Trust me, you aren’t a bad parent if you yell. Pretty much every single parent will end up yelling at their kids sometimes when they just won’t listen. Whether it’s a toddler who is testing their boundaries or a school ager who needs to be told to get dressed five times every morning, every parent eventually reaches their breaking point. With two testing twin toddlers at home who have recently decided they need to test every boundary, I end up yelling just about every single day, sometimes more than once.
But why do kids fail to listen at times and seem to need yelling in order to understand what to do? Fortunately, it isn’t always just bad behavior or testing boundaries that are responsible. Parents are usually willing to ascribe behavioral reasons to undesired actions, but in reality kids are just learning, even when we think they should have caught on by now. Even after years of being told what to do and how to do it, kids can regress as they learn about how they can affect and influence the world through their behavior. Sadly for parents, this means more patience and practice is required.
Yelling or raising voices actually can become a self-propagating behavior as the feedback loop reinforces itself. The more parents yell at their children, the more they learn to expect yelling and will only respond to it. When only yelling seems to work, parents resort to it more often and easily, causing the cycle to repeat. Even worse, kids that get yelled at more often tend to turn into adults who yell since they’ve learned that it’s the most effective way to get attention and results. Kids are great at absorbing and emulating behavior.
In order to break this cycle, parents need to get into habit of teaching and practicing the behavior they want to see and this involves both the child and the parent themselves. Parents need to teach their child the importance of listening through exemplifying the right behavior and rewarding positive behavior. Parents also need to change their own behavior to limit yelling and provide a positive role model of the behavior they want, since children do tend to absorb behavior like sponges.
The best way to practice this behavior is through positive reinforcement. Since yelling, a negative way of reinforcing behavior isn’t desired, it’s important to focus only on rewarding the good behavior you want to see. Instead of yelling when something goes wrong, celebrate the little wins. This can take a ton of patience, but no one said it was going to be easy. It can also help to start small with one or two areas to focus, such as getting dressed or brushing teeth. Start by explaining why it needs to be done in a simple way, then if possible, model the behavior yourself. Kids love to emulate parents and will tend to respond well to this. When it goes well, have a huge celebration, just like when they go on the potty; clapping, cheering, and generally having a great time to show how good they were. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the little things day to day and fail to celebrate these little wins. But each time you do, it provides reinforcement that listening the first time gets a reward, and ignoring requests does not.
It’s also critically important that parents practice this for themselves too. Like any behavior or habit, it requires repetition and practice to get right and improve. Parents need to treat their own patience and tolerance as a muscle and exercise it as often as possible. Taking one more deep breath or waiting an extra minute before getting mad or raising your voice can help make it even easier the next time. Plus, that extra time might just be all that was needed. By developing this patience, parents can actually become less likely to get mad or yell as well.
Like any type of training or learning, consistency is key. This means not only that a parent is consistent in their approach, but also that both parents apply the same approach too. Each parent needs to be bought into this approach and support each other in practicing patience. If only one parent attempts this patience but the other continues to resort to yelling, the positive reinforcement is weakened and they’ll continue to only respond to yelling. Parents should set a goal together and help each other achieve it by supporting, not contradicting each other.
Along with this, it’s important that parents model all of the right behavior they want to see. This includes asking nicely, calmly, and politely when they want their child to do something. It’s very easy to ask brusquely or angrily in the heat of the moment, but asking nicely may actually be the key to unlocking the right actions. Plus, it’s another opportunity to teach and practice emulating politeness and teach kids how they should behave. Never cut it out of a request.
Yelling at children isn’t something any parent sets out to do, but over time and especially as kids start to test boundaries more and listen less, it’s so easy to slip into. No parent wants to be a yeller, but when their kid just doesn’t listen five times in a row, the easiest thing to do is just yell it. Unfortunately, over time, this just encourages more yelling and begins to mean that yelling is required to get any results ever. Instead, if parents are willing to show patience, take the time to explain and model the desired behavior, and hold off yelling just for a bit, things can drastically change. Of course this is much easier said than done, but a little bit of practice can help make it easier over time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go yell at my boys for jumping on each other while they are supposed to be napping.