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A little yelling at kids is a good thing

My name is Rita, I have two daughters ages 12 and 14, and I’m a yeller.Chances are, you are, too, psychologist George Holden says. Holden ought to know: He’s spent much of his career studying how parents discipline their kids. He opposes spanking; yelling, not so much.“Even I’ll admit to yelling at my kids when they were a lot younger,” says Holden, a father of three who’s on the facul
Research finds that 90 percent of parents yell at their kids.
Research finds that 90 percent of parents yell at their kids.Getty Images stock / Today

My name is Rita, I have two daughters ages 12 and 14, and I’m a yeller.

Chances are, you are, too, psychologist George Holden says. Holden ought to know: He’s spent much of his career studying how parents discipline their kids. He opposes spanking; yelling, not so much.

“Even I’ll admit to yelling at my kids when they were a lot younger,” says Holden, a father of three who’s on the faculty of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And I’m a pretty laid-back, calm guy. It’s certainly challenging to be a parent. No question.”

A recent study by Holden illustrates his point. Instead of simply asking parents about how they discipline their children, Holden persuaded 36 moms -- and one dad -- to make audio recordings of up to six evenings of family life. 

“The study was billed as looking at normal parent-child interaction in the home,” says Holden, who recruited the families through daycare centers in Dallas.

Only parents who admitted they sometimes yelled were included in the study. Considering Holden’s previous research suggests 90 percent of parents have yelled at their kids, they weren’t hard to find.

Holden got was an earful. Not only did the parents yell, but they spanked, too.

So who the heck would volunteer to record what goes on in the privacy of their home, especially after a long day of work? The study did pay participants $125 each for their time and effort, but that wouldn’t be enough to entice me.

The recorders were pretty unobtrusive, small enough to fit into an armband. Still, Holden wonders whether parents were on their best behavior at the beginning of the week and then, as the recorders faded into the background over time, let it all hang out at the end. He’s got a bunch of undergraduates coding the tapes to answer that one.

Research finds that 90 percent of parents yell at their kids.Getty Images stock / Today

For those who feel guilty about yelling at your kids, Holden provides a sliver of reassurance.

“A bit of yelling is good for kids,” he says. “If you’re angry at the child, it’s sometimes okay to express that emotion so the child can learn to cope with negative emotion in other people.”

But it’s never okay to humiliate or put down your children, Holden cautions. You need to tell them you love them and explain why you yelled at them, he says, or else you risk leaving them feeling rejected.

What about that 10 percent of parents who say they never yell? Are they lying? Probably not, says Holden, who’s found that 8 percent to 10 percent of his students say they don’t remember their parents ever yelling at them. 

Still, Holden says, it’s helpful to listen to your own internal tape recorder. Do you hear a lot of yelling on it? “The yelling is a clue that everything isn’t hunky-dory.”

Maybe you simply need to let some things go, Holden suggests. For me -- and I know I’m not alone here -- the state of my kids’ bedrooms  frequently turns up the volume of my nagging. Instead of yelling, Holden advises, shut the door and move on.

What do you tend to yell at your kids about? Do you feel guilty about it, or do you find it cathartic?

Rita Rubin, a contributing writer for msnbc.com and today.com, previously covered medicine for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report. She lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and two daughters.