Nanette Bryan, a Chardon mother of two boys, was at her wit's end last spring when her first-grader began chewing his clothes when he was bored. Brandon would come home from school with gnawed-through shirts that had been whole that morning. Bryan chalked the first episode up to a playground incident and dismissed it. But when Brandon's shirts began looking like Swiss cheese with increasing regularity, she lost it.
"I yelled at him," she says. "And not just once. This went on for well over a month. I was so upset."
One day at the gym, she vented to a friend who happens to be a child psychologist. Her friend suggested giving her son the responsibility of taking care of the laundry.
It worked — on two fronts. Not only has Brandon stopped munching on his clothes, he's also found satisfaction in doing laundry.
"Brandon's new job was to gather the laundry, put it in the washer and dryer, fold, sort and deliver it to the proper room," she says. "I don't expect him to fold perfectly and I help him. But he's really taken to the process. Surprisingly, what I thought would be a punishment turned into a fun activity, which wasn't my intention. He really likes it."
Bryan, who describes herself as a "somewhat vocal" parent, says yelling sometimes just happens, but she never does it in public. She also says yelling shouldn't be the main method of changing behavior, because kids learn to tune it out quickly. Giving consequences for actions is one of her favorite tactics, but she advocates connecting the punishment to the bad behavior. "I don't think taking the television away would have made a difference with Brandon's clothes problem," she says, "because it had nothing to do with it. The direct result of doing laundry for chewing clothes was something he could understand."
Strategies for changing inappropriate behavior are numerous, say child psychologists, teachers and parents, but virtually all of them agree that yelling has limited benefits. Dr. Ethan Benore, postdoctoral fellow in pediatric psychology at The Cleveland Clinic, says repeated yelling accomplishes little. "Parents believe that if a child isn't listening to what they're saying, they should say it louder to increase compliance," he notes. "That's a myth."
Myth or not, many parents believe that while eliminating yelling is desirable, it's also impossible — a sentiment many psychologists acknowledge. Alternative strategies are a great idea, but a withheld privilege that worked one day may backfire the next. Not knowing how to anticipate to what children will respond often increases frustration and turns into yelling.
Ask Sue Knox, a seasoned mother of five who lives in Kirtland. One day last summer, she noticed two belts in her driveway. She asked her children why they weren't put away. One calmly told her that another of her older kids had been carrying her 6-year-old somewhere and thought binding the younger child's hands and feet would make the job easier.
On another occasion, one of her sons mistook a television voice for his sleeping brother's. When the television taunted "sissy," the offended party clocked his brother in the head with a book, which led to bewildered screams, a bruised head and a mom who needed to make herself heard.
"And people wonder why I yell," Knox says with a laugh. "I do all the preventative strategies. My husband calmly talks the kids through the consequences of their actions. I take away the phone when house- or schoolwork isn't done. But sometimes, the best and fastest way to reach them, especially when a bunch of them are involved or if they are in danger, is to yell."
Knox admits that yelling isn't always the answer and that her family is close and shares a good sense of humor. Getting past the moment and into a calmer mentality often provides clarity for her to take further steps in modifying her children's behavior. Sharing her feelings and reactions with her kids, ages 6 through 16, in a nonthreatening way increases tolerance.
"Being able to laugh at the stupid things we all do is important," she says. "When I yell, I try to follow it up with a conversation and point out where boundaries were crossed. My kids are old enough to begin to appreciate the humor of it all. When we can laugh about how ridiculous we've been, then I know things are on the mend. And we always get to that point."
Brad Shepherd, assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University ¯ Stark, has two children, 6 and 9 years old. He understands the knee-jerk yell reflex that many parents feel is part of child rearing, and says that when parents acknowledge to their children that they've yelled out of their own frustration, they can begin to turn the habit around. Since yelling often builds barriers between parents and their kids, it doesn't resolve issues, and kids usually recall their parents' yelling episodes with
disdain. He recommends finding strategies that aren't remembered so adversely.
"Yelling is just a quick fix, and to move beyond it, parents need to get creative," Shepherd says.
Establish positive expectations
Danna L. Meek, an early childhood specialist for Geauga County Educational Service Center, says anticipating difficult situations and then thwarting them saves a lot of disaster management. "I believe in an ounce of prevention," she says, "and in including children in the rule-making process."
Meek's preschoolers write their own list of rules at the beginning of the school year. Although she guides the children as they come up with rules like "Be kind, listen and run [only] outside," they usually demonstrate knowledge of appropriate behavior. "And that's great because when an issue comes up, I remind them of their own rules," she says. "It shows respect for them and they'll often respond to that."
Writing the rules with a positive spin also helps. Instead of writing, "Don't run in the hall," Meek encourages children to think of where running is allowed and then writes the rule to reflect where running is appropriate.
Natural consequences for inappropriate behavior are another of Meek's techniques that connect the result with the problem. If a preschooler dawdles too long while putting on his coat, his outcome is staying inside for recess with another teacher. "And when that same child begins to show similar behavior on another day," Meek adds, "I just have to gently remind him of what happened the last time."
Often, constant reminders are necessary to instill expectations. It's not enough to agree on rules and then never mention them again. "When preparing for a trip, remind children of the rules for the car," Meek suggests. "When going to the grocery store, remind them of what they can get and what stays on the shelves. Consistency establishes behavior patterns."
A firm, kind, consistent approach
Dr. Paul DiVincenzo, a father of three and a psychologist with private practice offices in Bedford Heights and Euclid, says consistent reinforcement of expectations goes a long way.
"In my own child rearing and in my counsel to other parents, I recommend taking a firm, kind and consistent approach to discipline issues," DiVincenzo says, adding that yelling only reinforces that the child won the emotional battle. "The parent may feel on top in power for the moment, but kids know they're in control when they see you screaming and yelling. It's not a matter of never yelling, but recognizing what triggers it in you and then coming up with other ways of getting your kids to listen."
Continuous yelling demonstrates that parents don't know how to process their children's behavior and also models what children will perceive as an appropriate response to frustration. Although keeping cool and presenting a controlled demeanor is difficult when your 6-year-old has just drawn stick people on the living-room walls, it's the best way to show that you can constructively handle life's messes. Yelling may feel good at the moment, but it teaches kids that yelling works. "And they'll start yelling right back at you," DiVincenzo says. "And when both of you are yelling, those barriers just keep growing and the issue remains."
Yelling situations often turn into power struggles, which feed children's ability to manipulate parents. They know how to push parents' buttons.
"Give yourself a timeout," DiVincenzo says. "They're not just for the child's benefit. They're for yours, too. When everyone is getting worked up, model the behavior you want your children to learn." Rather than yell, say in a firm but kind manner that you need to evaluate the situation. That way you don't put your child in a defensive mode.
"You can come back to it in a little while and attack the issue, not your child," he says. "Do this as often as possible and your kids will learn to also respond constructively."
The power of negotiation and setting boundaries
Parents could save their sanity if they'd try negotiating with their children as opposed to simply giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed. Paula Hurwitz, a licensed independent social worker and psychotherapist in Willoughby Hills, says negotiating is one of her favorite tools — and something many parents overlook.
"Find out where your kid is before blowing up," she says. "Chances are, if you take some time to empathize with his problems, you won't want to blow up. Find out what you can do to satisfy at least one of his wants before you bring up what you want from him."
If Johnny gets off the bus with a black cloud hanging over him from an event at school and his mom is itching to voice her displeasure over his messy room, an ugly confrontation is likely to ensue. Hurwitz suggests asking children what happened that's making them so grouchy. Use open-ended questions to encourage conversation.
"The problem is that most parents are so inundated with their own troubles and other distractions that they don't think to give their children extra time to find out why they're acting up," she says.
Taking privileges away gets hard for parents because they often feel like they're keeping a constant scorecard, so Hurwitz says that parent should only use the loss of privileges if they're prepared to consistently enforce it.
"Sit down with your kids, make eye contact with them and listen to them," Hurwitz says. "And then be prepared to stick to what boundaries you set. Don't be afraid of your children. Negotiate with respect. Don't be quick to judge them. And give them their boundaries. Kids need them at all ages. After you've agreed on how to address their issues, then bring up yours."
A few strategies
The Clinic's Benore suggests that when parents want their children to pay attention, resist yelling and, before speaking, remove any distractions that could impede communication. Pause the video or turn off the radio and make eye contact before asking children to pick up their toys.
He also recommends that parents avoid giving verbal commands that offer choices. For example, it is less effective for a parent to say, "Will you hang up your coat?" than it is to say, "Please hang up your coat." Phrasing requests as questions allows children a way out if they don't want to comply.
If your child complies in about 10 seconds, great. If not, repeat the verbal command and give an additional prompt such as a gesture pointing to the coat. Again, if the child complies in 10 seconds, it's worked. However, if the child still doesn't obey, then repeat the command and provide a physical directive.
"The parent should take the child by the hand and lead him to the coat and help him hang it up," Benore says. Should your child consistently react to your requests with tantrums, Benore recommends seeking professional assistance.
Another strategy Benore suggests is behavioral contracting, which involves parents and children together writing the behavior on a chart. It goes a step further in that it lists both the positive consequences for obedience and negative consequences for noncompliance.
Use "if then" statements so children learn to connect outcomes with their behavior. For instance, a parent could write, "If Emma is in bed at 8:30 all week, then she can watch a video on Friday. If Emma isn't in bed at 8:30, then she doesn't watch a video on Friday."
"Over time, this replaces yelling because together you've set up the consequence," Benore says, "and the child knows in advance what will happen."
Anna Tyrell, mother of two and a family therapist in Willoughby who also teaches parenting classes at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, finds behavioral contracts are sometimes helpful for children, but the tracking they provide parents is really worth their effort.
"Moms can get so distracted and not keep track of the limits they set for their kids or the consequences they offer," she points out. "When you and your kids make a chart, it forces you as a parent to stay focused and on task."
Rewards for good behavior don't have to be major prizes like a new video game. "Big rewards become meaningless fast," Tyrell notes. "Kids get conditioned to just keep looking for the next prize. Token rewards and lots of praise are far more effective." Try baking cookies together, working a puzzle, playing a board game or taking a walk. n
What to Do After You Yell
Get over it. Parents need to understand that today's winning method may not work tomorrow. There's no foolproof way to get kids to comply. So, when you come home to find the fishtank has been emptied all over your new Oriental rug and your imported Swiss chocolates have been eaten and your pearl necklace needs to be restrung, realize that all the contracting in the world may not have prevented these things. Don't think you're a lousy parent if you yell.
"Recovering from a bout of yelling is hard," says family therapist Anna Tyrell. "But it can be a powerful lesson to explain yourself afterward. By saying that you were frustrated and didn't know what to do, you're modeling the skill you want to teach. You are showing a willingness to admit you make mistakes and want to make the best of things. Compliance techniques are only tools. Sometimes, you'll have to improvise."
When you catch yourself in the middle of yelling, stop and tell your kids that this is not the behavior you want to engage in. Give everyone a 15-minute break to think about a resolution and compromise.
Kids can help parents write "no-yelling" contracts. If parents don't yell for an entire week, then the kids can help come up with a positive outcome for them, such as making their parents' bed on a Sunday morning.
"And don't feel bad when you yell," psychologist Dr. Paul DiVincenzo reminds. "It's going to happen. Admit your shortcomings and move ahead."