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This is the third installment in my Shame-Free Parenting Master Series. Check out the previous installment here: 6 Steps to Emotional Self-Awareness for Parents.

When your child acts out or “talks back,” it makes you feel uncomfortable. To be more precise, your brain views it as a threat of some kind, which triggers a stress response.

The primary rule of human existence is that we will do ANYTHING to avoid discomfort.

So, it makes perfect sense why yelling at your kids feels like a natural way to get their attention quickly and stop their behavior . . . and, in turn, your discomfort. And if you’re a parent, you know that the discomfort that you can experience when your child’s health or safety is threatened in any way is unlike any other. It feels primal.

Is it always bad to yell?

If what you mean by raising your voice or speaking very loudly to your child, then yes. There are a few situations or conditions where yelling is ok:

  1. Getting their attention when it’s necessary for the health and safety of the child or others: If your child is running in the street, yelling is actually exactly what you should do. If you don’t normally yell at your kids, then yelling would actually be a very effective way in that moment to warn and get their attention, AND

  2. Communicating then that the problem is ONLY with the child’s current action or behavior, not the child. For instance, if a 4-year-old is pushing his 2-year-old sister near a staircase, the parent would likely yell to get attention to stop this quickly. A 4-year-old child is unable to appreciate how dangerous that is. Although explaining to the child, “Honey, I yelled because what was happening was scary and I needed to get your attention quickly. I know that you didn’t mean to do that, and I am not angry with you” would be ok, lecturing the child, shaming the child, losing your temper, and/or continuing to yell are not ok.

Outside of these situations, current research doesn’t support that yelling at kids is ok.

A recent article argued that whether yelling at kids harmed them also depended on their temperament and how often yelling occurred in the home, and that a “good” outcome of this approach meant that kids got to yell too. Ok, yeah, that isn’t supported by any research that I’ve ever seen.

However, if you’ve yelled at your kids that DOES NOT mean you’ve harmed them and definitely doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent.

Justifying yelling also ignores the rules of observational learning or modeling. If I yell at my child, then I’m modeling that yelling is ok – for them to yell at me and other loved ones, friends, and future partners and that it’s normal or ok for others to yell at them.

So, the ultimate goal is NOT to stop yelling as much.

The goal is to choose to work, every single day, towards stopping yelling at your kids forever . . .

And eventually, it means to work to stop yelling at your spouse and your pets. (If you are still there after that one, thank you so much for your willingness to stick with me).

If you are trying to maximize your communication and relationship with your child, then the ultimate goal is: a yelling-free home (outside of those moments when it’s absolutely necessary for health and safety and done correctly)

Before going any further, please remember this. Success with any goal is not measured by perfect outcomes. There is no such thing.

If, after reading this article, you try to communicate with your child without yelling for a week, and you don’t make it until dinner time, does that mean you’ve failed? Absolutely not. Unless, of course, you stop trying.

To use a football analogy, the goal is the next yard, not the end zone. The goal is forward movement – the continuous exercise of intentional effort. Momentum.

It’s important to note that actions based on goals that are rooted firmly in important personal values are most likely to be successful.

When you ask yourself, what kind of parent do I want to be? And how do I want to act to live aligned with my values? Your answer will not likely include yelling. We can start there.

If you are still unsure, here are some of the questions most parents ask about yelling.

Is yelling harmful to kids?

Yes, it is.

We’re not talking about yelling at your kids when they run into the street. There, you are warning against a real physical threat and the goal is to get their attention. 

Although yelling is harmful, period, the most damage occurs in homes where there is consistent yelling.

Research has shown other negative verbal behaviors that are harmful to children are:

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Child Development concluded that types of harsh verbal discipline including yelling produces negative outcomes similar to physical punishment (e.g., spanking). In the study, yelling, by either mothers or fathers, was associated with increased behavior problems, anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Notably, researchers found that increased parental warmth from the parent (e.g., statements and gestures of love, support, and affection) did notchange these associations.

The damage of constant yelling wasn’t undone by love and support.

*Validation means to validate that a child’s feelings make sense generally. It has nothing to do with thoughts or behaviors. For example, if a child says, “I’m afraid of riding that roller coaster. I don’t want to ride.” An invalidating response would be: “You shouldn’t be scared of that” or “That’s silly.” A validating response would be something like: “Ok, roller coasters can be scary. That makes sense.” You could lead that somewhere else later, but the first part is always validating the emotion.

Does yelling work?


Well, let’s get clear on what “work” really means in this context.

In the short term, yelling can frighten a child into complying, so if obedience and compliance at all costs is the goal, technically, it could “work.” It also could work for the parent if the goal is to get a surge of adrenaline from the release of anger.

Yet it DOES NOT work long term – to change your child’s behavior or help them develop healthy habits.

And most importantly it can cause serious problems.

Children can’t learn when the brain is in fight-flight or freeze mode

We’re hardwired to be stressed by loud noises.

We don’t have to learn that. It’s a gift of evolution. When a parent yells, the child’s limbic system is triggered. They can’t uptake information. Lectures don’t ever work, but they are even more pointless if you yell. The brain is too busy trying to survive.

The sound enters the brain (and the sense of hearing is the fastest sense so it bypasses the sensory thalamus and goes straight to the amygdala). The amygdala fires the alarm, signals the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus starts recording the situational factors. The hippocampus starts recording associations between the parent’s tone of voice and facial expressions and the situation with yelling. Automatically, the brain tries to lock in all of this information – what your face looks like before you yell, what things tend to trigger or precede yelling, etc.

In general, most children will learn (and this is primarily an unconscious process) to avoid those things that are associated with yelling. (Note that avoiding doesn’t necessarily means withdrawing from, for some kids they avoid (the helpless and out-of-control feeling of yelling) by yelling back. I’ll discuss that more in a later article.)

Yelling damages the parent-child relationship

Humans are hardwired for connection. Children, especially, are hardwired to seek comfort from their parents.

It is difficult to connect with or attach to someone who is yelling or has yelled at you. Yelling is scary when someone is doing it to you.

Humans don’t approach things that are unsafe or scary normally. Yet children give their parents more chances because of that almost indelible drive to attach to a caregiver.

Once a child described yelling to me like this, “Yelling feels like someone is hitting you with their words. It still hurts.”

Yelling devalues the child. Our kids are more important to us than our bosses, yet we would never yell at our bosses.

(And before you use that example to beat yourself up, this makes a lot of evolutionary sense. Most parents yell at their kids because they are trying to protect them from a threat although those threats are often magnified in our primal, protective parent brain).

When we feel special and valued in relationships, we are motivated in those relationships. We work harder for coaches, supervisors, teachers, and parents who value and appreciate us.

“A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable caregiver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships.”

— John Bowlby

Yelling also models unhealthy communication & Relationships

Many parents complain about their child lying to them or “disrespecting” them. If a child is yelled at frequently, both of those behaviors make sense according to behavioral or learning theory.

In my professional experience, the primary reason that children don’t tell their parents things or actively lie to them is because they fear or otherwise want to avoid their parents’ reactions.

They believe that if they tell their parents things, their parents will react in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.

In the past, kids and teens have said things like, “It’s easier to lie then to deal with Dad freaking out” or “I don’t want them to be disappointed in me” or “I can’t stand seeing Mom upset” or “I just can’t handle a lecture from them now.”

Some kids fear yelling. Others actually fear seeing their parents cry or become anxious. If they lie, however, there is a chance their parents won’t find out. This option gives the possibility of avoiding the feared reaction. Think about it. Why did you lie to your parents?

Given the choice, our behavior will always follow the path of least resistance.

When parents tell me their child is “disrespectful,” it’s very interesting to hear what qualifies there. It’s actually quite a lot for most parents. Some things that are often identified as disrespectful: eye-rolling, “talking back,” lack of eye contact, sarcasm, yelling, walking away, not using manners, interrupting, etc.

Parents are often shocked when I call those junk behaviors” and show them some pretty powerful research that those types of behaviors that don’t hurt self or others typically should be actively ignored. In general, active ignoring means ignoring that behavior for the normal 1 – 2 minutes it takes for them to stop and then immediately praising that change. If you think the behavior could be harmful to your child (e.g., saying unkind things to you or a sibling could hurt that relationship and others if they do it outside of the home), you could later have a conversation (not a lecture) with the child by following a few steps.

Here’s a research study we did on this in a juvenile detention facility through a program run by a university where I was a professor and clinical director.

Actually, children acting in ways that are disrespectful including using sarcasm or even yelling may actually be protective if the parent yells at the child. The child is doing something to fight back, which is a natural survival response to verbal aggression.

Although that behavior is not helpful or workable in relationships generally, it is helpful to the individual. It protects the child’s sense of self and autonomy.

If we want our children to value what we say and respect us and do the same for themselves, we must show them that same value and respect – actually we must do more given they are behind us from a neurodevelopmental perspective. The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily during adolescence and is fully accomplished at the age of – hold your breath – 25 years old.

Am I a terrible parent for yelling at my kids?

Please hear this loud and clear. You are not a terrible parent.

There is so much parent blaming and shaming on social media, in parenting books and academic journals, and even from our own families. ENOUGH. 

Most parents have yelled at their children.

But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful to accept that as the status quo and keep doing it.

We are all in this together raising our kids every day. And it’s really, really hard.

You’re likely doing the best that you can with what you’re dealing with now and, based on the research, you’re likely doing it while working full time and with little support. Parental frustration, lack of support, and depression cause parents to use more aversive discipline practices. And the pandemic took all of this to another level.

How to stay out of the “I’m a bad parent” shame spiral

There’s another reason that getting really stuck on the “I’m a bad parent” story is a trap. That story sounds like shame, and shame is the most common source of resistance to change.

Guilt and shame are different. Brene Brown’s career was established on her research into the debilitating effects of shame and how it contrasts with the more helpful emotion of guilt.

Helpful guilt is when we feel physiological discomfort about doing something that is objectively wrong. Helpful guilt, especially, in interpersonal relationships, is necessary to give us information that our mistake has hurt someone. It drives us to seek comfort, apologize, ask for help, or change our behavior in the future. Without guilt, you’d meet one criteria for psychopathy.

Helpful guilt is nonjudgmental, curious, and action-oriented. Ideally, the emotional response is quick and leads to a pivot to an apology or a different action. And then you move on.

Shame is very different. Unlike helpful guilt, which says, “I have made a mistake as a parent,” shame says, I am a mistake as a parent” or “I’m a bad parent”

Intense shame is often described as feeling worthless, flawed, unlovable, unwanted, or defective in some way. Shame can also make one feel inadequate, incompetent, helpless, or like a failure (Teyber & Teyber, 2017).

Shame can be reinforced by experiences from a person’s own learning history where that parent (as a child) was made to feel bad for who they were, hearing things like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you do things the right way?” or “You’re driving me crazy.”

Although it may sound counterintuitive, shame can actually drive us to self-protection and anger or rage, which might drive us to yell. It’s a “fight” response: You hurt me. I hurt you. Maybe not with hands, but with words.

According to Teyber & Teyber, when a child misbehaves, a parent with a certain learning history can take that very personally even though the child is just doing what children do – testing limits to learn where they stop and others begin.

However, the parent may feel disrespected or devalued, which can trigger a response of reclaiming power and control: “I am not weak” and “You can’t talk to me like that.” It doesn’t matter that the child has nothing to do with that past learning history that’s fueling that fire.

The past learning has become the present moment. That’s how the survival response works. Your prefrontal cortex or thinking brain that would – when you are regulated – say, “Wait! This is your child. What are you doing? That’s not the parent you want to be!” is in the trunk, tied up, and going along for the ride. It’s been hijacked by your limbic system.

The antidote to shame is self-compassion. I’ll devote a whole article to this later in the series, but for now note that parents who have higher levels of self-compassion are happier and have healthier and happier kids.

How do I stop yelling at my kids?

Luckily, even our stubborn adult brains can change. Put simply, neuroplasticity is the process of rewiring your brain. Yet I won’t lie to you. It is much harder for us to change than our children. Here are a few ways to start:

  1. Recognize your triggers and uplevel your pre-game. What things typically trigger you to yell? Think about context for you and your child. For most parents, the biggest trigger is time such as running late for work, school, or bed time. What can you do to frontload those factors to reduce their impact on your stress?

    For example, for problems in the morning routine, you could try: setting you or your child’s alarm earlier, giving your child warnings, requiring them to pack their bags and lunch the night before, etc.

    The most common triggers for children’s misbehavior follow the acronym HALT (hunger, anger, loneliness/boredom, and tiredness). Try to plan on how to reduce those especially in moments when you’re also stressed.

  2. Retrain your brain. Use the skills discussed in the last article in the series on how to chill out when you get angry. If your pre-game plan hasn’t taken care of everything, don’t punt. Try to recognize physiological sensations that come before yelling and start using your skills there. The more you train your brain to recognize those sensations, the more aware you will be in the moment. And then it’s just practice, practice, practice. The more you practice and in different contexts, the more flexible your behavior becomes and the quicker your brain learns to pivot.

  3. Share your goals and plan with your child. Being vulnerable with your children shows them that you value them and their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. It also shows trust. You can discuss your values around stopping yelling in the home and why you want to make the change and think it will help everyone.

    For you to make real change, your partner will have to be on board with this as if your responses are inconsistent, you get nowhere. (If your partner is the primary parent who yells, then this can be more complicated and may require the help of an individual or couples therapist.) Also, give your children space to discuss their own views. Be prepared. They will likely tell you about times that yelling has hurt them. It’s very important to validate those emotions without getting hooked (e.g., “Thank you for sharing me with how you feel. You are so brave to do that. Of course, it was scary and upsetting when I raised my voice.” You’re reinforcing open communication and connection, not compliance at this point. (In a later article, I will discuss how to discuss what you’re going to do about any problem behaviors, instead of yelling, but this is just to orient them to the goal of a yelling-free home).

  4. Give your kids permission. You can also give your children permission to tell you if you are yelling, raising your voice, or your communication is upsetting – giving your child permission in advance to say something like, “Mommy, I don’t like it when you raise your voice” or something like that.

    It’s hard for children to do much more than that, and you’d need to be able to pivot quickly from that, so don’t invite that until you can handle it. It’s extremely helpful to get there though. It teaches your child to ask for what he or she needs.

  5. Connect and redirect. After you are regulated, then you can connect with your child emotionally. In this moment, you can validate any emotions that your child has and engage in ways that let them know you are connected to them (e.g., gentle touch, eye contact, calm voice, gentle humor and playfulness). If there is a lesson to teach, then you can guide that with values.

    After validating your child, you can share your parental concern about the problem with them. Those concerns should be rooted in your values, not your child’s problems. Common values for parents are: physical health and safety, open communication, family kindness, etc. This means the message to a child turns into something they really can’t argue with – “The reason for the rule of taking showers or bedtime is not there to make your life miserable or because you’re a bad kid, it’s there because we want to help you learn how to care for yourself and take care of yourself. We know that you can do these things, and it’s important that we let you do these on your own as you’re ready.”

  6. Apologize to your child. If you’ve yelled at your child, you can apologize. A deep and heartfelt apology interrupts the flow of communication and often feels awkward and vulnerable. It is so rare for most people that it is often a shock. Yet, according to Harriet Lerner, author of the book, ‘Why Won’t You Apologize?,’ “sometimes, the failure of the other person to apologize when they should hits us harder than the deed they should apologize for.” Apologizing to your child models accountability and vulnerability, both of which are incredibly are courageous and the antithesis of either fear or weakness. Some of Dr. Lerner’s tips for apologizing are below.

If I use these more positive strategies, doesn’t that mean I’m letting them “off easy?”

This is a frequent response I get from parents who have used more harsh discipline in the past. Often, these parents had this discipline used with them. A parent might say, “My parent used this with me, and I turned out ok.” Hearing that statement evokes so much compassion.

Without self-awareness, sadly, it may be difficult for a parent to see just how much that discipline didn’t “work” for them and their relationships. And based on the earlier discussion of shame, you can see how that can really be difficult to see.

The research on authoritarian parenting, using physical discipline, and verbal aggression is clear. All negatively impact human development.

And regulating yourself is definitely not the easy way out. It’s actually much harder to slow down and regulate your emotions and co-regulate your child, and then pivot to teaching a lesson or problem-solving.

In the end, I can’t convince you not to yell at your child. That is the last thing I would try to do. Not yelling at your kids is a values-based choice you will have to make every day, so it must be something that matters to you. It can’t be another “should” or forced value from someone else.

Again, the goal here is not perfection. You will mess up. You will likely yell at your child again or at least be short or raise your voice.

A mistake is not the measure of a person. A mistake is an opportunity to learn, change, and connect with your child. You are modeling how to fail and get back up again, and again.

In the next installment, we will discuss what you can do INSTEAD of yelling when your child has problem behaviors and how you can connect with your child while also redirecting their behavior. Humans aren’t great at “not yelling” or not doing things in general. It’s typically making a plan for what you ARE going to do instead.

If you need help working on your yelling or other unhelpful communication or behavioral strategies at home, a therapist with expertise in this area can help. If you have experienced childhood trauma or are struggling with depression or other behavioral health issues, you may need more support in this area. Yet you CAN change this pattern for your family!


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Caplan, P. J., & Hall‐McCorquodale, I. (1985). Mother‐blaming in major clinical journals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(3), 345-353.

Craig, A. G., Thompson, J. M., Slykerman, R., Wall, C., Murphy, R., Mitchell, E. A., & Waldie, K. E. (2020). The Father I Knew: Early Paternal Engagement Moderates the Long-term Relationship between Paternal Accessibility and Childhood Behavioral Difficulties. Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X20980128.

Jefferson, F. A., Shires, A., & McAloon, J. (2020). Parenting self-compassion: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 11(9), 2067-2088.

Regalado, M., Sareen, H., Inkelas, M., Wissow, L. S., & Halfon, N. (2004). Parents’ discipline of young children: Results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health. Pediatrics, 113(Supplement 5), 1952-1958.

Tangney, J. P., Niedenthal, P. M., Covert, M. V., & Barlow, D. H. (1998). Are shame and guilt related to distinct self-discrepancies? A test of Higgins’s (1987) hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(1), 256.

Teyber, E., & Teyber, F. (20172010). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model. Cengage Learning.

Wang, M. T., & Kenny, S. (2014). Longitudinal links between fathers’ and mothers’ harsh verbal discipline and adolescents’ conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Child development, 85(3), 908-923.


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