How to Discipline Without Yelling at Kids

father yelling at child

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If you are a parent, you’ve probably lost your temper with your kids and have yelled at them at some point. We parents are only human, and kids can sometimes be really good at pushing our buttons and challenging us with behavior problems such as defiance and backtalk.

Yelling and losing our cool, in other words, can sometimes happen. But if yelling is an all-too-frequent occurrence in your home, it may be time for you to take stock of what’s going on and consider some alternative ways to communicate with your child.

Reasons Yelling Is Not Effective

There are several reasons why yelling is not an ideal form of discipline and is, in fact, a common discipline mistake. The most important thing to ask yourself is what your child is learning when he is disciplined in this manner, and how he may be affected by being yelled at regularly. Here are some reasons why you may want to lower your voice and calm down before you discipline your child.

It Tells Kids That Aggression Is OK

Raising your voice may get your child’s attention in the immediate term, but it’s important to think about what yelling is teaching your child. When you raise your voice, your child learns that aggression is an acceptable way to communicate.

Just as spanking your child will teach her that hitting is a good way to discipline, your child will see yelling as something you should do to get your point across when there is a problem or a conflict.

Yelling Loses Its Effectiveness

Will yelling get your child's attention in the short term? Yes. But here's the thing: Raising your voice all the time can dull the effectiveness of yelling or using a firm tone of voice later on. It's akin to someone crying wolf all the time; eventually, you would tune it out. By raising your voice regularly, you are creating a situation where your child will be less likely to listen to you.

It's Not Respectful

How would you feel if your boss yelled at you when you made a mistake? What if your partner or a friend or family member spoke to you in this way during a fight? Would you feel defensive and hurt and angry or would you feel more inclined to hear what he or she was saying?

No matter what the person is trying to say, odds are you will be more inclined to hear that person out and really think about what is being said to you if you are treated with respect and spoken to in a cordial manner.

Your Child Will Retreat or Become Angry

Human beings have a natural reaction to being yelled at. We either retreat or respond in anger. These are the reactions you will get from your child when you lose your cool, and whether or not your child's behavior is corrected, you should ask yourself if it's worth the price.

You Losing Control of Your Own Emotions

Disapproval, disappointment, and displeasure: those are pretty powerful weapons in a parent's discipline arsenal. But yelling shows your child that you are not in control--something you definitely do not want when you are asserting authority.

Yelling May Be More Harmful Than We Think

Recent research has shown that yelling may be as harmful as spanking. (Some parents, of course, choose to spank, but many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, do not support spanking and point to research showing the negative effects of corporal punishment, especially when parents hit kids in anger.)

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that using harsh verbal discipline, which includes shouting, cursing, or using insults, may be just as damaging to kids as hitting them. They found that kids who had experienced harsh verbal discipline from parents were more likely to be depressed or exhibit antisocial or behavioral problems.​

Alternative Strategies

So how do we stop yelling, and what can we do instead to convey our unhappiness when kids misbehave? Here are some strategies to try:

Give Yourself a Time Out

When you find yourself losing your cool, take a few minutes (15, 20, or more--whatever it takes) to calm down and do something else. Then, you can revisit the problem when you can clearly explain to your child what you want her to do differently the next time and what the consequences will be if she does not follow your instructions.

(For example, if she didn't set the table after you asked her to do it 5 times, explain to her that she will set the table right away the next time; if she does not listen, she will have to clear it and help load the dishwasher, too.) Taking time to calm yourself down is a great way to discipline with a Zen attitude.

Make It Easier for Them to Not Fail

Try to see things from your child's point of view. If you ask him to do something while he's in the middle of a video game or show you gave him permission to play or watch, it's likely he won't respond right away; give him a 10-minute heads up and let him know you want him to stop soon.

If he resorted to lying about something, find out why he did what he did before you react in anger. If he's prone to dawdling, come up with ways to help him speed things up. In other words, set your child up to behave and figure out what went wrong when he doesn't.

List the Things Your Child Does Right

The next time you are angry with your child, try this exercise: List all the things she does right. You can do this in your head while you're cooling off. Then, when it comes time to sit down and talk to your child about her behavior and what you expect her to do to fix it, you can also tell your child about all the things you think she is great at doing, and why you expect her to be able to do better next time.

Speak Gently to Maximize Your Impact

Once you have calmed down, sit down with your child and ask him for his full attention. Speak in a calm and clear manner (and keep it short for younger kids) and tell him why you are unhappy with his behavior and what you would like him to do differently going forward. Just as you would teach your child good manners by using those manners yourself, the way you speak to your child will be the way your child speaks to you.

Never Insult Your Child or Use Curses

Whatever the behavior problem is or how frustrating it may be, remember that words can be a very powerful tool that can easily become a weapon. Just as you can build a child's confidence with encouragement, you can tear her down with insults or curses. Be very aware of what you say to your child as well as how you say it.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.