What Happens When Parents Yell at Children

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An interview with Dr. Laura Markham

After I conducted this insightful interview about what happens when parents yell at their children, I promptly ignored all of Dr. Laura Markham’s practical advice. In fact, it took a couple of “opportunities” for me to pause, and put her guidance into practice. Once I did, something magical happened. My kids responded so positively, creating a more peaceful and respectful environment. Her wisdom, put into action, works. — Laurel Moglen, TMC, Managing Web Editor

Sometimes we feel like kids don’t pay attention until we yell — is that an effective way to get their attention?

Parents should consider that when they yell, they’re training their children they aren’t serious until they raise their voices.

For example:

Imagine your child is playing with his legos. You’re in another room, and call out, “Your bath is ready; please get in!” He ignores you. You remind him, and your voice gets sharper. He doesn’t respond. Now, aggravated, you yell and storm about, “How many times do I have to ask you to do something before you listen?!” By the third time your child realizes you’re serious.

This scenario can be avoided. Instead of parents working themselves into a frenzy, they need to take the time to handle the situation differently. This can be tough, especially after a long or rough day. But, the time parents take to ease their children into doing something they don’t want to do is well worth the effort. The alternative, struggling to get your child to do something, is a longer, more arduous process, and causes more stress for both parent and child.

So, instead, parents need to walk over, touch their child gently on the arm, (hand or leg, etc.) and say, “Wow – look what you’re doing.” Now the parent is taking an interest. Meanwhile, your child is basking in your love and feeling that you’re really noticing them. The connection he/she’s feeling to you initiates the biological system that is normal and natural between parent and child, creating that tight bond. In fact, this is what keeps the human race going. If kids feel parents have their best interest at heart (and paying attention sure makes them feel like you do), the child is willing to follow their parent.

Next, after a couple of minutes of really noticing your child’s project, you can say calmly, “Hey, I really need your attention right now. It’s time to take a bath.”

Your child might groan.

You say, “I know. It’s hard to stop what you’re doing.” (You’re showing empathy.)

If you’ve carved out enough time for the child to have some wiggle room you can say, “Do you want to take a bath right now or in five minutes?” Your child says, “In five minutes.” That’s an agreement to take a bath, even if he’s delaying it for a few minutes. You say, “Okay, five minutes. But I want to make sure we have a deal. Five minutes and no fuss?” Your child agrees. You say “It might still be hard for you in five minutes…How can we make this work for you?”

Your child might say “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be ready to take my bath then.” Or your child may not have any ideas, in which case the parent can say “How about this? In five minutes, we’ll work together to put the lego vehicles you’ve finished up on the shelf and the rest back in the bin. Will you want to fly one of them up to the bathroom?” You’re helping him see the transition ahead, and making clear that this is really going to happen. Then you smile and say, “Okay, shake on it.”

In five minutes, you go back and notice the progress the child has made. You say, “I know it’s hard, but we said five minutes and no fuss. You can do this tomorrow. Now, it’s bath time. Come on, let’s fly this one up to the bathroom!” You start walking with him.

Again, taking this route of communication/discipline takes more effort than blowing your top. But once you use this practice consistently with your kids, after about two months, they’ll just sigh and comply.

Another bonus is the child develops self-discipline. Every time he forgoes what he wants to do in favor of what you want him to do, your child is exercising his prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of his/her brain that gives him the ability to give up what he/she wants for something that’s more important to him/her. That’s the beginning of self-discipline so that he/she can choose to do homework instead of surfing the web when he gets a bit older. She/He’s also learning to want to cooperate.

Can you take us inside a kid’s head — what is s/he experiencing when their parent or primary caregiver yells at them?

When you get yelled at, how does it feel? It’s likely hard to breathe, you might feel flush, a tingling. Humans, when yelled or screamed at, tend to go into a fight, flight, or freeze mode.

When kids go into a fight, flight, or freeze mode, their learning and ability to absorb information shuts down.

Now, picture being a kid and looking up at someone who is four times your size. This person that’s glaring down at you is someone, who without them, you would die. You know, on some level, that your survival depends on this person. You will apologize or do whatever you need to do to make this person stop yelling.

Some children will give up if they’ve been yelled at too much. They learn to harden their heart to you because their trusted bond to their parent is broken. Once that happens the child will no longer try to please you. This is the child that will likely grow into a troubled teenager and possibly adult as well.

What happens inside a parent, when they lose control and yell?

When parents experience something unbearable again, like your child has peed on the floor, or hit the baby, or didn’t clean up her room when you asked her to — parents bump up against their threshold. Then, many parents go into this cascade of worry and anger. Every little dark spot in our lives gets blown up and exacerbated in our minds, and we go into survival mode. The mental gymnastics begin: I have a terrible child; I must be a terrible mother. Our sense of self is in peril, and we go into a fight, flight, or freeze mode.

If we go into fight mode, we become enraged and we do what every other mammal does, we lash out — yelling, hitting, or dragging a child to the time-out. (Dogs growl and bark.)

After we’ve exploded, we feel as if, okay, at least we’ve done something.

But what would happen if we didn’t freak-out?

What if we stopped, took a deep breath, and recognized our feelings. Maybe you say something to shift your thinking: She’s three. She won’t do this when she’s six. She’s acting like a three-year-old because she is a three year old. Take a moment to ask yourself, is this an emergency? Most likely the answer will be “no.”

So instead, you might say, “Wow, you peed on the floor. What happened? Let’s go into the bathroom. That’s where pee goes. Soon you’ll be able to do this. Let’s go clean up the pee.”

At the end of this, what does he/she want to do? He/she wants to use the toilet. He/she also feels close to you.

Yelling makes us feel temporarily better. It can also be addictive because it actually helps us squash our painful feelings down (like eating when nervous). But if you actually take a moment to experience your emotions, the feelings will dissipate.

Parents need to go under their anger to find out what the true source feeling is, and this takes practice. You can let the feelings flood you. You’ll likely feel a wave of disappointment and/or sadness. Lots of different emotions and images come up. Typically, the source feelings under anger are fear, disappointment, or sadness. Breathe your way through them. This will help them dissolve, and you won’t dump them on your child.

What kind of effect does yelling have on the parent-child relationship?

Your kids lose respect for you. They decide you aren’t on their side so they’re less likely to follow your guidance.

Also, when you yell, you model that yelling is how adults handle frustration and resolve conflict. When they want to feel more in control and grown-up, they will do it by yelling. Yelling trains children to yell back.

Additionally, when you yell, you’re foisting your yucky feelings on your child. That’s an irresponsible thing to do, it’s not in the child’s best interest, and it doesn’t help the child change their behavior anyway.

Is there any benefit for parents to yell into a pillow or something? Is there something about yelling that can be helpful?

No, not really. When you hit a pillow or yell into it, you are convincing yourself and your body that there’s an emergency.

A note: It’s never useful to work something out with someone when you’re angry. If you do get to your boiling point with your child, tell her you need to take a time-out, because you feel too angry to communicate respectfully.

If it’s a bedtime issue – work-in some roughhousing before the bath, not right before bedtime so it doesn’t keep your child awake.

If you find you’re screaming too much and exhausting yourself, then you have to start asking questions about how to solve the problem.

Is it okay for parents to warn their kids, “I feel like I’m gonna yell if X,Y, Z doesn’t happen?”

Yes. It’s good. You’re noticing your feelings and describing them. Any time we bring consciousness to our emotional state, it gives us the choice of how to react. Will we take the high road or low road? Recognition of feelings gives us the time to allow us to shift gears.

Also, you’re modeling responsible for anger management. The wisdom is how to deal with it.

For example:

You say, “I’m starting to get really angry. We’re in the car, and you’re noisy. I can’t concentrate, and that’s unsafe while I’m driving.” Then, many parents think with that warning, they get to yell if the behavior doesn’t change. But no. You warned your kids, and you warned yourself. So, let’s say the kids’ behavior doesn’t change.

Especially if you’re driving, you need to pull over. You take some breaths. You turn around and you say, “I stopped the car because I was so upset and it wasn’t safe for me to drive.” Ask your kids, “What can you do so that I can drive safely? My job is to stay calm.” By listening to their suggestions, you teach them about being responsible, and that they have a job to do to make sure everything in the family works.

Note: Your child is never responsible for your actions and feelings. But your child can be empowered knowing they have a huge impact on the people around them. Just like parents, your child can make any dynamic better or worse.

The good news is, the problems we have are usually recurring, so parents get another chance if they didn’t handle the situation as well as they would have liked. Your child will push your buttons again!

A nice ritual for parents is to review the day and ask themselves how they can do it differently next time. It creates emotional muscle memory. Think about the interaction with your child, and imagine yourself handling it more calmly next time. The next opportunity, you’ll build on what you did today.


Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.

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