The answer may surprise you!

by John Hoffman

My last blog was about “big talks” with kids. This one is about big voices. I mean yelling at kids. I’d guess that most fathers do it sometimes and I’d also bet that few of them feel very good about it.

Tony Errington (not his real name), a stay-home-day dad, told me that one day he yelled so much he lost his voice. “It was on one of those really hot days last summer,” he recalls. “We were cooped up in the house. The kids were bored, irritable, and constantly fighting. I hate it when they fight; it really triggers me. It seemed like everybody was yelling almost all day, including me.” That night, when his wife came home from work, Tony opened his mouth to say hi. All that came out was a hoarse croak. “That’s when it really hit me how much yelling I’d been doing,” he says.

And, of course, when he looked back on the day, he couldn’t truthfully say that his yelling had accomplished much of anything in the discipline department. That’s the thing about yelling. It seldom helps us be more effective parents. Oh, once in awhile, like when your kid is about to run out into a busy street, a BIG voice can be handy. But as a go-to parenting strategy? Overdone, yelling can damage parent-child relationships. At extreme levels, it can cause emotional harm. I doubt that you need me to remind you of this.

The question is what do we do about it? If you’ve gotten into a yelling habit, how do you stop, or at least cut down.

The first thing I’d suggest is doing a careful think about why you yell. We often tell ourselves we’re yelling to get a strong message across to a child. But I don’t buy that. I think parental yelling is at least as much, probably more, about the parent than the child. It’s a stress reaction. Usually we yell when our coping reserves are at low levels, as was the case with Tony Errington the day he lost his voice. When our coping reserves are low a child’s behaviour feels like a threat, so our stress response system kicks in. At that point good thinking and sound parenting strategies go out the window, and we just react.

Inevitably our child reacts too. (Think about how much you hate being yelled at.) Some kids will respond to yelling with their own yelling. Others cry, or run away. Some more or less freeze. Those are all stress reactions. In other words we are not engaging in good, rational brain to rational brain communication. That’s needed when you want your kids to learn a lesson. What’s really happening is that your stress systems are talking to each other. That’s not going to help you teach your kid how to behave. When their stress system is going full tilt, they’re ability to understand, even hear, you is compromised because all their resources are busy trying to deal with the threat—which is being yelled at.

So, although the reasons we yell can be fairly complex, if you’re yelling too much I’d suggest you start by looking at your own stress levels. Sure, your child’s behaviour is part of it. But even when that’s true, your stress levels make a difference. You’ll be better able to respond to the behaviour and come with useful discipline strategies when you’re less stressed. In fact, you’ll do pretty much any aspect of parenting better if you’re less stressed.

Tony understands that. “Oh yeah. I know that I yell more when I’m stressed, like when I’m tired hungry or already frustrated,” he says. “And I know my kids might do exactly the same thing on another day and I don’t yell at them. I have a different reaction.” Right, because one day he’s more stressed and the other he’s less stressed

So, looking after yourself, by becoming aware of, and dealing with, your own stress just might be the key to yelling less. Don’t just try to make yourself be more patient and calm. Help yourself do it.

What helps you stay calm or get back to being calm?

Are there certain times of the day or week, or certain situations when you are more prone to yelling?

Can you plan or structure those situations differently?

Sussing out your own stress can be tricky, but it’s a skill that you can develop. The Psychology Foundation of Canada has a great online tool called Stress Strategies. It takes you through a problem solving process that can help you hone in on what’s stressing you and what you can do about it. Check it out. Dealing with your own stress more effectively just might be the single best way to cut down on yelling. And I’ve never met a dad yeller who didn’t want to yell less often.

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For more from Dad Central on the topic of yelling, read our blog post The Harmful Effects of Yelling At Kids and How to Quit Yelling