yelling. versus YELLING!

I YELLED at my kids this morning. We were all in the kitchen, the boy was doing his provocative shtick, and the girl walloped him after telling him to stop three times. And by YELLING, I mean I raised my voice. I had to; they were making such a racket, they wouldn’t have heard me otherwise. No one’s feelings were hurt, and no one seemed bothered by the fact that I YELLED. They knew their behavior was inappropriate. They had nothing to gain by accusing me of YELLING. Had they, I would have said, “You’re darn right I did.”

Last night, I said to my daughter, “Did you remember to schedule a time to meet with your English teacher?” I said it once, in a soft conversational tone. Her response? “Calm down! Stop yelling!”

The contrast between these two interactions with my own kids reminds me of something I see frequently during family therapy sessions. Today’s quotes do not come from a specific client; they are composites of comments from virtually every child and adolescent client who has ever graced the comfy couch in my office:

See, she’s yelling at me. or I told you he’s a yeller. 

Parents and children do not agree on what it means to yell. Parents think of yelling as synonymous with “raising one’s voice” or even “screaming.” They become defensive when their children accuse them of yelling. Kids, on the other hand, think of yelling as “expressing disapproval.” While they don’t like for parents to raise their voices, what children really don’t like is for their parents to express disapproval of their behavior.

According to the adult definition of yelling, parents virtually never yell in front of me. After all, I am a psychologist; except for the occasional very young client, folks are on their best behavior in my office.

What does happen in my office is that parents talk about behaviors they don’t like. A mother may say, for example, “I’ve told you repeatedly that if you miss curfew, I will take away your car keys and yet you still come in late.” Even if Mom says this calmly and conversationally, the teen may feel his mother is yelling at him. A father may say “It’s your own fault you’ve been sitting on the bench; you haven’t been working on your ball handling.” No matter how matter-of-factly he says this, his daughter is likely to respond as if he is yelling at her.

As soon as a child accuses a parent of yelling, the discussion devolves into an argument about whether or not the parent yelled. This is a waste of time that can be avoided by just accepting the two age-dependent definitions of the word.

Have you ever noticed that when you are saying something that you don’t want your child to hear, perhaps when you lower your voice or even whisper, his ears perk up?  And when you speak firmly and directly to your child, she may act as if she can’t hear you? You can use this phenomenon to your advantage. When you have to express disapproval (and what parent doesn’t?), speak in a slower and softer than usual voice. This approach keeps the focus on your child’s behavior, rather than yours.

Reserve raising your voice for times when you have to do so to be heard, like in my kitchen this morning. If you raise your voice at other times, your children will just get better and better at tuning you out. Plus, when you use a calm and conversational tone of voice, you are modeling effective interpersonal skills for your child. When you YELL, not so much.

Now, remember the example about the mother who may or may not have yelled at her son for repeatedly missing curfew? Yelling was not the problem with what this mother said. Can anyone figure out what was? Post a comment if you think you know!


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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3 Responses to yelling. versus YELLING!

  1. janetedgette says:

    So true! Same thing with “freaking out.” My boys will tell me that I “freaked out” on them and I’m like, “What? Really? When?” Nice post. JSE

  2. Pingback: Swooping | What Kids Want Us to Know

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