can get out of the door on time.
Again, the appeal to yelling is that when it works, it works fast: instant results. The problem with yelling, the broken connection, arises if it overwhelms the child or scares them. Now they are frozen and crying or fighting back and not only are you going to be late, but you hurt your connection with your child along with their self-esteem and they are going to school with the weight of you yelling at them in their heart. When yelling doesn’t help, it really backfires.
Yelling usually doesn’t solve our desperation, but it does often add to it. What we really need to do to solve our desperation is to take care of ourselves and cut stressful things out of our lives as much as we can. Plan ahead, and take some deep breaths when things don’t go the way we had hoped.
4. The Child Can't Hear Them
If your child can’t hear, there might be too much noise around. Get closer to them, mute or turn off the T.V. If it’s a sensory processing issue, you may need to get in their line of sight, put a hand on them, wait for them to look at you, and speak slowly and maybe even more quietly. Our brains will sometimes tune out when there is too much stimulation, so if they can’t hear you, yelling (again, surprise!) might be counterproductive.
Why Don't Kids Listen?
We just picked apart the reasons a parent might yell. It ultimately boils down to “because I need my child to listen”. Why might our kids not listen?
1. Different Priorities
Can you blame your child for being more interested in the garden, fresh air, and sunshine than the Zoom meeting with their teacher? Your child is not being intentionally disrespectful or defiant when they have different priorities. It isn’t disrespectful for a child to seek to honor their values and priorities. If we want more aligned priorities and willingness to compromise, it helps to meet them half-way and stop taking their different priorities personally.
2. Lack of Connection
If your child doesn’t feel connected to you, they are lacking motivation to listen to you. Connection is the most genuine and effective motivation to listen to another person. Connection is built when we spend quality time with another person. Connection is built by laughing and having fun together. Connection is built by talking and listening and sharing experiences together.
If you aren’t spending quality time with your children, why would they want to listen to you? If they don’t feel you share any interest with them, why would they have any interest in what you are asking of them? Input: output. Children cannot give what they haven’t received.
A Different Scenario With Tyler: The Gentle Parenting Approach
Tyler’s parent could have been me with my own kids. I wrote this article as a reminder of how a situation like that could go if we remember why we yell and why kids might not listen. If Tyler’s parent had remembered these things, the scenario might have looked like this:
- Parent walks over to Tyler and gently places a hand on Tyler’s shoulder and says “what do you see?” This establishes connection through shared experience and a genuine care of what Tyler is experiencing. Tyler says “I’m looking at the ladybugs on this plant”.
- Parent says “You see ladybugs! They are amazing. Just like you.”
- A few moments of silence to hold space for the experience may have been appropriate.
- The parent offers their hand and says “it’s time for us to go in and Zoom with your class. Maybe you can tell them about the ladybugs.”
- Everyone is smiling. Everyone feels seen and valued. Connection is maintained and the family goes in together.
I want to point out that I did not disclose the gender of Tyler’s parent because I wanted this article to be relatable to moms and dads alike.
© 2020 Kendall Crane