FAQ’s about yelling at your adolescent

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh published a study this fall that looked at the relationship between teens being yelled at and their behaviour.  The results were inconvenient, to say the least, to parents who use yelling as a form of steering their teenager into appropriate behaviour.  To put it quite simply, the study found that children who are yelled at in a psychologically harming way have more depressive symptoms, and:

…the study found that not only does harsh verbal discipline appear to be ineffective at addressing behavior problems in youths, it actually appears to increase such behaviors. Parents’ hostility increases the risk of delinquency by lowering inhibition and fostering anger, irritability, and belligerence in adolescents, the researchers found.

The Science Daily

My parents yelled at me often. What’s all the fuss about these days about it being bad for a kid?

So…while your parents may have yelled at you, and you survived, it’s quite likely it wasn’t helpful.  Think back…how much did it really help? Researchers looked at it with scientific rigour…and turns out it really is destructive.

Let’s take a step back. Remember when that teenager was a little baby snuggled in your arms…he quieted when you picked him up when he was fussing.  When she skinned her knee, she came running to you for comfort. When the kids picked on him at recess, you gave him hot chocolate and you listened, and told him you thought he was great and he deserved so much better.  Parents are designed to be a child’s safe place.

When the safe place becomes dangerous, that’s confusing for a child.  And scary. And frustrating…because they need parents to be the safe place.  A safe place they can go when someone has offered them drugs, or made fun of their clothes or their glasses, or they just need a place where they know they are loved and accepted.

Teens need their parents to be their stable base…adolescents don’t generally give their parents the satisfaction of letting them know how important they are, but parents are vital to teens.  A good connection is important!

Is yelling really that bad?

The study looked at “harsh verbal discipline”…that is …
Harsh verbal discipline happens when parents use psychological force to cause a child to experience emotional pain or discomfort in an effort to correct or control behavior. It can vary in severity from yelling and shouting at a child to insulting and using words to humiliate.

The study looked at 967 teens in two parent middle class American families and found that half of these kids had been yelled at harshly…with name calling, cursing and swearing in the last year. That sort of yelling attacks a child’s spirit and sense of well being, and yep, that’s bad.

Swearing, name-calling and other forms of psychological violence cause shame and humiliation. You may look like you’re changing behaviour in your teen to something that’s more desirable, but you are using psychological force to coerce them into a certain behaviour.  That’s not true change.

Using loud volume, cursing and name calling to change behaviour will quite possibly change it on the outside, but quite likely not change it on the inside. In fact, it may increase the resolve of the teen to not change.

That teen may need to not change in response to nasty yelling in order to defend and protect themselves–as a way of saying “I don’t deserve this.”

But yelling comes so naturally to me!? I’m supposed to stop?

Anger is a cue that something isn’t right. Anger is a good thing, cuz it cues us that we as parents need to address something.

The tricky part is that yelling is a great way to discharge anger…spewing angry words in a loud volume is discharging energy and blame and vitriol…quite simply…when people are angry, mean yelling comes very naturally.

The challenge is that yelling as response to the internal angry feeling helps the yeller feel better, but not the person yelled at.

Being yelled at is a threat…a form of psychological violence.  Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher whose voice was just simply noise without words?  When we get yelled at, the meaning of the words gets lost because the part of our brain that responds to threat is the “flight/fight/freeze” part that doesn’t have language.  It cannot listen to the content of the yelling because the front part of the brain that thinks and understands and reasons has shut down.

Yelling with swearing and name calling attacks the person, rather than addressing the inappropriate behaviour. That’s hard and it’s damaging.

So, yes, I’m inviting you to stop yelling at your teen. The yelling might help the yeller feel better, but it’s not constructive.

So I’m not supposed to get mad?

For sure… Kids mess up, and we are human. You will be mad.  This is not about stopping natural emotion.

However, one of the reasons why parents get mad is we look bad when our kids mess up.  Parents can feel like:


  • it’s not acknowledging all the hard work and effort a parent puts into the many tasks of parenting. Misbehavior can be misinterpreted as deliberate lack of gratitude
  • it makes us look bad as parents…when kids misbehave, it can feel like a poor reflection on us as parents…y’know..like, “What sort of parents must that kid have if he’s doing…”
  • or we take it personally, like the kid is intentionally trying to crush our spirit when misbehave.  It sounds a little silly when you’re calm and relaxed, but in the moment, a parent can feel, “I bet he broke  the vase on purpose just to bug me”

When we get mad for those reasons, yelling at the children is often a means for parents to look after themselves.


But when children betray your trust..say they go to a party and drink alcohol, after they promised up and down that there would be no alcohol there, and how dare you suggest they would drink any even if there was…anger is a normal and appropriate response. Anger often overlays fear…when a child is late for curfew or engages in risk-taking behaviour, parents get furious because we know what could happen…and that terrifies us.

The key is to channel that anger in a way that will allow you, as a parent, to effectively raise the child to make better choices, be more careful, put more effort into their studies, etc.

OK…so if yelling isn’t a great idea, what am I supposed to do when I am flipping mad at my child?

Great question, thanx for asking!

First of all, remind yourself that underneath the hot flash of anger lies a bedrock of love for this child.  Find it and remind yourself of it…even as you’re furious with your teen, promise yourself that you will hold onto that, and better yet…communicate to your child so as to leave no doubt in their mind that you are completely besotted by them.

Second, know that when you’re very angry at your child, chances are that you are operating out of the “flight/fight/freeze” part of your brain…meaning your language skills and ability to articulate yourself well is far from your best. This is not a “teachable moment” because, frankly, you are a lousy teacher in that state.  This is the time to bring out a line that you have rehearsed ahead of time because, chances are, you won’t be able to come up with it on the spot…something like, “I’m very very angry now, and if we have this conversation now, I won’t be able to represent myself the way I want to, and we’ll both lose because of that. I’m going to talk with you about this after I’ve had a chance to settle some.” Does that sound impossible and hokey? Don’t criticize it too bluntly in the comment section below, because I’m a sensitive sort, and that’s my “go to” line. 🙂

Third, watch the tone you use with yourself when you’re angry and barely in control.  Y’know that inner voice that we talk to ourselves with…and if you are yelling at yourself about how poorly you are handling the situation…well, yeah, think about how well that’ll work. Nobody does well with yelling, including you…

Ironically, it’s often our parent’s critical voice that we hear in our head when we’re upset.  And often we are hard on others and yell at them, because we are even harder (and louder) on ourselves.  And if our parents were yellers, we’ll use their words and their tone on ourselves while we’re upset.

So, if yelling isn’t gonna fix my kid, what will?

Adolescents are learning…part of learning is messing up.  Kids who don’t mess up are dead or severely disabled. Seriously…your adolescent is normal when they make mistakes.  Some mistakes are more painful and costlier than others, for sure, but mistakes of some kind are a given in parenting teens.

Adolescents are moving towards adulthood.  They are within a few years of needing to fix their own mistakes as an adult.  Parenting adolescents needs to transition from completely structuring the child’s behaviour to moving towards a facilitation/guidance as they seek to manage their own.  This is a gradual process.

Poster by Bergen and Assocites that states: Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." -- Victor Frankl

Guidance happens best when everybody is thinking clearly. Adolescents respond best when treated with respect and dignity.  This is not glossing over inappropriate behaviour, or “letting them off the hook”.  This is about being curious with your teen to allow him/her to genuinely explain themselves…they get to hear themselves.  Calmly and vulnerably stating your position allows for receptivity on the part of your child…which is prime emotional space to learn enough to not repeat the error!

Most teens are capable of dealing effectively with a problem with some time lapse.  Everything does not have to get fixed at the time of discovery of the screw up…in fact, mostly likely it’s unlikely to deal with it well at the time.

OK…well this all sounds good, but I’m human, and I blew it yesterday, and if I know myself well enough, I’m gonna blow it again.  Am I hooped? Is my kid destined to be messed up?

I love this quote from Brené Brown:
Bergen and ASsociates poster of Brene Brown: We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.  Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.  Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”

Injuries happen…when we yell at anybody, it does damage…and love survives if those injuries are acknowledged and healed. And apologizing for your verbal violence doesn’t dismiss their bad behaviour, it does take responsibility for yours.

If you’re human (and you are), you will “lose it” on your teenager. No doubt you will. For sure.

There are a few positive things that can/will happen when you rage at your teenager:


  1. Your teenager will see that their behaviour has an impact on the people around them. Endless patience and kindness without any sign of irritation from a parent doesn’t teach them important information about how they shape their world.  This is not an excuse for a parent to lose control, by the way.
  2. Your teenager will have a chance to see you take responsibility for your verbal violence and will model how to do some relationship repair.  This is an absolutely vital skill to develop as a human being. Relationship repair is best learned by experiencing a genuine apology, some tenderness, and a strategy to reduce the likelihood it will reoccur
  3. Your teenager will have an opportunity to learn to develop some of his/her own strategies to deal with their own internal reaction to being yelled at.  Sometime, somewhere, your child will have a boyfriend, boss, professor or friend rage at them.  That’s not a pleasant idea, but a real one.  Part of childhood is experiencing bits of real world experience at home to begin to develop strategies of resilience. “Perfect” parenting doesn’t prepare the child for the real world. “Good enough” parenting gives the child lots of love and care and nurture and support to have sufficient resources to deal with those infrequent but inevitable moments where parents goof.  Children that have opportunity to struggle in measured amounts develop valuable coping skills.  Again, this is not an excuse for a parent to lose control.

It’s important for a parent to realize that teenagers push their parents’ buttons something fierce. 


Ironically, to be a perfect parent with no room for error or to be human actually can increase the pressure in parenting which may make a “blow up” even more likely.

And again, ironically, when we yell at our kids, many of us then turn around and yell at ourselves for yelling at them.  I’m not the only one, am I?  Not helpful…truly.

Instead, work to remain true to your values as best as you can, extending compassion to yourself for inevitable slip ups.  Establish some inner “lines in the sand” that you promise to yourself that you will not cross when angry at your child…e.g. no four letter words, no name calling.  Call out their behaviour as bad, rather than the child as bad. Know what your body does when you’re well on your way to rage…and know when you are past the point of representing yourself well…parents do well to have a time out. Know that when you or your teen are under the influence of a alcohol or other substance, the discussion simply should not occur…it will not be helpful.

This is hard stuff…you’re suggesting yelling at my teen isn’t the way to go…but it’s the primary tool for so many…are you sure you’re right?

We’ve come to accept as a culture that giving a kid a black eye or bruises on their arms or a punch to the gut is not acceptable way to parent.  Cursing, name calling and yelling to humiliate and shame cause invisible but very real emotional wounds.  Kids will recover from both…though most people will say that physical wounds heal quicker than emotional ones.

For many parents, they parent the way they were parented…and parents pass on what they know.

That doesn’t make it right.

On the other hand, life gets complicated as we find out more and more what’s bad, and it starts to feel like parenting is done with handcuffs on the parent:

As many commenters have already pointed out, this leaves parents’ hands even more tied than they were already. No spanking. Timeouts don’t really work. Bribery is wrong. Death-stares, displaying no reaction, walking away, distraction, and gentle explanation of wrongdoing are all suboptimal. Now yelling is off the table, too. 

Katy Waldman

Parenting is micromanaged and informed by increasingly complex rules and guidelines…which shift or even reverse themselves over time… what sort of car seat to buckle them into (and this gets more complex regularly), what foods are bad for kids (and they get rotated from bad to good to bad regularly, it seems), the importance of wearing helmets, the dangers of trampolines, the dangers of time outs, the dangers of this and that and this sort of discipline.  It can start to feel like there are no tools left for improving a child’s behaviour.

I get that.  It’s hard to be a parent.

That’s where community comes in.  I’ve been speaking to some parenting groups lately, and the wisdom that gets shared when you open up the floor to hear about ways that parents have had cool success moments of parenting is amazing.  We need each other.  We need to brainstorm strategies that work. We need to support each other as parents, to acknowledge it’s hard, to commiserate during the moments when we feel like it’s brutal, and to fill each other’s tanks so we can go back into the parenting arena with some gas in the parenting tank.

Parenting is hard.  But putting energy into it will be worth it.  I promise you.

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