How to Handle Your Child's Bad Behavior Without Yelling—or Wanting to Scream

The more calm we are as parents, the less out of control everyone feels. But how can we do that? Here's how to shift from being reactive to responsive when our children act out.

Mom trying not to scream
Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

When children act up or out it's hard to know how to respond. In theory, we'd all be cool as a cucumber—using supportive language and a calm, reassuring voice—but the truth is parenting challenges us. Most parents yell, at least from time to time. However, when the yelling is "constant," nobody is OK. You don't feel good about it, and neither does your child. What's more, the more you yell, the more your child may act out. It's a vicious cycle. Rinse and repeat.

Use these tips to calm down and get a handle on the situation.

Get to the Bottom of the Behavior

Behavior is the outer layer of what is happening emotionally for children, and the younger they are, the truer this is, as they are developing their abilities to more appropriately express emotions. That leaves us to do a lot of detective work, but if we can zero in on what might be underlying the behavior and address that, it will feel a lot better than constant yelling and nothing improving (and maybe even getting worse). Ask leading questions. Probe for more information, and listen. There is a reason behind every behavior.

Do a Self-Check

How are you? I know the idea to "change your response" is obvious, and you would have done so by now if it were that simple and easy. So, I urge you to reflect on how you are really doing. How is your stress level, including and not including parenting? What else is in your life is pulling at your patience and energy reserves?

Stop and take a full personal assessment. Write down your stressors, wants, and needs, and then see what you can delegate to others. Find ways to fill your cup and to take a step back and breathe.

Reclaim Control

You cannot wait on your child to magically have insight and change their behavior, that's a fact. Your stress and well-being is a critical factor in changing the current pattern. But next is the bazillion dollar question: how do you reclaim control? You know the yelling is not working and making everyone feel worse, so I'm guessing you are invested in doing it less.

You can approach this from two lenses: zoomed in to the moment, and zoomed out to the big picture.

In the moment

For the immediate moment, pinpoint your triggers, i.e. maybe you are afraid your child will injure themselves and/or a sibling. Stop, pause, and take deep breaths. Then, when you are ready, use a calm, steady voice to intervene. You staying calm not only helps the situation from escalating, but helps you feel more in control. Your projection of more calm and control also helps your children feel more in control. Use this "deep breath, calm voice" intervention one aggravating moment at a time to help build your confidence that you actually can yell less.

Big picture

For the big picture, it sounds like a wake-up call to actively prioritize your own stress management. Life with COVID has increased our stress and stripped away our supports in a combination that may explain why many of us feel so out of control right now.

Figure out what calms and relaxes you—warm baths, escape reading, a long walk—and get this on your to-do list with at least equal billing as laundry. Come up with a plan for how you will put yourself first for a protected amount of time, every day. And then do it. If you have an internal (or external) guilty voice, remind yourself (or your partner) that it's for the sake of your children.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing simple about raising children, especially at this moment in time when there are so many possible reasons for them to act out. You are an anchor for your children and if you aren't on solid ground, they can't be either. The more anchored you are by taking care of you and your stress, the calmer you can respond to the behavior storms around you. And everyone will feel better about that; most importantly, you.

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