My kid and I yell at each other when we’re mad. How do we stop? Talk amongst yourselves.

Amazon: Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool One of parenting's many ironies: that our patience gets tested when it's at its weakest. Nina asks: how, in those moments, do you call on your extra reserves to keep from yelling?

My son is six and we are moving to another country — which means we're under extra stress. Even on normal days, we both fall into the "spirited" category. We respond to frustration or irritation with aggressive or hostile language. My son feels that I "always talk grumpy to him" (getting aggravated when trying to get out the door on time for school, or when he's dawdling at bedtime, for example). He also uses the same exasperated tone of voice with me, and sometimes calls me names.

I am discouraged and saddened that I am the main source of the problem right now. What I've done so far is assure my son I don't want to hurt his feelings in the way I talk to him, and I encourage him to remind me by saying "gentle talking, please!"

I was thinking of making up some sort of game to help us both respond better when aggravated. Does anyone have an idea?

Before I share my thoughts, let me just say that this story really resonates. We all have those moments where our patience is gone, especially when sleep deprivation's involved. So before anything else, a little forgiveness is in order, both for your son and for yourself. We're talking about temperment plus exhaustion here, not moral character.

I asked Nina some followup questions, and here is her response:

I'm most concerned with balancing empathy for a child who is overstressed or exhausted with appropriate non-acceptance of bad language and name-calling. That seems important not just for saving face in front of other parents (Did you hear what she lets her kids say to her!?) but also for modelling how my son himself can respond to people who are venting their stress inappropriately by calling him names, and for teaching him age-appropriate ways of expressing frustration or exasperation other than taking it out on others.

My initial thought is that habit change is hard…remembering a game on top of that would be even harder. I think the first order of business is to set the stage for a new dynamic during a quiet, happy time. Sit down with your son and suggest that you both would feel happier if you both used "friendlier voices" when you're mad. Come up with one or two short responses each of you can use when you're feeling irritated, as well as cues each of you can use when the other person slips ("gentler voice, please!" is great). Suggest 2-3 deep breaths before responding in anger. Then practice a bit. You might even write out your responses and cues or draw some funny stick-figure cartoons. I find that writing stuff like that down always helps me fix it in my mind.

The next time a flare-up happens, try to remember your responses and your cues. It will be a long process, but at least each of you now has a way to talk about it, and a concious path to change. If no one remembers their "lines," once everyone calms down, apologize for the tone of voice and rephrase how you would have liked for it to come out initially. Walk your son through this process if he's the one to flare up. Celebrate the successes — both the ones that happen "on cue" and the ones that need a little more time to arrive.

Eventually, this new habit will begin to take hold, for both of you. You and your son will always be "spirited" — that's good! — but you can learn a new way to communicate.

This is what has (mostly) worked for me and my son. What about you, Parenthackers? How do you break the yelling habit?

Further reading if you're interested: Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool. I haven't read the book myself, but a friend did and got a lot out of it.

Related: Kitchen timer: Multi-purpose tool of the gods!


  1. says

    Validate, validate, validate. Make a rule for every member of the family: When it’s your turn to talk, before you say what you want, you must validate the last thing the other person said. For example, if Aalia says that you’re smelly, no matter how mad you are, before you say how you feel, you must say something like, “Ok, Aalia, I hear you, you think I smell. It’s ok that you feel that way.” – If they are young kids, try reducing the phrasing to: “That’s how you feel and that’s ok.” – Then they can voice their displeasure, but normally, the energy required to remember the proper phrase and to then recite it takes the edge off their energy.

    Second, the parents need to be perfect in their communication. When they’re pissed at something, they have to force themselves to be soft-spoken and civil. That makes it a lot easier to require the same of the rest of the family.

    Lastly, remember, yelling is violence. It’s a different form of violence than hitting, but it is still a form of battery. Explain that to everyone in the family, including yourself. Keeping that in mind makes it a lot easier to rein in your emotions.

  2. says

    Lately what’s worked for me with my 4 year old is tickling. If he doesn’t follow through with something I asked him to do, I count to 10 (giving myself time to cool down) and if he doesn’t finish his task by then, I get to tickle him. We both end up laughing and afterwards I am calm enough to talk to him about what happened. I know this won’t last forever because, let’s face it…kids go through different phases constantly and parents are always adjusting different techniques (or is that just me?!), but this is what works for us right now.

  3. says

    My wife and I are very … spirited … sometimes. If we have a fight, it lasts for about five minutes and might include yelling, but then it’s totally over. The times when we don’t yell are the times when bad feelings simmer.

    Over the last few years I’ve been studying how better to tackle that. I think Stu’s point about validation is good, although it’s just a word. I remind myself that every person is actually thinking — their brains work — and when they say things then they are saying them because their thinking brains believe they should say it. Then I try to figure out what would make them want to say it. Then I tackle that. The arguments VANISH! With kids, with adults, with everyone. It comes down to respecting that the other side has a reason for saying something, then deal with that reason if you don’t believe it’s right. It then becomes a problem of persuasion and influence, not of yelling.

  4. dana says

    Most of the time, I am less of a disciplinarian and more of a pursuader. The only cure I’ve ever had for yelling is to bite my tongue and hold my hands over my ears to prevent my head from exploding.

    I find that my major urge to yell comes about when my inner Tiger Mom is close to the surface. I do believe that there are some things that kids just need to do “because I said so, I’m the adult and I know what is best”. Sometimes its about safety or schoolwork or those important non-school learning tasks. If I am not proactive about selling the kids on the value of these things BEFORE the event, I wind up in “OH MY GOD GET IN THE CAR AND QUIT YOUR WHINING!” mode in short order.

    Something that helped was finding the worst offending times and agreeing on a critcal path. For example, my 7 y/o daughter has to catch the bus at 7am. We wrote down when she had to be out the door and the things that had to be done (dressed, shoes, hair, breakfast, etc). We talked about how X has to happen or else Y cannot. Like I can’t pack your lunch unless you give me your lunchbag. If all of that is done, there is time to read or play.

    It doesn’t always work, but I am less likely to get worked up because she isn’t playing with my little ponies in her stocking feet at 6:58 b/c I didnt tell her to put on her shoes yet.

    Similarly, proactively explaining why swimming lessons (or whatever) are mandatory in our family and making it clear I will not negotiate as we are trying to get out the door as well as spelling out what needs to be done and getting as much packed and set up ahead of time… etc. helps prevent the Mad Mommy Maniac.

  5. says

    Thanks for this, Stu. I agree with you AND I think we need to be careful with words like “perfect” and “violence.” I think it’s very important for people to realize that a) anger is natural, b) impatient outbursts are a human foible, and c) communication styles are habits that can be changed. I know parents who feel so guilty — worse, ashamed — about an outburst that they lose themselves in apologizing for “being bad, mean yellers” and forget the point of the anger. I think, ultimately, this can confuse kids, who may learn from this that it’s bad to *feel* anger…and that leads to all sorts of problems.

    My point is that I agree continuous yelling (especially uncontrolled screaming) helps no one and is hurtful. But occasional outbursts are human. There is a lot of grey area here, and everyone is better served by acknowledging that and working to change rather than hiding in shame.

  6. says

    My goal is to be perfect. I get that I’m not, and I forgive myself for that. But the goal remains. It motivates me and enables me to be as excellent as I am. – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking perfection; it’s our reaction to the success or failure that matters.

    Yes, it’s bad to judge the anger, with kids and their parents. But my perspective is that it should be acknowledged that anger does not serve anyone or anything. It may be natural, and it should be validated, but it should also be taught to go away. One has the capability of being solely peaceful when confronted with less than perfect circumstances.

  7. says

    And let me be clear: I feel strongly that there are no grey areas when it comes to violence, either physical or verbal. I do believe in forgiveness, but I don’t believe that the act itself is ever ok. Yes, it’s normal. So is hitting. Spanking is normal. Doesn’t make it right, just makes it normal. I continue to say: Don’t Yell. If you do, view it as something to be overcome, to be mastered. Do not be ok with it. Forgive, but Learn.

  8. says

    Well said. And while I may not agree with “no grey areas,” I very much respect the thought you’ve put into this and the strength of your convictions. You’ve given me a totally new way to think about this.

  9. says

    My husband and I have really tried to commit ourselves to not yelling at our kids, who are now 12 and 14. It can be really difficult sometimes because we (read I) may really want to. “Parenting with Love & Logic” is a great book for learning this skill and the follow up “Parenting teens with love & logic” is also very helpful.

  10. TrixiesMom says

    I had two thoughts. One is a book I just read a few weeks ago called Prozac Not Potatoes that lists this exact annoyed, short tempered, mean-type behavior as one associated with being sensitive to sugar. Not just a crash from a sugar high, but a life-long “addiction” to sugar, a chemical reaction in the brain. My mother was very, very short tempered, and always annoyed, and I find myself struggling in every way to overcome this exact behavior in myself. Since starting the dietary changes in this book (hence the potato in place of mood enhancing drugs), I have found myself to be amazingly clear headed, more energetic and because I am not dragging around in a fog not paying attention, much more in tune with my daughter’s needs. Not everyone is sugar sensitive, but lots of us are. This book is more than 10-years-old, so old news, but new to me.

    Also, I read a really funny blog post recently about the solution a “whiny” mom used with her family on vacation. She reported that more than one trip was ruined because one of them would become annoyed, angry or tired while traveling and it would ruin it for everyone. This mom issued 3 “whine” cards to each person, and they had to use a card to have a moment. Everyone came back with all three cards because they were sure they would need them all and kept saving them for something worse! Of course, all it really did was call attention to the terrible behavior as it was being triggered, and made everyone aware. I loved this though, and if I ever travel with my mom again I am def. going to use this!

  11. anon says

    I think anger is great. Seriously great. Without anger, you don’t get Ghandi, Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King. Without anger, the world’s injustices persist. I hope my kid grows up capable of recognizing the bad in the world and using the motivation of anger to act for the good. Now, if you can couple anger with a respectful manner of speaking, then you’re really onto something.

  12. says

    If you could find the link to that blog post, I’d love to share it. That’s such a great idea. Awareness and humor, two of your most powerful parenting tools.

  13. says

    Such great thoughts from everyone. And reading this thread has reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is the reasoning behind what I’m trying to teach my kids. I tell them it’s not okay, for example, to say “shut up.” But that’s just a rule, so why do I care? Well, I explain, it’s because everyone has feelings and everyone’s opinion counts. So “Shut up” isn’t a “bad word,” the kind you get in trouble for saying under any circumstances; rather, it’s essentially telling someone else that their feelings don’t count–and that’s not okay. My kids are 3, 5, and 7, so we’re just getting into serious issues of respect and so on. But I think it’s vital, as we’re working to pass on our core values, that we think about exactly what they are. Don’t just stop the yelling, but take the time to think about why we do it and why we care whether we stop.

  14. says

    Regarding the health-temper connection, my trigger is too little sleep. No duh, I know. But it took me a long time to figure out. I was staying up later and later each night in an effort to make time for myself. Then I started getting up earlier and earlier. BOOM.

    I did an experiment where I FORCED myself to go to bed and turn out the light every night at 10pm for a week. It was like I had taken a happy, patient saint pill.

    I know many deal with sleep interruptions during various stages of parenting. But try out the early bedtime experiment and see how you fare.

  15. says

    to simplify the soul-search for feelings – let’s be honest, it’s hard to think “calm thoughts” when you see tube of the toothpaste “stretched” across a hallway and half of kitchen – i asked my child to tell me “mommy, don’t be upset with me” when i am a that tipping point.. it acts as of a shock therapy for me – and pushes me to examine who and what i am actually directing my feelings to..

  16. Simone says

    How do you all feel about mums who yell and smack in public.

    we have 2 close family groups…both mums yell and smack…

    my son always declines an overnight sleep over or even a few hours alone at either place. those kids all jump at the chance to stay at our house…when ever they can.

    1st mum…nurse (ex pediatric mind you…then to a trauma hospital…the dad a fireman….both smack and yell..and must have consequences then whack their kids on the hand…but do the vocal thing so loud…and their kids scream like they are being murdered…anytime anywhere they will do it…..the parents say..well when you scrape up road trauma and see the stupid things teens get up to and get away need to get in early..and show discipline..if the kids dont know or get the consequence for doing wrong they will end up irresponsible and on drugs driving fast cars…etc….

    2nd mum…family day care provider…tells us that if her son ever plays up we have the authority to kick his arse…

    my hubby and I would never ever ever…hit anyone elses kids….we dont even smack our son…even though it has crossed our minds…i tell you…

  17. Mikkel says

    Teaching my spirited daughter about how it feels to be calm and relaxed versus angry/escalated (ie green zone v. red zone) has been extremely helpful. I read a chapter of “HOw to Raise your Spirited Kid” and it has made a 100% improvement in house the family’s day goes.