How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids and Redirect Misbehavior

No way around it: Being a parent is a tough job. And some parenting days are much tougher than others, so you might find yourself yelling unexpectedly, then regret it. Every parent reaches their limit.
Our parenting know-how and emotional maturity are challenged every day.

Of course, we also experience immense shared joy and a sense of fulfillment, but our children's needs change continually. Every time you think you've got the job figured out, your child shifts to a new developmental stage, far different from the one before. Learning how to redirect children's behavior is crucial for every parent, not only for our sanity but for helping our children become healthy, loving adults.

Mother scolding a little girl at the candy counter of a grocery store

Common Parenting Challenges:

Preschool Age:
You’re at the grocery store and your five-year-old asks for a candy bar. It’s dinnertime and you want him to eat real food at home, so you say no. Instantly your child starts whining, which quickly escalates into a full-blown tantrum. What do you do?

Elementary Age:
It’s morning and you have an early and very important meeting at the office. You need to get to work, but first you need to drop the kids off at school. Your elementary-age daughter refuses to get ready for school. She says she hates school and she won’t go. How do you handle with the situation?

Preteen or Teens:
Your teenage son gets mouthy when you tell him he can’t go to the out-of-town concert this weekend. Immediately a barrage of justifications comes flying out of his mouth: “All my friends are going. I’m a good student—shouldn’t that count for something? And I just babysat my sister last week while you worked late!” As you try to explain, he erupts in anger and storms out of the house. Now what?

When we feel helpless and are at a loss about how to handle troublesome situations with our child, many responses are possible. On good days we may be patient and loving, but when stressed, it’s usually another story. We yell. We overpower. We coax. We bribe. We give in. We do all kinds of things, but all these tactics backfire. Why? How?

One compelling force is acting within children and teens at all times: to learn how to resolve inner conflict and master their internal universe, while also successfully navigating their social world.

And that’s a very tall order!

When we are stressed, we as parents can often forget that much of our child’s or teen’s behavior is developmentally appropriate. It may be annoying. It may be maddening. It may be inconvenient—but whatever our child is doing at any given time is exactly what their needs and growth are demanding.

One thing is for sure: Yelling at kids backfires.

Teen tuning out his upset mom yellingSometimes we feel like the only weapon in our arsenal is yelling. It may work in the short term, but rarely does a parent feel good about yelling, and it damages the relationship with our child. And without a repair, misbehavior may actually escalate.

Most children pass through developmental phases in a short time. However, parents don’t always realize that certain behaviors are age appropriate. When we overreact, such as yelling, a child’s behavior can become a learned behavior. Now the child has learned a new tool that he or she can use to get attention. Imagine how powerful it can feel to a child or teen to watch you lose your cool!

The child may become fixated at an earlier developmental phase, especially if your child is getting attention in an inappropriate way. If misbehaving works, the child will keep using the behavior to get a reaction. In a sense, parents are actually training their child to continue a pattern of misbehavior because their reaction continues to fulfill the child’s needs at some level.

Whatever behavior works for a child will   continue!

What pattern are you reinforcing in your child or teen?

For example, if your child whines for a candy bar at the store and you give in, he or she has just discovered something that works. Therefore the child will use the same strategy again. If a teenager angrily demands the car keys and you give in without holding them to a standard of respect, the behavior has been validated and will be repeated.

It’s up to parents to set limits and reinforce appropriate behavior.

Parenting means modeling the behavior we want

Why Parental Boundaries and Limits Are Important for Children and Teens

It’s also up to parents to help the child learn to navigate difficult emotions that arise. It’s up to us to help them meet their needs and be respectful. In order to accomplish this feat, parents need to know how to set healthy boundaries. When we consistently set loving and firm limits, a child’s or teen’s behavior will normalize.

It takes many years and hundreds of loving and firm responses from parents to teach appropriate emotional expression. These positive feedback loops from a parent are vital in building healthy self-esteem, the ability to self-calm and control impulses, as well as cultivate emotional regulation.

In an article, "How Do Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions?" a child therapist writes:

"Children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her feelings and concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent. Because each disappointment and frustration now feels less painful, less 'catastrophic,' she will be less insistent in her demands, and more open and flexible in seeking solutions to problems. She will less often get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial. She will be more able to feel empathy and concern for others, and to take responsibility for her actions."

Related reading: To learn more on the stages of emotional development of children and the basic behaviors that are normal, check out How to Build Healthy Emotional Development in Children.

Children mimic their parents so be a good exampleChildren are always watching. They mimic their parents—let's make sure we're an example worth following.

When we react and get upset with our children’s behaviors, we are no longer role models for the behaviors and values we desire for them. We are contradicting the very values we espouse.

“Be kind to your sister,” we say—yet we yell at our child.

“Tell the truth”—yet we fabricate something to get our child to do what we want.

“Be honest with your friend”—yet we make excuses to someone who just asked us to volunteer on a committee.

“The only thing that matters is that you do your best”—yet we finish our child’s science project because it isn’t good enough.

Our quick fixes abort visionary parenting and weaken the very foundation needed for long-term values, emotional resilience, and positive character traits. Therefore, as the years pass, we are inadvertently training our children to act in ways that will further disappoint and frustrate us. 

An important and basic understanding of children and what evokes many emotions and motivates their behavior was constructed by Dr. Alfred Adler and later taught by Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs. They recognized that children have certain basic needs.

Every child needs to:

  • feel safe
  • love and be loved
  • belong and feel connected to others
  • feel like they have power and a voice in their life
  • give value and be valued
  • experiment and explore

Children will try to get any unmet needs fulfilled in appropriate or inappropriate ways. Whatever behavior works for a child will continue. Misbehaving children are often discouraged children. Our very critical job as parents is not only to be a positive role model, but also to meet the needs of our children. When we meet these needs regularly and upfront, misbehavior decreases dramatically. Thus, our need to yell also decreases!

So how do you stop yelling, decrease misbehavior and start having more fun in your family?

Mother helping daughter climb a rock wallAt the core of conscious parenting is the important key of taking care of yourself! Sound too simple? Try being really loving and supportive with yourself; give yourself extreme self-care, including ample sleep, healthy meals, downtime, exercise, and quality time with friends and your spouse. At the end of the week, look back and see how the self-care affected your parenting in a positive way.

Being a parent is challenging; there are good days and bad days. And we are on duty 24/7. So take care of yourself!

When we do care for ourselves, we are more likely to be patient and loving. When we are at our best, we naturally meet our children’s needs. We naturally are more playful and more creative in handling daily stresses. And an added bonus is that we also model self-care for our children! So maybe when they grow up, they won’t need to be reminded to take good care of themselves, and they will parent consciously and lovingly. Then we will have completely eliminated the need for their children to misbehave!

For parenting support or to consult a parent coach, call Heartmanity 406-577-2100.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in her private practice located in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for the past twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools as regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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