Why Parents Yell: Let’s Ditch the Shame

I dislike the gentle parenting movement. I feel like we have a lot of parenting (and schooling) ‘techniques’ that go out into the universe, everyone reads the title, and then claims that’s what they’re doing. The technique itself isn’t always looked at in-depth. People frequently misinterpret what the creator of the technique is intending.

Overall, it’s just not super helpful.

I think my main issue with it is that it sets us up to think in terms of this perfect system where we all do everything right. It’s not realistic. So many parents are stressed about getting it right and they’re just making themselves anxious in the process. Because you CANNOT do it perfectly. Even if you DID think you were doing it perfectly, maybe there’s new info in five years that says you should have done it a different way. And ultimately kids don’t simply become functioning adults because of what their parents did- they’re influenced by all sorts of things in their environment, including genetic factors. We cannot control everything to that degree and we shouldn’t try. Our goal is to DO OUR BEST with the information that we have in the moment. And we should always give ourselves some grace to mess up. We can role model what apologies look like and how to handle our own imperfections. We don’t want our kids to think they need to be perfect every moment of every day- so we should not pretend that we are.

I like to point people to this episode of Modern Family when they talk about their failed attempts to be a perfect parent. In the episode, Haley is working on her college essays and she accuses her mom of making her life too easy and not giving her any challenges. Her mom’s response makes me chuckle and I rewatch the episode whenever I am questioning my parenting. I feel like a good gauge on parenting should be, “Can my child write a college essay about my most recent mess up? No? Ok it’s fine. I can apologize, give myself some grace, and move on.”

Parenting is tricky. I’ve worked with kids my entire career… I worked with kids with a variety of diagnoses and in a variety of settings. I’ve had kids pull a knife out during session to casually inspect it because they were irritated with me. I even spent a summer working in a juvenile prison.

Parenting was STILL difficult once I became a parent. Nothing prepares you for becoming a parent. Parents, particularly mothers, are judged HARSHLY by others.

I joke that there’s 3 sure things in life- death, taxes, and people judging your parenting skills (particularly on the internet).

Why Parents Yell

There are a lot of reasons why parents yell and in my opinion, there are different types of yelling. For example, there’s yelling AT someone and demeaning them. And there’s yelling FOR someone. There’s also yelling WITH someone.

Here’s a few examples.

Yelling AT someone: If I’m frustrated at someone and yell WHY DO YOU ALWAYS DO THIS! I HATE YOU! YOU ARE RUINING MY LIFE! I AM SO ANGRY WITH YOU! This is yelling AT the person. It is likely to trigger a fight, freeze, or flight response, particularly if you’re standing close to them. You may be facing them when you do this.

Yelling FOR someone: I yell like this a LOT. I need a bullhorn. I frequently yell STOPPPPPPP! if I notice something unsafe happening. Or I yell across the yard that it’s time for dinner. Or to stop chasing the chickens. Whatever. It may still make others uncomfortable, but the intent is to ensure that the person hears me. It’s not to make someone sad or upset.

Yelling WITH someone: If my kids are yelling and I’m frustrated because I can’t solve the problem, I might yell with them (particularly in a closed vehicle where nobody else can hear us). It’s fun. It tends to take away some of the pressure of the moment. We all blow off steam, and usually we start laughing by the end. Then I can say, “Phew I feel better. Do you? Want to talk now?” I’m not facing them when I yell. I’m not yelling AT them. I’m joining with them. And I’m just yelling to yell… I’m not yelling any mean words. I like to think that this is healthy role modeling because sometimes you just need to let out the pressure of whatever frustration, anger, or sadness is taking over your body in that moment. It’s a healthy thing and it’s totally okay in the right space (aka don’t do this at work).

For the most part, I am covering the yelling AT kids situation. It’s not usually as severe as my example above, but the main consideration is that the yelling may trigger feelings of fear or sadness in the child.

There are a number of reasons why parents may yell at their child including:

  • Their children aren’t listening or can’t hear them.
  • They are overwhelmed
  • They are anxious
  • They are angry
  • They are frustrated.

When you boil this all down to the basic underlying issue, yelling occurs based on how much STRESS a parent is experiencing.

Stress can impact parenting. Our parenting skills can be better or worse, simply due to how much stress we are in at that moment.

The problem is that many parents do not have the privilege to have control over their stressors. They may not have the resources to manage their stress more effectively.

Here’s an example—

If you’re a single mom who works two jobs and has four kids and a limited budget, you are going to be impacted differently than a wealthy parent with one child, a housecleaner, and a nanny (or a farmer who raises chickens, haha) if your child throws a dozen eggs on the floor. Those eggs are irreplaceable for the parent with a limited income. She will immediately begin thinking of all of the consequences of the eggs getting broken. What will the kids and I eat this week? I need to clean this up and hopefully the kids don’t get in more trouble while I do. Ugh I’m already late for work and I don’t want to get fired. If I leave the egg on the floor until later, will that be a problem? What’s wrong with my child? Why did he do that! Does he need a doctor? I’m not sure if I can afford our copay for an appointment.

Those thoughts snowball into increased stress. It isn’t just about the eggs or the mess.

And in the end, the parent is more likely to yell… and the yelling has a greater potential to escalate into abuse.

Why Shaming Yelling Isn’t Helpful

Many of us were raised in households where yelling was common. I know that in the 1980s, we first started seeing a movement away from physical punishment of children. Parents shifted from how they were raised, but there weren’t any instruction manuals. “Ok so I shouldn’t spank the kids like my parents raised me… but what else do I do?”

It makes sense that they shifted to yelling. That was probably their parent’s second line of defense.

We frequently will parent like our parents parented us, even when we didn’t like it, unless we see parenting done differently. In that case, we can mimic the behavior and practice implementing it ourselves. It’s SO helpful. I feel so privileged to have worked in foster care when I first started my career- while there are some bad foster parents, there are also so many absolute kind, gentle souls who are shining examples of how to do our best when we are raising children.

We can read about parenting techniques all day- but seeing them in action is SO valuable.

So before you try to shame someone for yelling at their child, remember- Parents have always been told what NOT to do.

What’s been missing?

  • Any actionable advice on WHAT TO DO INSTEAD.
  • Supports that would help reduce stress.
  • Family and friends who encourage the parent(s) and acknowledge their successes.

Yelling at kids isn’t helpful- but neither is yelling at parents about their yelling.

You can’t be a peaceful parent if you are in the middle of an actual or metaphorical war zone.

And remember how I said stress is often the culprit for yelling? Know what doesn’t help with your stress level? Being shamed by others about yelling. Being ashamed of yourself and too afraid to talk about it also means that the parent may not seek the help and support that they need.

Why Yelling Isn’t Helpful

Realistically, you’ll probably still yell occasionally, regardless of how much you try not to. I want to make this clear. Perfection isn’t a realistic goal in parenting.

But I’m going to explain why yelling isn’t helpful.

  • It just stresses you out more.
  • If you yell too much, kids stop listening at all.
  • Some kids end up stressed.
  • Some children gain control of the situation by controlling their parents’ mood and behavior (this isn’t intentional, but realistically this is what it equates to).
  • Stressed kids aren’t able to function as well at home or school.
  • Yelling puts people into fight, freeze, or flight. This is not a good mode for us to learn. This is our survival mode. We need to be calm to learn… and I’m guessing that when you yell, it’s because you want your child to do something different and learn a lesson. They cannot learn effectively in fight, freeze or flight mode.
  • Stress reduces IQ by up to 50%.
  • Yelling is a form of punishment. While consequences are occasionally good to use when parenting, people tend to respond better to positive reinforcement- aka being rewarded when we’re doing something good. And a ‘reward’ can simply be a hug or high five. It doesn’t need to be candy. Neurodivergent children are PARTICULARLY resistant to punishment as a form of behavioral modification. We are like training cats.
  • Yelling can put your safety at risk- we don’t yell at adults because we don’t want them to yell back or physically attack us. Kids can do both too.

If you want someone to learn something, teaching with positive reinforcement is simply MORE EFFECTIVE across the board.

It’s REALLY easy once you understand how to do it. But most of us have never learned to teach using positive reinforcement.

I learned it from training animals. And even then, I used a lot of aversive methods early on. Dog training has recently shifted to using positive reinforcement methods, but it’s taken us YEARS to get to this point. I’ve seen my ability to train my dogs grow EXPONENTIALLY since starting to focus more on non aversive techniques. My relationship with the dogs are healthier. My dogs are mentally more healthy.

Alternatively, horse training is lagging behind and I have struggled to find good methods that don’t use aversive tools. And ALL of the tools that I initially was taught were aversive. It’s so hard to make that change.

The same is true for parenting. It’s HARD to learn something new without hands on learning. The parents who are most successful at gentle parenting type models are usually the ones whose parents were gentle themselves. It’s easy to replicate what you grew up seeing.

The good news is that we can learn, practice the skills, and we can be better parents (and humans) every day. I found that learning to train animals in a positive way opened the door to being a better parent.

And what a lovely place the Earth could be if we all did this!

How Much Do You Yell?

If you think you yell a lot, but you aren’t sure, pick up two of those click counters (or one that allows you to track two different things). Click the yelling counter every time you catch yourself yelling in the span of an hour. Click the positive counter every time you encourage or say something positive to your child.

Ideally we want more positive clicks than yelling/negative clicks…if your child’s behavior is difficult, you may need to lower your expectations initially and reward smaller successes. So you’re saying GREAT JOB for getting the dishes into the sink, even if they didn’t rinse them properly or scrape them off first. We start small, get into the routine, and work on more difficult tasks.

Solutions for People Who Worry About Another Parent Yelling

  • Listen to the parent when they need to vent. Move to a place away from the children so the children can’t hear. “Let’s go grab a drink in the kitchen while the kids are playing.”
  • Ask what the parent’s biggest stressors are. See if there’s any way you can help or if there are any resources that could help this parent target those stressors.
  • Help the parent get sleep. Sleep is VITAL for reducing stress levels and increasing patience.
  • Offer to babysit or help out.
  • Role model other methods of parenting and/or discipline. Parents like to see others do things that work. They will try those techniques if they’re easy to implement.
  • Do fun things with the parent (with or without the child). If you can do FUN THINGS that improve the child’s relationship with their parent, that can be a great way to shift things. Alternatively parents also can use some solo adult time to enjoy life. Go to a yoga class together, go for a walk at the park, or get together to make some crafts.
  • Consider if you’re a contributing factor to the parent’s stress level. Is there anything you could do to change that?

When you come at this from a place of caring versus judgement, you’re more likely to impact change.

Solutions for Parents

Practice good self care.

See a therapist and/or psychiatrist (for medication management if you have depression and/or anxiety)

Practice positive reinforcement

Use Attention Grabbers to help get distracted kids to focus on you: These should involve child participation. Using the same ones often is a helpful way to keep attention. The parenthesis is what the child should say back. You’ve probably heard teachers use these in school. BE PLAYFUL about it. It’s a fun way to engage kids.

  • 1,2,3 Eyes on Me! (1,2 Eyes on You!)
  • Marco! (Polo!)
  • McDonald’s theme song beginning Duh duh duh duh duh… (I’m loving it!)

Apologize when you mess up. This is good role modeling and you can work on repairing the relationship.

Use countdowns to help kids have more successful transitions.

Find ways to access supports as needed- ask friends or family for help.

Identify your stressors and find ways to address them when possible.

If the child has a lot of issues at school, work with an educational advocate to ensure that your child is getting the appropriate supports through an IEP or 504 plan. Frequently parents get stressed because they’re frustrated by all of the calls home and the fact that they can’t do anything about their child’s school behavior. This leads to yelling at the kids. This isn’t healthy and it’s unfair to you and the children. Ideally, we should be able to work collaboratively with schools and teachers to help meet kids’ needs.

I hope this was helpful! Feel free to email if you have any other questions or think I missed something important!