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When kids get on your last nerve, think before yelling

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, at 3:17 p.m.

It’s hard to discipline children. You can’t hit them. Timeouts are not effective. Now, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh says yelling at teens and tweens – particularly when it involves cursing or insults – can be just as harmful as hitting. So what can you do?

Remember that the word “discipline” originally meant to teach, so look for opportunities to coach your child, not just punish him for a misstep.

“Discipline implies setting limits and boundaries,” said Vicki Hoefle, mother of six in Middlebury, Vt., and author of “Duct Tape Parenting.” “But the way we do it is, ‘I’m going to punish you when you do something I don’t like.’ It’s a completely wasted moment.”

No one wants to yell at their kids, and we usually feel bad when it happens. But most of us didn’t know it could be as damaging as the spankings we got when we were growing up.

The University of Pittsburgh study released in September looked at 967 middle school students over a two-year period. Those whose parents used “harsh verbal discipline” such as yelling, cursing and using insults were more likely to be depressed or have behavior problems. The study found it was also not effective in getting children to stop what they were doing, and that it was damaging even to children in homes that were generally warm and loving.

“If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a parenting coach in Washington. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”

There is a difference, of course, between being verbally abusive and using a sharply raised voice. Yelling alone is not always damaging, although the surprise of a sudden change in volume can cause a child to be fearful or anxious. It’s often what is said that is harmful, according to Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline (CED).

“When people raise their voices, the message typically isn’t, ‘Wow, I love you, you’re a great child,' “ Sendek said. “You’re usually saying something negative, and ripping down their self-esteem.”

It’s nearly impossible to never yell at your child. It’s going to happen. Even if you’re not calling your child names or insulting him, though, there are more effective ways to deal with disciplinary problems than yelling, Leahy said.

“Teens and tweens, especially, find our sensitive underbellies, and when they are outright defiant and what they do flies in the face of expectations, we do yell,” said Leahy, whose oldest daughter, Sophia, will be 10 in January. “But it’s definitely not in the toolbox of what’s effective discipline.”

What can harried parents do to get through to that child who, despite being asked 10 times to brush his teeth, is still playing with the cat and about to be late for school? Here are suggestions from parenting experts on how to keep behavioral problems from turning you into a screaming lunatic, and how to recover from it on the (hopefully rare) occasions when you do yell.

Take a break

Sometimes you are better off pushing the pause button and revisiting the problem in 20 minutes or the next morning.

When Hoefle’s children, now ages 19 to 24, were younger and she felt herself losing her temper, she would put a hard candy in her mouth or look at a sweet picture of her child. That was often enough to make her consider her response more carefully.

She also took the unconventional approach of allowing her children to leave the room if she was yelling. Most parents might think seeing their child’s retreating back would escalate their anger, but Hoefle said it made her stop and think about what she was saying, and how it was making her child feel. It was enough of a pause, she said, for her to reconsider how she was handling her anger.

“If you find what I’m saying disrespectful, you have permission to leave, because nobody should be subjected to that,” said Hoefle, whose book advises parents to resist the urge to nag and control their kids. “It set up a dynamic where people could get up and walk away and the person yelling would stop and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ My kids would say, ‘I know we didn’t do what you asked, we got distracted, we’re sorry.’ Just the respect goes a long way in re-establishing order.”

Put a stop to recurring arguments

Figure out when, and why, you’re most often losing your temper, Hoefle said.

Do you yell at your son every morning because he’s dawdling in the shower when you are trying to get everyone out the door on time? Then talk to him about what you can do to make things go more smoothly.

Come up with a strategy that attacks the root of the problem, whether it’s using a timer to remind him when he needs to get out of the shower, or taking one the night before. If you involve your child in creating the plan, Hoefle said, he is more likely to participate in executing it.

“If you can anticipate that it’s going to happen, you can make a plan,” Hoefle said. “If it goes this way all the time, what are you going to do differently as the adult? You can say to your kids, ‘We have to create a morning routine that works for you. What can I do to be of assistance?' “

Be clear and consistent with expectations

Kids want and crave limits and structure, so it’s important to set boundaries and stick to them, the CED’s Sendek said.

Don’t get into the habit of asking your child to do something multiple times. Instead, ask her to do something (say, brush her teeth), and tell her what will happen if she doesn’t. Be specific and follow through, even if she tries to bargain her way out of the consequence.

Leahy said she calmly refuses to be swayed by her daughter’s attempts to negotiate, recalling a time recently when she told Sophia she wouldn’t drive her to a choir concert at school because Sophia had been disrespectful.

“There was a lot of wailing, crying, deep breathing, and then she said, ‘I’m sorry,' “ Leahy said. “I said thanks, and she looked at me, and I said, ‘I’m still not taking you.’ We don’t want to make our kids feel bad, but at the same time I held my boundaries without yelling.”

Give your child a say

The best way to get your child to buy into consequences is to involve him in creating them, said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, creator of the Web forums It’s a Tween’s Life and Talking Teenage.

If you have been struggling to get your child to finish his homework in the evenings, tell him that it has to be done and ready to be checked by 7 p.m. each day, Leahy said. Make it clear to him that if it’s not complete on time, there will be a consequence. Ask him what he thinks would be an appropriate punishment.

You might think he won’t take it seriously, and will suggest something along the lines of no broccoli for a week. More often than not, though, children are harder on themselves than you would be, Powell-Lunder said. Work together to figure out the most appropriate consequences for different rule violations.

Monitor your tone

When you yell, Sendek said, your child will not remember what you said. He will only remember that you yelled, and how upsetting that was.

“It’s a physiological response,” Sendek said. “When someone yells, your system goes on hyper-alert.”

Instead of yelling, Sendek said, use a stern tone of voice to get your child’s attention and let him know that what you are saying is important. Get face to face with him and make eye contact.

Stop arguing and reconnect

Take time out from whatever is angering you and spend time reading or playing a game with your child to reconnect, Leahy said. Or if you are fighting about her choice in music, tell her why you dislike it, then ask her what she likes about it. You can always revisit the source of conflict later.

“You’re modeling wonderful behavior to your teens, and teaching them that when you have a conflict there are other ways to resolve it and be successful,” Powell-Lunder said of taking the time to count to three and resisting the urge to yell.

In Hoefle’s house they called this policy “Stop. Apologize. Eat ice cream.”

“I would go into the freezer and get little tubs of sherbet, give everyone a spoon, and we would all take a bite and regroup,” Hoefle said. “Whatever is happening is not as important as the fact that we are family. When we come home tonight we can talk about the problem. But in that moment I want to clean up the mess. It resets the clock.”

Let go of the small stuff

We all want children with perfect table manners, impeccable hygiene and strong moral character. Sometimes, though, you need to pick what is most important to you, or to your child’s safety, and let some of the irritating, but less dire, behaviors slide, Sendek said.

“Decide what are those things that are very critical to you: drugs, sex, alcohol,” she said. “Those should have dire consequences. With other things, say, ‘Okay, you didn’t pick up your shoes and that drives me crazy, but I can live with it.’”

Model good behavior by apologizing for yelling

Even the most patient parents yell occasionally. Kids are hard-wired to push our buttons, and we lose our tempers. If you do yell, the best thing to do is acknowledge the mistake, Leahy said.

Leahy said that when she has lost her temper with Sophia, she will write her a note after her daughter has gone to bed. In the note she apologizes for yelling and suggests that they meet the next day to talk about what happened and why she yelled.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re sorry, ever,” Leahy said. “It doesn’t mean she'll get what she wants, but it opens the door to communication, which is all I want to do.”

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