How to Quit Yelling at Your Kids for Good

You don’t want to shout at your kids, but it often seems as though that’s the only way they’ll listen. Is it? I’ve learned from parents around the world that reacting in a different way makes everyone happier.

For years, I relied on one primary parenting strategy: nagging followed by yelling. Sometimes I'd even yell to my 3-year-old, "Rosy, stop screaming!" The notion of anger-free parenting seemed a bit like the keto diet. I knew I shouldn't eat so many carbohydrates, but it was just too hard to resist that big bowl of pasta. Doesn't everyone yell at their kids when nobody's looking? Turns out, they don't.

For the past few years, inspired by my work as a reporter for NPR, I've been studying how moms and dads around the world parent without losing their cool. I've visited communities from the arctic tundra to the Tanzania savanna where parents rarely—even never—yell, scold, or nag their children. These parents taught me to how to discipline and motivate my daughter without resorting to anger, punishments, or bribes. I wrote about their approach in my book Hunt, Gather, Parent. The book also describes a way of raising helpful, confident kids—by cooperating with them rather than fighting with them—that parents have been using for thousands of years.

But once the book was published earlier this year, I discovered that I didn't have to leave the country to learn about this level-headed approach. Readers emailed and told me they'd raised their children (or had been raised) this way in the United States. For example, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota who hosts and produces the First Voices Radio show, told me, "I never yelled at my daughter when she was growing up—and never have." Stevie Benanty, who grew up in New York City, said, "My paternal grandmother raised me and my sister. She was a French-Algerian immigrant, who was just so soft and gentle by nature. I feel very grateful that she raised me without yelling."

So how exactly does a mom stay calm when her 8-year-old blatantly disobeys her? How does a dad keep his cool when his 3-year-old slaps him across the face? The key isn't suppressing your anger after it erupts, says psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northeastern University, in Boston. "There's a big misconception that you can easily stop yourself when you're already mad." Instead, parents who don't yell at their kids use the following strategies to avoid getting angry in the first place.

Remind Yourself They Aren't Misbehaving on Purpose

One afternoon, Rosy and I were in Kugaaruk, Canada, interviewing Dolorosa Nartok about how she stays calm with her grandchildren. Rosy kept grabbing my microphone and swinging the cord like a jump rope. I begged her to stop, and she looked at me, smiled, and swung it even harder. "Argh!" I thought. "She's trying to push my buttons."

Nartok said something I'll never forget: "If the child doesn't listen, it's because she is too young to understand. She is not ready for the lesson."

There's a common belief in the U.S. that kids "push buttons," "test boundaries," and "manipulate" their parents, but there's no scientific evidence that this is true. There are no brain scans in which the "manipulating" circuitry lights up when 3-year-olds misbehave. And there are no psychological studies in which 8-year-olds come clean and admit, "Yes, all I wanted to do was make Dad mad."

These ideas are essentially folktales that parents tell themselves to help explain their children's bewildering behaviors, says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. However, these folktales just fuel parents' anger because no one likes to be manipulated.

In many communities, parents have a different interpretation of a child's motivation. They consider kids under about age 8 or 9 to be irrational, illogical creatures who don't have "understanding" yet, just as Nartok told me. Children's motivations are good—and they truly love us—but they just don't know how to behave properly yet. "Young children are little animals—wonderful, expressive animals," Dr. Mogel adds. "Parents think children have a higher general level of cognitive ability than they do—because kids are astonishingly sophisticated thinkers in some areas. But they are supposed to wail if their nervous system is taxed beyond capacity."

Try this: Expect that young kids will misbehave. Expect them to be rude, bossy, and violent. Expect them to make a mess, do tasks improperly, lash out at you, and sometimes even hit you. Expect tantrums, emotional outbursts, and tears galore. "Don't take any of it personally or think you're a bad parent," Dr. Mogel says. Although kids' behavior improves as they get older, even teens have emotional outbursts and circle back to immature behavior. "When we think kids should know what not to do but they still do it, that drives us crazy and then we raise our voice," says clinical psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., founder of

To help remember that children of all ages want to be good, come up with an endearing nickname for them, such as Sweet Potato, Baby Girl, or My Love. Use the nickname often, including when your child is misbehaving, to soften your responses and your point of view. "Or pretend that your child is an exchange student from another country and you're just fascinated by their behavior," Dr. Mogel suggests. "This will help you swap out your anger for curiosity."

Just because you expect your child to misbehave doesn't mean you let them do whatever they want. You can still point out mistakes, set boundaries, and guide proper behavior—you just don't yell. For example, if your toddler climbs onto the table at a restaurant, simply move them back into their chair and remind them, "Tables aren't for climbing on. At restaurants, we sit in chairs."

frustrated mother striped shirt living room kids playing
Priscilla Gragg

Refuse to Fight With Your Child

Arguing or even negotiating with your child will make both of you more frustrated—and you'll end up teaching them to argue whenever problems arise, says Erlanger Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, in Los Angeles, and the founder of the organization Therapy for Black Kids. "Your kids are observing you and learning how to respond to the world by watching you as a parent."

Simply recognizing that anger will make a situation worse can help you yell less often. When a person believes that anger is a useful emotion, they tend to use that emotion more frequently, says Batja Mesquita, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Leuven, in Belgium. But if you have experienced that anger is unproductive, you'll be more inclined to find another way to handle the situation. If Rosy spills her drink at dinner, I'm now more likely to assume she accidently tipped over the glass and quickly help her clean it up rather than immediately scolding her or arguing over why the drink spilled.

Try this: Stop arguing, bickering, and negotiating with your kids. Simply don't do it. If you change your perspective on kids' motivations, then arguing makes no sense. How can you convince an illogical, irrational person to be logical? If you feel anger building, be silent for a second and remind yourself: "Getting angry won't help" or "Being angry at a child is unproductive."

When you can see a power struggle brewing, calmly state the reason behind your decision making, Dr. Turner suggests. Tell your child, "I'm not going to yell or argue because that's going to make things worse." Or simply remind them of your family's rules: "In our family, we don't argue over such matters" or "Sorry, Sweet Potato, no bargaining." You can also put your hand gently on their shoulder when you're talking to them. Then simply walk away.

Summon Positive, Calm Emotions

One afternoon, Michelle Leah Gomez found herself in a frustrating situation. The mother of three was trying to finish a task—for the eighth time—when something erupted in the backyard. "I heard the dog barking, a child crying, and at least one person yelling. It was a general cacophony of unhappiness and distress," says Gomez, a nonviolent-communication parenting teacher and coach in Santa Cruz, California. "Inside my head, I heard the conventional parenting response, 'What are you doing? All three of you go to your room!'" she says. Instead, Gomez paused for a second. "In that moment, I went for some quick self-empathy. I asked myself, 'What am I feeling and needing?' I've been trying to get that one thing done and I keep getting interrupted! I am needing ease—and fewer obstacles in my way," Gomez recalls. Once she felt compassion for herself, she was in the mindset to give the same to her kids. "Rather than yelling, I was ready to hear their feelings and needs," she says.

"Learning to construct emotions is like learning any skill—the more you practice, the more expert you become," Dr. Barrett says. "When you practice cultivating certain emotions, your brain grows new connections that make it easier to construct these emotions in the future."

Try this: Next time you're outside walking, find a crack in the sidewalk where there's a weed poking out and let yourself take a few moments to really look at it in detail. "Try to experience the feeling of awe at the power of nature to overcome human attempts to constrain it," Dr. Barrett says. "Then practice feeling awe at the beauty of a butterfly, a lovely flower, or clouds in the sky."

Also take a few minutes each day to practice feeling compassion for your child. Look at their chubby fingers or sweet face, and remind yourself how much they love and need you. Remind yourself of a time when they were vulnerable and trying to please you. You might also keep a gratitude journal. Each day, jot down several things your child did recently to help around the house or times when they were generous and loving.

When you start to feel anger rising, you'll be better able to swap out that negative, unproductive feeling for a more productive, positive one. Think about something in nature that inspires awe. Focus on your child's cute little nose, and summon compassion for this irrational creature. Or remind yourself that although this kid is driving you bananas right now, they were kind to their sibling this afternoon when they needed help with their homework. This dash of positive feeling may be all you need to resist the urge to yell.

And if it doesn't work and you do yell? You'll have an opportunity to teach your child how to make amends, says Dr. Turner. "You can sit down together later and say, 'Let's have a conversation about how we talk with people. I slipped up recently and yelled at you. I know that wasn't the best way to respond,'" he suggests. "Kids are still learning how to regulate their emotions, and they don't do that automatically. You have to teach them—and you do that by staying calm and compassionate yourself."

4 Ways to Find Your Zen

1. When your kid takes forever to put on their shoes in the morning

Remind yourself: "Getting angry will only make this situation worse."

2. When your kid nags you to buy something at the store and starts negotiating to get you to change your mind

Say to them: "I'm not going to argue with you."

3. When your kid shouts at their sibling

Say to them: "Yelling isn't going to help."

4. When your kid begins to scream, cry, or have a tantrum when you're on an important Zoom meeting

Remind yourself: "Being angry at a child is unproductive—they are irrational creatures who don't know how to act."

Michaeleen Douchleff, Ph.D., is a journalist and the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Healthy Little Humans.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2021 issue as "How to Quit Yelling." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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