Yelling at our Kids


Dr. Corinne Masur

Do you feel guilty when you yell at your children?

The other day, a dad in our parenting group spoke about feeling guilty for having yelled at his 6-year-old son.  His 3-year-old needed him, and while he was dealing with his younger child, his 6-year-old asked him to do something for him.  The dad said he was busy, and then the older child asked again.  The dad yelled at him to go to his room and then immediately felt that he had done the wrong thing.  He remembered his own father yelling all the time, and worried that he was becoming like his father.

So – did this dad do something wrong?  Is it wrong to yell at your child?

Yelling seems to have gone out of fashion.  Parents seem to feel that everything should be said in measured tones – and if they yell, they feel they need to rethink their parenting skills and apologize to their child.

But is this the case?

In our group, we talked about the dad’s dad.  When did he yell?  It turns out that he yelled whenever he’d had a hard day at work….which was EVERY day.  So, a distinction had to be made between the yelling that our dad did and the yelling that HIS father did:  It’s one thing for an adult to yell at his child because HE is irritable or stressed or hungry or exhausted.  It is quite another for a parent to yell at a child because the child is doing something dangerous or because the child is doing something that he’s already been asked not to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of habitual yelling.  This is neither effective NOR therapeutic for children.

I am referring to the occasional yell, the one our dad did when he was temporarily busy with his younger child and his older child persisted in making requests of him. I’m referring to the rare moments when an otherwise reasonable, empathic parent is overwhelmed and a child just isn’t listening.  I am referring to something that happens once or twice a month or less.

A mother in the group spoke about yelling at her son because he whined over and over again that he couldn’t put on his shoe.  This son was 5-years-old and knew very well how to put on his shoe.  It was time to go to school and the mom was getting the baby ready to go out the door.  She felt terrible for yelling.  She asked the group, “Why can’t I be more empathic?”  This mom knows all about sibling rivalry and how hard it is for her son to see her dress and care for the baby while he has to dress himself and get himself ready to go.  But at moment when she has to get out the door, she said that it is sometimes hard to be empathic.  We talked about her guilt over yelling.  She ended up saying that her mother had never yelled.  Her mother had slowly boiled….but never yelled.

How we were parented affects our current parenting, as well as our expectations for how we think we should parent.  One dad felt guilty for yelling because he didn’t want to be like his dad.  One mom felt guilty for yelling because she thought she should be more like her own mother and NEVER yell.

Yelling at a child to stop doing something he’s been asked not to do may not be the most effective technique; it’s certainly not the most empathic response – but it happens.  And when it happens, the best thing a parent can possibly do is to talk to his or her child later, in a quiet moment when everything has calmed down. The parent can ask how the child felt when the parent yelled, and ask the child if he or she understands why the parent yelled.  Mom can make it clear that she doesn’t want the child to keep doing what he’s been told not to do. Dad can say, “When you keep doing what I’ve told you not to do, it’s frustrating for me and sometimes I get angry.  If you do what I tell you the first time, I won’t yell.” Then it’s time for the parent to acknowledge that yelling isn’t the best way to communicate and apologize.

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