To yell or not to yell. An age-old parenting (and teaching) dilemma.
Generations ago, there was no question. If a child was “misbehaving,” the adults yelled. If a child did not understand something, the adults yelled. If a child’s presence was being “requested," the adults yelled.
There was little concern given to “feelings” or “explaining.” A yell of “Knock it off!” to a group of noisy children could easily and commonly be followed by “Because I said so!”
Along the way, parents, and teachers, and other adult caretakers began to think more about what causes children’s behaviors, and subsequently about their own behaviors and how the two correlate. “Yelling" and adult ”commands” in general, fell out of fashion. Parents started “thanking" children for “contributing to the households” instead of just yelling, “take out the damn trash!”
I remember many years ago, a professor of mine was talking to my college level Education 101 seminar about classroom management. He made his point by telling a story about a teacher observation he had recently conducted: “The most ridiculous thing I have ever seen is a classroom full of noisy children, and their teacher yelling ‘BE QUIET!’”
It is ridiculous.
My professor explained that we want to “mirror” the desired behavior to our children. If we want quiet, we should be quiet. If we want calm, we should be calm. It seemed so obvious. Easy advice to giggle at during seminar when I had never taught a class or spent more than four hours with a child. It’s easy for me to type it as well. Right now, my children are all occupied with other things, and in the care and supervision of other adults.
It is less easy to live it when I come home from work to the breakfast mess, clean it up, and then start making the dinner mess. My sons think that the kitchen floor is the best spot for backpacks, stinky sneakers, and baseball hats. My daughter thinks that all of the measuring cups (and her crayons, and her milk, and her entire collection of hair elastics) also belong on the kitchen floor. So I angrily sigh, clean it all up, get a single canned good from the cellar stairs, and it has all somehow, reappeared… yes, in moments such as these - it is less easy to not yell.
So, of course, I yell every now and again. But, it is not my most preferred manner of discipline or communication, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. Not that I do, but I do TRY….
Ben once described a miserable day at school. His teacher was out, and he had a sub who allegedly did nothing but “yell all day.” I explained to him that people yell when they feel out of control. That is the biological reason why this happens.
I explained that the teacher probably was feeling like she couldn’t control the group, or was nervous, or had never been in this school before. Any one of those things could make a person feel out of control.
He seemed more empathetic, and obviously reminded me that I was “out of control” the next time I yelled at him about his third missing stainless steel water bottle (I retorted with my inability to “control” the water bottle supply was what made me yell).
But - yelling serves a purpose.
Yelling is a signal that our bodies feel a loss of control. It is one of the releases associated with the “flight or fight" instinct that comes with a stressful situation. As we have evolved, our body isn’t as discriminating as it should be with this signal. We yell at red lights, we yell at the TV during Pats and (shudder) Red Sox games, and we yell at small children.
As we have evolved into a relatively safe world, our stressors tend to be more emotional than physical. We have little risk of being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, but finding a dirty pair of socks in the couch could send us into a state of heightened irritation, also known as stress.
Imagine if you are tired, and balancing the many, many responsibilities of parenting and working, and you just vacuumed, and you told your son to clean up his socks six times, and you finally get to sit down for a half an hour and watch one half of your show on the DVR because everybody else is finally out of the living room, and you reach between the cushions for the remote, and you find the dirty socks - you may just want to scream. You are releasing anger, you are displaying aggression. You are sending the message to the socks, to the situation, to your suddenly un-locatable son that you are very angry about the socks. You are not in danger (your son may be), but there is no question that you feel some physical reaction. Your heart might race, your face might flush, and you may actually “feel” the urge to yell. Try to remember that your son’s stinky socks are not a saber-tooth tiger, and maybe deal with the situation by moving them onto his pillow.
But sometimes, you have to yell.
I am a fan of the “shock and awe” form of yelling. Sometimes a loud and firm voice is needed to stop a child who is “out of control.”
If a child hits somebody, walks into the street, takes the car keys without asking, plays with matches, or engages in other dangerous activities, they should get the message that it is not ok. Yell their name. Scare them a little. Set the tone that the situation (their behavior) is outside the parameters of acceptable. You need to shock them out of their behavior, and regain the control. However, once the tone is set, once the loudness regains the attention of the child, stop yelling.
You will lose their attention of you continue to yell and flail about. If you still feel out of control, you’re too angry, or frightened, or unable to process in a more rational manner, explain it later. Send them off to a good old fashion “time out.” Sit on the stairs, go to their room, or even just in another room. Further, if the child is the one yelling and flailing about, don’t process with them either, they are clearly out of control. They are yelling to send the message that things are out of control for them and they are being aggressive to regain the control. Nobody can process in this state. A yelling match will keep you both in a state of chaos, and nothing will be communicated.
Think about how noise affects you in a situation. The crowd at a concert or sporting event charges you up. Your heart races, you yell and cheer, you jump up and down. You have a physical reaction. But how about when you are lost in the car? Would you blare the music, or turn down the radio?
Think of a smoke detector, a police siren, or an alarm of any sort. They are meant to make you alert. These loud noises, by design, are sending you the message to get moving, look out, be on guard, and do something. They are telling you that there is a loss of control somewhere – smoke, a fire, an accident – something dangerous is happening and you need to be aware and engage in “fight or flight.” Your body will react. You will be instantly more aware, your heart will race, your blood pressure will rise, you will feel jittery and you may even yell. “Wake up!” “Look out!” “Help!” This is your body behaving as it should.
But once you are out of immediate danger, stop yelling. Let your body calm down, and get into a more relaxed and rational state.
If your teenage daughter sneaks a beer, you’re going to yell. Control needs to be regained, the behavior needs to be stopped immediately, and you need to send a message. But wait to process until everybody is safe and calm. Screaming at her will only result in her slipping into a fight or flight mode, and the conversation you desperately need to have about the dangers of alcohol use will be lost in all of the noise and anger.
However, if your two school age sons will not stop wrestling after numerous and increasingly frequent requests, go ahead and yell. Shock them a bit. Regain control of your living room, and then move on. This might be a “Knock it off before you break something or get hurt!” followed by a “Because I said so!”
I am always very aware, perhaps because I remember screaming adults from my own childhood, that kids do not listen to screaming adults. Especially adults who yell all the time. They will tune you out. So to the mean screaming teacher, the maniac coach who sputters and mutters and screams the entire game - they are not listening to you. And they stopped being afraid of you too.
Yelling at kids, and trying to intimidate them will last a very short amount of time. When you are “all bark," they know it. And they don’t hear you, and they definitely don’t respect you. They think of you as noisy, and mean, and they are internally rolling their eyes and just counting the seconds until you quiet down.
And if you recognize yourself as a screaming maniac adult, figure out why. Figure out what it is that is making YOU feel a loss of control, and figure out how you can fix that. If you are a coach who can’t manage the team, or a teacher who can’t manage a class, or a mom who can’t manage the family, figure it out. Ask for help, do some research. Or even try the shock and awe method. Yell their name, tell them to move to a different spot, and then go process. Process with a calm voice and facts. “I took you off the mound because you were not paying attention to the signals.” Or "I moved you out of your small group because you were being noisy and preventing other kids form working.” And "I made you go sit on the stairs because you will not stop wrestling with your brother, and you are being dangerous.” “You have to stop playing with the kids because you grabbed toys.” They will get the message, and you will feel like you are actually teaching something.
But remember – those tricky kids - they also know if you are “no bark.” If they can misbehave, and be disrespectful, and grab toys and you say “Please don’t take toys from your friends, it makes them sad,” they won’t listen to that either. They will just keep plowing through their day. Kids have a difficult time controlling their life. There are so many factors involved. They can lose control easily. Depending on the age it can be the desire for Buzz Lightyear, or trying to avoid a drinking party in the woods that all of their friends will be at… we, the adults, need to take control, and a little bit of noise can help.