So, You Want To Stop Yelling?

YellingIn May 2013, a blog post titled “The Important Thing About Yelling” on the Hands Free Mama website, struck a nerve with hundreds of parents and adult children everywhere.


Rachel Macy Stafford’s disclosure about being a former “yeller” opened up floodgates of tears from readers as her audience identified with her story and realized that they were not alone in their shame and embarrassment about yelling at their kids. Over 1000 comments have been made in response to her post.


Stafford referred people to another website, The Orange Rhino, to get tips and take a 365-day “no yelling challenge.” Parents eagerly rushed to accept the challenge declaring, “I am going to stop yelling TODAY.”


I’m so grateful to people like Rachel Stafford and The Orange Rhino for bringing attention to this very important topic and raising personal awareness.


And yet, while it’s great to use their stories as inspiration for your own life, it’s important to realize that they’ve been on their “scream free” journeys for a while now. They represent what can happen with lots of self-reflection, intention, focus, and setbacks.


Changing a yelling habit is a process that takes time and patience. Patience with your kids, but also patience with yourself.


Success doesn’t happen overnight, so please don’t compare yourself to someone who is farther along on their path or who has a completely different set of circumstances. Be gentle with yourself and celebrate even the smallest victories. Just becoming more aware of your yelling and wanting to change is a great accomplishment. Give yourself credit for each step forward and strive to do your personal best.


Yes, yelling is a choice. Yes, we all have the power within us to make the choice to stop. However, for most people it just isn’t as easy as that. Without first understanding why you yell and developing some coping skills to replace the yelling, you can unknowingly set yourself up for disappointment, frustration, and even more shame (and yelling) when you slip up.


Why We Yell

When I ask parents why they yell, they say: My kids don’t listen to me. They push my buttons. They do things that annoy me.


While these may seem like good explanations for yelling, they aren’t the real reasons at all. These excuses have nothing to do with the parent and everything to do with the child. So, in order to stop the yelling, the premise here is that the child must first stop doing whatever he is (or isn’t) doing.


That puts parents in a very powerless position with no control over their own situation. As a Certified ScreamFree Leader, the very first principle I teach is: Parenting Isn’t About Kids, It’s About Parents.


Here’s what that means: The only person I can control is me. I can’t control my kids no matter how hard I try because they’re separate people with minds of their own. In fact, the more I try to control them, the more they resist my efforts. Nobody — not me, not my kids, no one — likes to be controlled.


Furthermore, I am not responsible for my kids’ behavior. That belongs to them. If I take responsibility for their behavior, then I believe their mistakes are my fault and their successes are my triumphs. But since I want my children to take responsibility for themselves, I need to allow them the freedom to learn by letting them make their own mistakes, and letting them feel the pride of an accomplishment from within, not just because they seek my approval (or fear my disapproval). So, while I am not responsible for my children’s actions, I am responsible to them for mine.


As a recovering control addict, I can tell you that when I stopped trying to control my kids and began focusing on myself, I felt a tremendous sense of relief.



The Orange Rhino talks about triggers on her website, and I particularly love her use of the phrase, “It’s not you, it’s me.” The important thing to know about triggers is that they usually have less to do with our child’s behavior and more to do with the thoughts and feelings her behavior stirs up in us –feelings that trace back to our own childhood experiences and beliefs about ourselves.


Must we dredge up the past and confront our skeletons in the closet in order to stop yelling? Maybe not. But it is extremely helpful to understand why our “buttons” are unique to us. Why did it bother me, for instance, when my kids came home with dirt under their fingernails, while my neighbor seemed unfazed when her kids rolled around in the mud? Why do some parents lose their temper when their child speaks in a whiny voice, while others seem completely unaffected?


There are certain events in everyone’s past that led to negative feelings and core beliefs. Now, when our kids innocently say or do something that “triggers” those feelings or beliefs, we REACT defensively.


For example, I had a core belief about being messy (see: Shame And The Mess It Makes), so I used to yell when my kids got dirty or messy. Maybe my neighbor’s parents were more laid back about messes than mine or maybe gardening was their favorite family activity.


When we stop and reflect on the very first time we felt a certain emotion, it can usually be traced back to an event or situation in our childhood when our core beliefs were formed. When our child says something we consider rude, we may feel offended, hurt, criticized, or unappreciated. When he doesn’t do what we want him to do, we make it mean that we’re powerless, helpless, inadequate, ineffective, or weak.


Perhaps your child does something that your parents yelled at you for doing, so you’ve internalized that particular behavior as being “bad” or “wrong.” Maybe you see a version of yourself in your child, a part of you that was squelched by your own parents and brings about feelings of embarrassment, shame, or awkwardness.


Or you notice a trait in your child that you dislike in yourself. Or when your kids lie to you, it brings up past hurts of being betrayed by a parent or a loved one.


Kids go about their business without a clue about our triggers. And that’s the way it should be. They don’t need to be burdened by our “issues.” One thing I learned from my therapist was that as I heal myself, I also heal my children. And I have found that in order to heal my children, I must first heal myself. That means doing some hard work and confronting some painful issues. To quote Robert Frost, “The best way out is always through.”


Running On Empty

When I’m overtired, undernourished, or feeling ill, I simply don’t have as much patience as usual. My tolerance sometimes decreases when I’m distracted by something having nothing to do with my kids (i.e. work, adult relationships, finances, current events, etc.).


This is why self-care is so important. People who feel good about themselves and take care of themselves are more likely to keep their cool when the pressure gets hot. See: 5 Gifts to Give Yourself on Mother’s Day (and All Year Long) for more self-care ideas.


Why Yelling Doesn’t Work

You might argue that yelling does work. Sometimes it seems to be the only thing that works and that’s why you continue to do it. But here’s the rub: yelling may get you your desired result in the moment, but at what cost to your relationship with your child?


Yelling doesn’t form connections. It breaks them. Dr. Phil says it takes 1,000 “Atta boys” to overcome one “You’re worthless and no good.” And, as if hating ourselves and causing our kids to feel worthless weren’t enough of a deterrent, yelling actually brings about the very outcomes we hope to avoid in the first place.


I give an example of how this works in Oh, The Pause-abilities. Here’s another one: You’re running late in the morning because your toddler is dawdling. When you yell at her, she throws a tantrum which makes you even later! Had you been patient and cool and tried a different approach, you might have avoided both the tantrum and the added delay.


I’m always reminded of a quote by Dr. Jane Nelson to help me remember why yelling backfires:


“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”


What To Do Instead

This all sounds great on paper. Stop yelling. Calm down. Know your triggers. The question is: What do I do instead? We’ve all heard the common suggestions to take deep breaths and count to ten, but my guess is that most people read those and think, “Yeah, right. Like I’d ever do that.”


There is a REASON these techniques are so commonly mentioned. When we start to feel overwhelmed, our body chemistry changes and activates a stress response. Our nervous system releases a flood of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare our body for emergency action. Our heart beats faster, our muscles tighten, our blood pressure rises, and we breathe more quickly.


As a result, our ability to process information is reduced and our creative problem-solving skills become pretty much non-existent. Breathing deeply counteracts stress by relaxing the body. With practice, everyone can learn to increase their ability to stay calm and connected during times of stress.


Besides deep breathing, there are many other strategies to calm down and numerous techniques to discipline without yelling. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The best strategy to use depends on each unique parent, child, and situation. I can offer a few things here that help me, and I can attest to the fact that as you practice calming down in times of stress, your ability to think creatively and problem-solve on your own will increase.


Things That Help Me

A mantra. “Give me strength” is a personal favorite, but any mantra will do. Sometimes I just say it quietly to myself, and other times I say it loud enough for my kids to hear.


Smiling. Does anyone remember the character John Cage in “Ally McBeal?” He used what he called “smile therapy” whenever he was feeling anxious or distressed. Well, it works for me, too. I really can’t stay angry and smile at the same time!


Looking through my child’s eyes. Whenever I try to see things from my child’s perspective instead of my own, I immediately start to feel compassion instead of anger. Then, I’m usually able to calm down enough to deal with her without yelling. I deal with this topic a lot more in-depth in my class and I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from parents who say that looking at things from their child’s point of view has definitely helped them remain calm.


Humor. When tensions are running high, it may seem impossible to think in comical terms, but often a little dose of unexpected humor is just the thing to diffuse a stressful situation and reconnect people. Sometimes I speak in a funny accent, sing, or talk gibberish (think of the scene in Bruce Almighty when Bruce makes Evan Baxter fumble the news).


Support. It’s great to have at least one person you can call or text when you feel like you’re going to lose it. Someone who can listen to your griping without judgment, show some understanding, and remind you that you’re doing an awesome job. I’m lucky to have a few people in my life that I can count on to do just that.



When Things Seem To Get Worse Instead Of Better

I always caution the parents in my classes that when they start to calm themselves down, their kids’ behavior might appear to get worse. Why is this? Well, imagine that your kids have the remote control to your emotions and they know that pushing certain buttons elicits a reaction from you. When they start pushing those buttons and suddenly there is no reaction, THEY WILL PUSH HARDER.


Up until now, you’ve created a pattern of relating to one another that, although dysfunctional, is familiar to them. When you make a commitment to curb your yelling, you have to show them that you can remain calm no matter how hard they push. What would happen if you kept pushing buttons on a remote control that had no batteries? Eventually, you’d stop pushing, wouldn’t you? The same is true for kids. At first they will push a little harder as if to say, “Hey!  This remote’s not working!” But after a while of noticing that the button is consistently inoperable, they will give up.


There is so much more I could write about this topic. If you’re still reading this very long post, I thank you! Please leave a comment and share your thoughts about this post. I’d love to hear about where you are on your “scream free” path and what strategies you use to stop yelling.


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Showing 15 comments
  • Kristen

    It’s so very hard in the heat of the moment to stop, breathe and choose a better use of energy. I struggle with this every single day. Yelling is something I grew up with. And now that I have my own children (3 & 5), it seems as though I’ve followed in those footsteps. I know I have some underlying issues that cause the silliest triggers. Issues that those who yelled/screamed at me had with what I would do. I wish, to my very core that I could erase them from my mind and be a better mommy to my two amazing boys. I feel like since I am in charge, they must do what I say or else they are choosing to be disrespectful and disobey. I read this and felt encouragement. I’ve started so many “parenting journeys.” I hope this will be not only a journey, but a beautiful lifetime commitment. My kids are worth it. Thank you.

    • Pam Howard

      Thank you for your beautiful comment, Kristen. It is hard in the heat of the moment to change direction when your buttons are being pushed and you’re full of emotion. Being able to change your yelling habit is a process and takes lots of practice. Be gentle with yourself. Expect setbacks and celebrate your successes. Maybe keep a journal and see if there are patterns to when you yell and when you’re able to stay calm. I’m honored to be a part of your parenting journey…YOU are worth it!

  • Ami :-)

    As usual another great post!

  • Tamara

    This article really resonated with me. Especially the quote ““Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”
    Thank you 🙂

    • Pam Howard

      You’re welcome, Tamara. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Ryan

    I so needed this post with summer coming. 3 girls and single dad. Thank you!

    • Pam Howard

      Hi Ryan! I’m glad you found it helpful. Those girls need a Daddy who can keep his cool this summer (pun sort of intended), so take one day at a time and remember to be gentle with yourself. Thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment!

  • Yael

    Thank you so much. Its great to hear more new idea 😉 especially when u have 2 years old boy …

    • Pam Howard

      Ah, yes, Yael…the terrific two’s! So glad you’re here and finding the suggestions helpful.

  • Brenda Joffe

    If you lower your voice to a whisper your kids will stop and listen and lower their voices too. This in turn helps calm everyone down and it makes solving the issue that much easier

    • Pam Howard


      That’s a great tip and I know first-hand that it works! Thanks for reading and especially for sharing your suggestion with others here. xoxo

  • Bernice Strul

    You are so right….it is tremendously hard to let our kids make mistakes and I have a secret for you ….it doesn’t get any easier as they grow up!

    • Pam Howard


      If anything, I imagine it would get harder, as our mistakes have greater consequences as we get older. As always, thank you for your great insights and for sharing them with us!

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