I Refuse To Feel Like A Horrible Parent For Yelling At My Kids And I’m Not Alone

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shutterstock_143586229I write for Mommyish five days a week, which means I read dozens of parenting articles and (sometimes half-baked) studies every day I have a deadline. Most of them I read, consider for a few minutes and move on.  I keep perusing until I find “the one.”  The one that gets me writing in my head before I can even open up the dashboard to type.  But then every once in awhile something I read just sticks with me in a way that sends up all kinds of red flags and sirens and maybe even smoke coming from my ears. I don’t write about that one.  In fact, I try my best to just forget it.  This happened to me yesterday but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.  It makes me want to ask every parent I see the same question: do you yell at your kids?

Yesterday Slate published a Homer Simpson-esqe “it’s funny cause it’s true” piece detailing the author’s co-workers’ experiences with either being yelled at as a child or yelling at their own children.  The study, if you haven’t read it in the past few months, concludes that yelling at your children is as damaging as physically abusing them. GREAT.

I admit I lose my cool more than I would like with my two-year-old and four-year-old.  I yell a fair amount during the day, especially trying to get them out of the house in the morning (them to school, me to work).  I also yell a fair amount at bedtime because they prefer running around naked, throwing books and bears and making jokes, to brushing their teeth, putting on the pajamas and actually going to bed.  After reading the Slate piece, the Washington Post take and the actual study I stopped dead in my tracks.  Am I essentially beating my kids on a regular basis?  Is that the kind of harm I am inflicting on them?

And the study doesn’t let the sometimes slip-up slide:

Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline, said Wang, can still be harmful. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad,” he said.

Even once in awhile, “it’s still bad.”  Where does that leave me?  Besides thoroughly depressed.

Although the study specifically analyzed teens and tweens, I’m guessing it’s because that age group is best able to detail how exactly their parents are damaging them with their every move.  I wasn’t thinking I was off the hook because my kids haven’t reached those ages yet.  So then I can’t stop thinking.  I’m arguing with the study in my mind while I’m on the bus, at work, in the shower.

This can’t be.  And what am I supposed to do?  First of all, I’ve already done immeasurable damage.  I mean, I don’t want to yell.  I don’t think of it as a great parenting tool.  But sometimes I just lose it.  I yell for them to put their shoes on.  I yell at them to brush their teeth.  I can’t be perfect!  I’m really trying to raise good human beings here, but I guess it’s all invalidated by my yelling? What am I supposed to do???  

Screw it.  That was my conclusion last night after hours of self-torture.  Screw it.  And try my best to keep it together as often as I can.  It’s all I can do.

And then today I read the Motherlode and found my underlying reasoning echoed right back at me:

I’m calling this one out. I’ve looked at the study. I’m not accusing the researchers of any failings (this is a peer-reviewed study, which appears to have dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s). I’m merely saying that I refuse to buy it. I refuse to let this one crawl into my brain and take up residence in my psyche, where it could snuggle up right next to the baby sleep expert who wrote something like “even leaving an infant to cry alone a single time is damaging to the trust you are building between you” and caused me untold sleepless nights. If a parent’s hauling off and hollering over a lapful of hot coffee is now considered to be as “damaging” to a child as it would be to lash out with our fists, then the real message of that research is this: Only the perfect parent can rest easy, while the rest of us must just live with the knowledge that we’re inflicting harm with every “occasional lapse.”

I am not perfect, nor do I ever expect my children to be.  If we keep talking – and try to keep the yelling to a minimum – we’ll all be alright.  I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.  Today I’m going to let that be good enough.

(photo: Sunny studio-Igor Yaruta/Shutterstock)


  1. Alex Lee

    November 8, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I’m a pretty patient dad with my kids. So on the rare occasion that I do yell, both kids know they’ve entered into “serious bizness” territory.

    It’s an effective method of getting their attention. I think there has to be a balance, though. If you are constantly yelling, then it takes away some of its potency. You then are faced with the situation of the kids ignoring your screaming and that just makes you yell more. You may even be tempted to use profanity which is totally against the rules for me. Is it teaching them to be yellers themselves? Maybe. I hear them scream at each other and when the volume gets to a certain threshold, I have to step in and POINT OUT how ineffective their yelling is (as if they didn’t already realize it from their strained vocal cords).

    I yelled at my daughter to put her shoes on once. She was totally nonplussed. It was then that I figured yelling wasn’t going to work at that time – so we found another technique for putting on her sneakers – calming down, putting her in my lap, and left-foot, right-foot.

    Communicating with them is fine – even at elevated volumes. If you’re running late for an appointment then the urgency of the situation may call for yelling. You’re impressing on them that you have important things to do in your day. That’s all fine, they need to realize you matter, too and, to paraphrase Eve, not be assholes.

    If you’re yelling and putting your kids down, then it starts to mimic abuse. If they’re causing a ruckus and your migraine is an EF-5, of course you’re going to yell at them to be quiet – but give them some guidance as to what to do quietly.

    • Carinn Jade

      November 8, 2013 at 9:45 am

      I love this comment. Just for the record I have never once thought my yelling would be effective, that they would suddenly do what I say because I shout my command. But it’s what I do to vent my own frustration. I have never put my children down, which as you mention is an important distinction. I’m just barking commands. But I agree with you. Yelling every day completely undermines the tactic. I am trying very hard to calm myself – it gets harder the more stressed out I am about starting my day at work. But I try.

    • Alex Lee

      November 8, 2013 at 9:48 am


      sorry, didn’t mean to yell…

    • Bethany Ramos

      November 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Maybe my kids are too young for my yelling switch to trigger, but I don’t really yell because I grew up in a really explosive household. That being said, I have nothing against random yelling explosions because of frustration. If your kids literally never see you yell because you break down because you’re human, aren’t they going to be totally taken aback when someone yells at them in the real world, like a teacher or boss?

    • Carinn Jade

      November 8, 2013 at 10:16 am

      I’m not sure age has so much to do with it. I’m realizing from these comments that it doesn’t have anything to do with the way we were raised either (there are just as many people who say I yell because I was raised that way as there are those who say they refuse to yell because they were yelled at, and every combination). For me, it is becoming clear it has to do with my stress level. Now that I am back to work full-time in the office I am stressed to the gills every day. It makes my fuse so much shorter.

    • Bethany Ramos

      November 8, 2013 at 10:20 am

      I hear that. I’m just saying that IMO, and like you said, yelling every once in a while can’t be the worst thing ever (if it’s a frustration outburst) because that’s just real life. Your kids will see it eventually, and if you can show them how to handle anger and bounce back from a freakout, then all the better. So you’re definitely doing good enough, like you said. 🙂

    • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

      November 10, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      I support you in your decision not to freak out about yet another study. Pretty much everything you ever do as a parent is damaging, I guess, according to some study. I yell when I’m extremely stressed and everyone’s talking at once. I feel guilty about it a lot, but it’s a natural reaction to stress for me, and in all the years I’ve tried to change it, I haven’t really been able to make a dent in it.

  2. keelhaulrose

    November 8, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I’ll yell about once or twice a day, things like I’ve been asking for an hour for my daughter to move her snack bag to her backpack and it’s now three minutes before the bus gets here so why is the bag still on the counter. Sometimes asking nicely gets lost in playtime. She’s putting together a “party” and registers that I asked, but she needs to lay out fake food first, and in the play the chore gets lost. Most of the time I can tell her to stop and do it, but I have a special needs two year old who adds to the chaos and frustration and I don’t notice she didn’t do the chore until we’re deep in the “I asked you to get ready half an hour before you needed to go and now it’s time you finally decided to get ready” craziness. I don’t think it damages her, just makes her realize the urgency of the situation.
    The cleaning fights, however, I’m not proud of. That’s yelling out of anger because it’s easier to translate the Dead Sea Scrolls than get my kids to put their stuff away, and no amount of motivation gets through to them.
    I’m trying to get better, however, because raised voices really upset my little girl.

    • Carinn Jade

      November 8, 2013 at 9:47 am

      hahaha, easier to translate the dead sea scrolls! I hear that!

  3. Janok Place

    November 8, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I was raised in a house where yelling was a real faux pas, my parents believed it to be completely unneccassary. Their logic went something like this, “How would we like our daughter to confront frustration?” and the conclusion, was that they wanted me capable of adult reasoning and calmly, objectively overviewing the situation as a whole. Now my mother was strict. In public, children should be seen and not heard. At all times I was to show her respect, she was my mother and it didn’t matter if I thought she was right or wrong, I was not entitled to form my own opinions on her parenting because I was the child. I was obedient, did as I was told, very very rarely got in trouble and if I did it was met with consequence such as “Go to your room, come back when you can explain exactly what you did wrong and apologize.” Then I would inevitably come out, explain my wrong doings, apologize and I would be dismissed. Things would still be tense until the following day. My mother shutting down, closing off and being dismissive was more hurtful then a flash blow out ever would have been.

    My husband was raised in a home with excessive screaming. Constant. He wet the bed until he was 11, he’s short tempered, easily frustrated and finds calm reasoning nearly impossible. He doesn’t want to be this way, he doesn’t like getting angry, but it’s a knee jerk reaction. I believe we learn to cope with frustration in a very similar way to the methods our parents chose. My home growing up had it’s issues, some very very serious. But now I am capable at facing most situations objectively, and able to find constructive solutions for our young daughter. Simply do not allow poor behavior to continue, it takes a lot longer sometimes but I am extremely consistent and even at a very young age she knows the consequence for the majority of her decisions and is capable of reasoning a solution. That said, I do yell more often then my parents… and I think that is in response to the tense frustration my husband suffers through. Day to day frustrations are much, much more upsetting for him then they are for me. Being unaccustomed to yelling, I’m never sure how to respond and end up getting tensed up when under normal circumstances it wouldn’t phase me.

    Anyways, that’s my take on the differences. I think everyone loses it sometimes, but I can count on one hand the number of times either of my parents raised their voices. And BOY when they did, did I EVER listen.

  4. Elisianna

    November 8, 2013 at 9:55 am

    My mom yelled at me a lot. I found it extremely annoying, I wonder if it was also damaging? I have never been a yeller. In fact I tend to yell a lot when I am happy and I get all quiet and serious when I am angry.
    I only have an eight month old so only time will tell… Just now I asked her, in a slightly raised and very exasperated voice, “Why are you doing this to me?!” She wants to nurse AND pinch my skin with her razor blade nails. If I pull her hand away cause she tends to break my skin and give me welts, she stops nursing. Over and over again.

    • Alex Lee

      November 8, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Use a spongy nail file and manicure that baby. We did this to our kids for everyone’s protection. If she can break your skin, she can break her own. She inadvertently scratched her own cheek in her sleep one night – a very rude awakening.

    • Jessica

      November 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm

      I got a teether necklace from Amazon (“Organic Pendant- Silicone Necklace”) when my son started doing crazy pinching and other weirdness while nursing, also around 8 months. He pulls on it and it seems distracting enough! He also chews on it when I hold him instead of pulling my hair, earrings, face skin….

  5. Andrea

    November 8, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Well I will admit that I do it more than I should and that it has probably lost some of its effectiveness. Their dad is like fellow poster Alex Lee, who doesn’t really yell, but when he does, the kids know Judgement Day is upon them. It’s probably more effective that way.

  6. pixie

    November 8, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I think there’s a huge difference between “yelling” at your kids out of frustration because you’ve already asked them ten times to pick their socks up off the floor and screaming insults and obscenities at your kids (I put yelling in quotation marks because what one person considers yelling could be different from another).
    You mentioned in a reply to someone else that you never insult your kids. I never would have assumed you would, but that’s a good thing you don’t insult them. I really don’t think you’re damaging your children by occasionally losing your cool out of frustration. You’re there emotionally for your kids, they know you love them, but sometimes mommy just gets a little cranky when having to ask the same thing repeatedly.
    Now a parent exploding over something very small and screaming “oh my god, you stupid little git, how could you do that? You’re such a f***ing nuisance, I wish I never gave birth to you”, then they’d probably damage their child emotionally.

  7. Snarktopus

    November 8, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I don’t yell when I get angry. I yell when I get scared. Like if baby girl’s about to flip herself off her chair onto her head after I’ve told her to sit on her butt in the chair for the zilliionth time.

  8. Magrat

    November 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    There was an Onion headline a while back, “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.”

    • Emmali Lucia

      November 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm

      The sad thing about the Onion is sometimes what they write is more true than what the actual newspapers write.

  9. G.E. Phillips

    November 8, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I felt like I was going through a phase where I was yelling at Face a lot, which either had two outcomes: Face would completely ignore me and keep doing what he was doing, or he would absolutely crumble and go, “Don’t YELL at me, you’re SCARING ME!” and then I’d spend the next 10 minutes hugging and comforting him and the next 4 hours in a complete shame spiral. (Let me just note here that I have never sworn at, threatened, or insulted my child–but I have yelled his name or “STOP IT!” quite loudly a few times.)
    Anyway, what I figured out was that trying to stop myself from yelling when things had gotten to the Yelling Point wasn’t working. What I had to do what change the entire situation. Like, he was shitty about going to bed because I was shitty about putting him to bed–I would sit there with him for an hour and he would do gymnastics on the bed and try to play with me and I would get really frustrated and then yell at him. Dumb, right? Now, I sit with him for 10 minutes, then turn on his nightlight and leave the room. He goes to sleep. No frustration and no yelling. I mean, that’s just one example and I’m still working on things. My main point, I guess, is that it was easier for me to fix what was causing me to yell than it was for me to just “stop yelling.”

  10. jendra_berri

    November 8, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    My mom, who I lived with, was not a yeller. My dad, who I did not live with, was. I was scared of my dad. I loved my mom more and felt safer with her. My dad just had zero patience.
    She was able to keep us in line by lots of affection, but then informing us when we had disappointed her, plus making us feel ashamed for embarrassing ourselves and her in public. Oh, the sinking dread of having that happen! Worst thing ever, but highly effective.
    But that didn’t mean my mom never yelled. She did from time to time because she was a normal person. It just wasn’t her immediate go-to place. When it happened, she was frustrated to a point where yelling became necessary to vent the steam. But she always apologized after. That was wonderful. It set an excellent example for how one can lose it because they’re human, and still behave lovingly.
    I hope to be just as good of a mother as she was. Yelling from time to time isn’t inherently bad. It can be when it’s belittling or to intimidate, but it’s not the end of the world at all.

  11. Kelly

    November 9, 2013 at 12:32 am

    What you’re yelling matters. That should be addressed. If you’re screaming “STUPID, UGLY, USELESS FUCKING BITCH!” at your child regularly, that is just as bad as beating them. That’s very different from “CLEAN YOUR ROOM NOW!”

  12. CrazyLogic

    November 9, 2013 at 4:31 am

    My mother yelled a lot more than my father. Hell my father being angry enough to yell was practically mythical.

    End result, my mother’s raised voice is taken less seriously, or causes me to get defensive over something minor or thinking “what did I do NOW?”. Dad’s raised voice was the ultimate terror that I never wanted to face.

    Thing is…I don’t think he yelled at any of the three of us. Only time he ever yelled was when the dog was peeing, pooping or doing something else wrong in the house…

  13. GPMeg

    November 13, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    I run a child care facility and the children adore me — no, really, I get emails from parents about how their kids talk to each other at bath time about how much they love Ms. Meg. We recently let an employee go because he could not command any respect from the children; he accused me of being abusive because I yell at the children when they’re hitting each other or running through a hallway about to hit a concrete wall or not paying attention because they’re five. Difference between the two of us? When I say in a normal voice, “Mason, please walk.” Mason immediately goes back to where he came from and walks. When the former employee says, “Mason, please walk.” Mason continues running and slams his head in to a wall.

    Sure, being a crazy crazy crazy yelling machine is abusive, but if you’re like most parents… your yelling is not abusive. Also, tweens and teens? Because they’re not a little tiny bit wound up with the feelings and more likely to feel persecuted? I’m just saying.

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