Discipline Without Screaming

Sometimes it seems that the only way to get kids to listen is to shout. Learn to take it down a few decibels -- and enjoy better behavior in the process.
tea pot steaming

Brian Maranan Pineda

My boys, who are 3 and 5, always seem to want the things that they know they can't have: cookies for breakfast, a movie at bedtime, flip-flops on a snowy day. When they get the inevitable "no" for an answer it often sends them into a tailspin -- whining, writhing on the floor, and kicking the air. Nothing gets to me more than these spontaneous freak-outs. Don't they understand that if they stay up late watching Shrek they'll be cranky the next day? Before I know it, I'm yelling again.

How do things go from movie request to scream-fest in seconds? The kids hit one of my triggers, and like many parents, I react by shouting. (If you've never screamed at your children, know that statistically you're one of the few. According to a study in The Journal of Marriage and Family, 89 percent of parents report doing it.) Still, it doesn't feel good. In fact, most shouting sessions result in a scream hangover. Afterward, adults may feel guilty, wishing they could have dealt with the situation in a better way.

It turns out that it's no fun for kids either, according to psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of Ain't Misbehavin': Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors. If yelling is your main form of discipline, it can diminish your child's sense of security and self-esteem, she explains. "If you just yell on occasion, you won't damage your kids," assures psychotherapist Jim Hutt, Ph.D., creator of counselorlink.com; still, it's not a good strategy for getting good behavior. Yelling is scary, so it activates a child's emotional "fight or flight" response while shutting down his logical thinking. "If I yell at a kid, he's going to stop processing information, and if I want him to learn why his behavior is inappropriate, I need him to be able to understand what I'm saying," Dr. Hutt explains. When parents raise their voice, all it teaches kids is to do the same when they're upset. "If we hit, they hit; if we yell, they learn to yell. If we are calm, they learn how to be calm," Dr. Hutt says.

Of course, given the right triggers, even the most Zen parents lose it sometimes. When you do, it's important to apologize to your kid and admit that you should have handled things differently. "Parents can't preach that it's okay to make mistakes, then neglect to admit their own mistakes and, worse yet, fail to apologize," Dr. Hutt says. It can also help to identify the situations that most frequently get you shouting -- that way you can plan ahead about how to react, so you're more in control of your emotions in the moment. We went to the experts to get better solutions for some of the most common scream-inducers.

The Power Struggle

Your daughter wants a cookie for breakfast, and she won't take no for an answer. She's probably thinking, "If I cry and scream, maybe Mom will give in." As her demand escalates into a full-blown battle of wills, you lose control and end up yelling at her.

Why parents lose it When kids undermine our authority (doing things they know we disapprove of or ignoring what we say) it leaves us feeling helpless. When you find yourself screaming, it's probably not even about the cookie anymore; it's an attempt to take back control. "The power struggle is a contest about who has the upper hand in the moment," Schafer says. "We want to impress upon our kids that we are the one in charge."

The no-scream solution To keep a power struggle from escalating, make a conscious effort to get out of fight mode. Rather than focusing on winning or losing this particular battle with your kid, try to work together to find a better solution. First, state your position simply ("We don't have cookies for breakfast"). Then offer some choices ("Would you like to have yogurt or cereal?"). This will make her feel like she has some control over the situation, Schafer says. If that doesn't work, you might try defusing the tension with humor. Doing a silly dance out of the blue may be just the trick for putting your child into a happier mind-set, one in which she's willing and able to find some middle ground.

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