What Happens When Parents Yell at Children

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An interview with Dr. Laura Markham

After I conducted this insightful interview about what happens when parents yell at their children, I promptly ignored all of Dr. Laura Markham’s practical advice. In fact, it took a couple of “opportunities” for me to pause, and put her guidance into practice. Once I did, something magical happened. My kids responded so positively, creating a more peaceful and respectful environment. Her wisdom, put into action, works. — Laurel Moglen, TMC, Managing Web Editor

Sometimes we feel like kids don’t pay attention until we yell — is that an effective way to get their attention?

Parents should consider that when they yell, they’re training their children they aren’t serious until they raise their voices.

For example:

Imagine your child is playing with his legos. You’re in another room, and call out, “Your bath is ready; please get in!” He ignores you. You remind him, and your voice gets sharper. He doesn’t respond. Now, aggravated, you yell and storm about, “How many times do I have to ask you to do something before you listen?!” By the third time your child realizes you’re serious.

This scenario can be avoided. Instead of parents working themselves into a frenzy, they need to take the time to handle the situation differently. This can be tough, especially after a long or rough day. But, the time parents take to ease their children into doing something they don’t want to do is well worth the effort. The alternative, struggling to get your child to do something, is a longer, more arduous process, and causes more stress for both parent and child.

So, instead, parents need to walk over, touch their child gently on the arm, (hand or leg, etc.) and say, “Wow – look what you’re doing.” Now the parent is taking an interest. Meanwhile, your child is basking in your love and feeling that you’re really noticing him. The connection he’s feeling to you initiates the biological system that is normal and natural between parent and child, creating that tight bond. In fact, this is what keeps the human race going. If kids feel parents have their best interest at heart (and paying attention sure makes them feel like you do), the child is willing to follow their parent.

Next, after a couple of minutes of really noticing your child’s project, you can say calmly, “Hey, I really need your attention right now. It’s time to take a bath.”

Your child might groan.

You say, “I know. It’s hard to stop what you’re doing.” (You’re showing empathy.)

If you’ve carved out enough time for the child to have some wiggle room you can say, “Do you want to take a bath right now or in five minutes?” Your child says, “In five minutes.” That’s an agreement to take a bath, even if he’s delaying it for a few minutes. You say, “Okay, five minutes. But I want to make sure we have a deal. Five minutes and no fuss?” Your child agrees. You say “It might still be hard for you in five minutes…How can we make this work for you?”

Your child might say “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be ready to take my bath then.” Or your child may not have any ideas, in which case the parent can say “How about this? In five minutes, we’ll work together to put the lego vehicles you’ve finished up on the shelf and the rest back in the bin. Will you want to fly one of them up to the bathroom?” You’re helping him see the transition ahead, and making clear that this is really going to happen. Then you smile and say, “Okay, shake on it.”

In five minutes, you go back and notice the progress the child has made. You say, “I know it’s hard, but we said five minutes and no fuss. You can do this tomorrow. Now, it’s bath time. Come on, let’s fly this one up to the bathroom!” You start walking with him.

Again, taking this route of communication/discipline takes more effort than blowing your top. But once you use this practice consistently with your kids, after about two months, they’ll just sigh and comply.

Another bonus is the child develops self-discipline. Every time he forgoes what he wants to do in favor of what you want him to do, your child is exercising his prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of his brain that gives him the ability to give up what he wants for something that’s more important to him. That’s the beginning of self-discipline, so that he can choose to do homework instead of surfing the web when he gets a bit older. He’s also learning to want to cooperate.

Can you take us inside a kid’s head — what is s/he experiencing when their parent or primary caregiver yells at them?

When you get yelled at, how does it feel? It’s likely hard to breath, you might feel flush, a tingling. Humans, when yelled or screamed at, tend to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

When kids go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, their learning and ability to absorb information shuts down.

Now, picture being a kid and looking up at someone who is four times your size. This person that’s glaring down at you is someone, who without them, you would die. You know, on some level, that your survival depends on this person. You will apologize or do whatever you need to do to make this person stop yelling.

Some children will give up if they’ve been yelled at too much. They learn to harden their heart to you because their trusted bond to their parent is broken. Once that happens the child will no longer try to please you. This is the child that will likely grow into a troubled teenager and possibly adult as well.

What happens inside a parent, when they lose control and yell?

When parents experience something unbearable again, like your child has peed on the floor, or hit the baby, or didn’t clean up her room when you asked her to — parents bump up against their threshold. Then, many parents go into this cascade of worry and anger. Every little dark spot in our lives gets blown up and exacerbated in our minds, and we go into survival mode. The mental gymnastics begin: I have a terrible child; I must be a terrible mother. Our sense of self is in peril, and we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

If we go into fight mode, we become enraged and we do what every other mammal does, we lash out — yelling, hitting, or dragging a child to the time-out. (Dogs growl and bark.)

After we’ve exploded, we feel as if, okay, at least we’ve done something.

But what would happen if we didn’t freak-out?

What if we stopped, took a deep breath, and recognized our feelings. Maybe you say something to shift your thinking: She’s three. She won’t do this when she’s six. She’s acting like a three year old because she’s a three year old. Take a moment to ask yourself, is this an emergency? Most likely the answer will be “no.”

So, instead you might say, “Wow, you peed on the floor. What happened? Let’s go into the bathroom. That’s where pee goes. Soon you’ll be able to do this. Let’s go clean up the pee.”

At the end of this, what does he want to do? He wants to use the toilet. He also feels close to you.

Yelling makes us feel temporarily better. It can also be addictive because it actually helps us squash our painful feelings down (like eating when nervous). But if you actually take a moment to experience your emotions, the feelings will dissipate.

Parents need to go under their anger to find-out what the true source feeling is, and this takes practice. You can let the feelings flood you. You’ll likely feel a wave of disappointment and/or sadness. Lots of different emotions and images come up. Typically, the source feelings under anger are fear, disappointment, or sadness. Breathe your way through them. This will help them dissolve, and you won’t dump them on your child.

What kind of effect does yelling have on the parent-child relationship?

Your kids lose respect for you. They decide you aren’t on their side so they’re less likely to follow your guidance.

Also, when you yell, you model that yelling is how adults handle frustration and resolve conflict. When they want to feel more in control and grown-up, they will do it by yelling. Yelling trains children to yell back.

Additionally, when you yell, you’re foisting your yucky feelings on your child. That’s an irresponsible thing to do, it’s not in the child’s best interest, and it doesn’t help the child change their behavior anyway.

Is there any benefit for parents to yell into a pillow or something? Is there something about yelling that can be helpful?

No, not really. When you hit a pillow or yell into it, you are convincing yourself and your body that there’s an emergency.

A note: It’s never useful to work something out with someone when you’re angry. If you do get to your boiling point with your child, tell her you need to take a time-out, because you feel too angry to communicate respectfully.

If it’s a bedtime issue – work-in some roughhousing before the bath, not right before bedtime so it doesn’t keep your child awake.

If you find you’re screaming too much and exhausting yourself, then you have to start asking questions about how to solve the problem.

Is it okay for parents to warn their kids, “I feel like I’m gonna yell if X,Y, Z doesn’t happen?”

Yes. It’s good. You’re noticing your feelings and describing them. Any time we bring consciousness to our emotional state, it gives us the choice of how to react. Will we take the high road or low road? Recognition of feelings gives us the time to allow us to shift gears.

Also, you’re modeling responsible anger management. The wisdom is how to deal with it.

For example:

You say, “I’m starting to get really angry. We’re in the car, and you’re noisy. I can’t concentrate, and that’s unsafe while I’m driving.” Then, many parents think with that warning, they get to yell if the behavior doesn’t change. But no. You warned your kids, and you warned yourself. So, let’s say the kids’ behavior doesn’t change.

Especially if you’re driving, you need to pull over. You take some breaths. You turn around and you say, “I stopped the car because I was so upset and it wasn’t safe for me to drive.” Ask your kids, “What can you do so that I can drive safely? My job is to stay calm.” By listening to their suggestions, you teach them about being responsible, and that they have a job to do to make sure everything in the family works.

Note: Your child is never responsible for your actions and feelings. But your child can be empowered knowing they have a huge impact on the people around them. Just like parents, your child can make any dynamic better or worse.

The good news is, the problems we have are usually recurring, so parents get another chance if they didn’t handle the situation as well as they would have liked. Your child will push your buttons again!

A nice ritual for parents is to review the day and ask themselves how they can do it differently next time. It creates emotional muscle memory. Think about the interaction with your child, and imagine yourself handling it more calmly next time. The next opportunity, you’ll build on what you did today.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Expert Advice

Comments (60)

  1. ??

    I know I can be a bit of a brat sometimes but if I ask my mom something or tell her something she sometimes screams at me really loud and it makes me really scared and when I try to tell her that I think there’s something wrong with her she screams even worse… I’m scared to tell her to read this what do I do? One time I knocked over a cup in the main room and she told me I couldn’t have friends over ever again


  2. TheKid

    My Mom yells at me if is mess up, even if I’m trying to be helpful, and then i get scared and mirror her reaction by yelling, which makes the situation worse and if I try to talk about it she blow me off or yells at me and make up some excuse why she was right. She usually is right, but the yelling scares me and I can’t stop it. Please help I don’t know what to do. I play softball and do music and I’m already really hard on myself and there is pressure coming from everywhere to do well and I can’t be perfect because I’m a person, but there’s no other way not to get yelled at. I want to tell somebody, but I don’t need to burden my friends with it, and there’s no time during the school day to talk to the counselor. I cry everyday and have considered harming myself which I know is very serious and I need help but I can’t get it from my family. PLEASE HELP ME. I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M DOING WRONG. I TRY SO HARD AND I CAN NEVER DO ANYTHING RIGHT.


  3. Stop Parent Madnes

    (PLEASE READ THIS THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE)To whoever reads this comment(for parents first then kids). When parents spank, you might think it helps. The truth is, IT DOES NOT HELP AT ALL SO STOP SPANKING YOU ARE JUST TEACHING YOUR CHILD WORSE THINGS AND HURTING THEIR HEALTH. MOST OF YOU PARENTS CARE ABOUT THEIR HEALTH, SO WHY THE HECK SPANK THEM??!!! Spanking also don’t just hurt them and teach them bad things, it also don’t freaking fix anything!!! All it does is make your child hate you more. Now for the kids part. If you are in a family with a yelling/spanking parent, give them one or two chances, maybe three(worse case). After a few times, your parent might like lock you out or like saying that they don’t want you in their family anymore, just give them one more chance or call the police. Now that is child abuse ILLEGAL. I’m writing this because my mom was yelling, crashing my brother’s stuff, and hitting/spanking him. Please don’t spank your child. Ill come back and comment another comment if it happens again that i want to share the story.


    • madison

      my mom yell at me a lot for no reason


    • Lauren

      I’m sorry that you are going through this. I know my response is a little late, but chances are that your situation at home hasn’t changed much, so I want to offer you some advice. I hope you get the message.

      My mom used to get so angry at the littlest things. She would start yelling and screaming, and chase after us kids with a coat hanger or anything that she could hit us with. And you are right, it didn’t teach us a lesson. I was the oldest kid and had 3 younger siblings. I, like you, felt the responsibility to protect my younger siblings, and I would feel helpless because I couldn’t keep them safe.
      I remember always telling myself, “when I’m a grown-up, I HAVE to remember how hard it is to be a kid/teen!” I promised myself that, when I had kids, I would think about how they are feeling on the inside, so that I can try to understand them.
      Now I do have kids, and I try my best to always learn new things that will help me to be a better parent.
      Parenting is hard, and no one is perfect. I realize now that my mom was probably yelling and hitting us because she was overwhelmed and she felt out of control with 4 kids who had never been disciplined; she didn’t know how to discipline, so she just yelled.
      Maybe you can talk to your mom (when she is calm) and tell her that you understand how she gets frustrated with you kids sometimes, but that y’all are not learning anything from her when she acts that way. Tell her that there is a lot of helpful advice on the Internet that will help her learn different methods of parenting that can help your whole family to start communicating more effectively.
      If things at home get worse, and your mom refuses to change her ways, you need to ask to speak with your school counselor. Talking to a counselor is private, and the counselor will not talk to your mom or anyone else about the things you discuss.
      Best wishes to you,
      I’m praying for your situation.


    • Lauren

      Here is a good article for your mom:


  4. Sarah

    Yelling (or spanking) is honestly one of the worst things to do to your child. They lose trust in you. It makes them feel worthless and depressed. As a child (and still to this day) my parents would constantly yell at me for the smallest things. It’s made me not like them at all. The only thing I learn is to not yell when I have a child. I am 20 now and it still effects me when my parents yell or shut me down. I can’t stand them and they make me feel utterly useless.


  5. Starski

    I yell to much , my kids say im always mad yelling and fusing :(:(:(


  6. Anonymous 2

    Shouting/ yelling at children is very stressful on both the adult and child. Yelling does not solve anything, actually it causes things to appear to be worse than they were before. If I were the adult in the situation I would find some other way to get through to my child without yelling or appearing to be speaking with and disrespectful or hurtful tone. And for the child, if you are becoming upset with the shouting or yelling towards you talk to the adult about what you are feeling and tell them that they are causing you to feel stressed or mentally hurt. Before you confront the adult besure to have documents stating that other children have gone through this to. Basically your letting your parent or guardian that they are not alone in the situation so they could possibly understand more clearly. You both will have to talk things out on how you will solve your issues. From there things should start to appear to be more welcoming and less stressful to wear you wouldn’t have to worry as much anymore.


  7. Carl

    My mother was like this when I was younger. I am 30 now. She has anxiety, but I don’t think she realizes that she makes herself anxious. She already can’t talk at a normal volume, she’s Italian, and then on top of that she freaks herself out.

    I never realized why my sister and her don’t talk, now I can understand. She makes everyone nervous with her energy. I can feel it in my body when I am near her. She has passed her nervousness and anger onto me. I have been trying to work out my anger issues and nervousness for the past few months.

    My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and even though I have explained to her numerous times that she should be more patient and soft spoken with her mother, she still continues to shout in her face to the point my grandmother gets so nervous, she goes into flight mode and runs out the door or tries to hit her. I have no idea how to get through to my mom on this issue alone. The most hilarious thing is that when I tell her that the reason my grandmother does this, she denies it and says she talks nice to her and she is quiet. I even have recorded her doing it and she watches and says it’s normal.

    Am I just crazy? Hahahaa


  8. Amanda Smith

    Mine parents yell at me all the time .
    Because I get in trouble all the time .
    When the parent’s yell at the kids they get in trouble all the time .
    The end .
    I should be good person that can be good all the time.
    Just give someone a chance .
    Some time you can be a good person .
    The end …!?♦


  9. Anonymous

    I yell Way too much at my son. He is a high functioning 10yr old by with ASD. I know there are somethings he can not control but there are Allot of thing he Can control but chooses not to. Every single morning starts off the same. We wake up positive and kind. I tell him I love him and to try to notice how his body is feeling and to try to stay on task and get his morning chores finished ( which are very simple) before we have breakfast and head to school. It’s ALWAYS an argument!! His attitude toward me is very disrespectful! I’m very concerned that all the yelling will/has resonated in him and he has no regaurd for anything I say. I’m Dying inside and I simply CAN NOT handle this !!


    • Starski

      sometimes a spanking works, let him know who runs the show. Its very hard but when my 4 year old says something disrespectful to me i pop him in the mouth unexpectedly and he apologizes, u gotta give him the look. sounds mean but you gotta put your foot forward, don’t let the kids run over you , and in between all that give him tuns of kisses and hugs and movie time :):):):)


      • Be Careful About Your Actions

        Please do not hit your child. All this does is make your child fear you, lose respect for you, make them think it’s okay to hit other people, and make them dislike you.x


      • Laurence

        this is literally the worst parenting advice i’ve ever seen like yeah hurt your kids and then spoil them


      • Lauren

        Starski- I wouldn’t advise someone to hit their child in the face (or anywhere else, for that matter). Whenever someone disrespects him as a teen/adult, would you want him to “pop them in the mouth?” Assault/Domestic Violence could land him in jail. I’m sure that’s not the example that you are intending to set for him, so you should think about other ways to gain his respect. In my experience, I have learned that my boys (9yr and 11yr) respect me more because I am respectful to them. And when they do act disrespectful, I send them to their room for a few minutes (or an isolated area, depending where we are), and when they have calmed down and had time to reflect, I talk to them and remind them that sometimes we do/say things that we don’t mean when we are emotional, and that part of growing up is learning how to control that so that we, as adults, will be able to respond appropriately when a situation arises. Then I offer them a chance to express their message to me with constructive language (rather than being disrespectful) so that we can try to resolve the issue.
        A lot of times kids resort to being disrespectful because they don’t feel like their feelings/ideas are being heard or validated. Try to see things from their point of view!


  10. anon

    My mom yells at me constantly and says that she never wanted to have a child. I am a pre teen and she beats me with her belt sometimes. I threatened to call the police but she says she doesnt care. She is a sick individual. Please write an article if its alright to yell at a preteen and up. Thanks.


    • Anon

      to the anon, get the police. you are in an abusive household. i hope you can get through this soon. also, please if you can take care of your brother somehow. (To anonymous.)


    • Starski

      anon sorry to hear that your mother tells you all the time that she wish she never had a child, well tell her then she should have closed her legs , hahaha jk. Just know that kids can really make a parent mad and a parent can say some nasty things to her children but if your mom keeps telling you over and over again and she never tells you she loves you and tries to show you diffrent, are you sure you ok at home, do you feel scared or not safe at home


  11. anonymous

    My parents are such angry freaks they get ticked off at everything I do, even when its such an insignificant thing like not doing a homework due today when its not due until 2 weeks later. They are constantly demeaning me and telling me to get out, a few times they’ve even locked me outside of the door in the night. I’m leaving for college soon but I just have to get this off my chest I won’t miss them one damn bit. All i feel bad for is my younger brother who’ll have to deal with my idiot parents by himself until he graduates. My parents are constantly arguing with themselves, finding faults with me and my brother, and plain making our lives crappy. I hate them and honestly I can’t see myself missing them in college.


  12. Lisa

    I am a 47 yr old with a 7 yr old boy” I have to be honest. I’m learning to respond and not react. I do not wish to yell at my son I can raise my voice and I feel that it is very unnecessary. I think everyone who has commented on this site. I want to be the best mom ever and if anyone has any situations or suggestions I am open to anything. I am a single mom and my son means the world to me kids get enough damage from the outside world they do not to need to have problems at home.



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