Is yelling the new spanking? Parents try to turn down the volume with kids

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By A. Pawlowski

You love them like crazy, but they can also drive you crazy, so no matter how well-behaved your children are, there comes a time when you need to get tough.

Kerry Lyons' kids include, from left to right, Cormac, Declan, Liam, Ciara and Kevin. In her quest to yell at them less, Lyons said she is trying hard to pick her battles and be more positive.Today

For lots of parents, that means yelling – something many feel awful about afterwards.

“I feel guilty and I feel like I just wish I had more control,” Kerry Lyons, a mother of five in Irvington, N.Y., told TODAY Moms.

“Once your tirade is over, it’s not really over. It lingers. As a parent, it makes you feel really crappy.”

Lyons, 42, estimated she yells at her kids daily, though she said she sometimes does it simply to be heard above the din in a household that includes 5-year-old triplets, a 7-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy. 

But it’s the “rotten, mean and nasty” yelling – the kind that scares her kids -- she wants to stop, Lyons recently wrote in her blog.

She’s also an opponent of spanking. In fact, some experts speculate that many families – apparently taking to heart research that indicates spanking can make kids more aggressive, angry and lead to problems later in life -- are instead turning to yelling as a way to control their children.

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“Yelling is the new spanking. It’s sort of the go-to strategy for parents... I think (this) definitely is a generation of yellers,” said Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and a TODAY Moms contributor. Many families tell her it’s the number one issue they want to change.

“I have never met a parent who enjoys yelling, and I’m overwhelmed by the level of guilt that parents feel and how distressing it is for their day in and day out parenting life,” said McCready, who describes herself as a "recovering yeller."

Shell Roush felt so bad about her yelling that she made it her New Year’s resolution to scream less at her three sons. The boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, are good kids, she said, but she would find herself raising her voice every day to get them to do something or discipline them, especially when she was stressed.

“I don’t want to be known as the screaming mom. I don’t want my kids to look back and think, our mom screamed at us all the time,” said Roush, 36, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C.

“The yelling really didn’t accomplish anything other than making them feel bad and then later making me feel bad.”

Roush is among parents who are taking the “Orange Rhino Challenge” – a movement started online by an anonymous mom who decided to stop yelling at her kids for 365 days straight.

George Holden, a psychology professor who studies parent-child relationships at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says an occasional yell may be healthy for a child to experience, but regular yelling is ineffective and potentially damaging.

Experts say yelling at kids is ineffective and potentially damaging.JGI / Today

“It will elevate the child’s anxiety level, but it’s not really teaching the child how to behave,” Holden said.

“The danger is that some negative and demeaning comments might slip out or it could impact the kids’ feelings about themselves or their self-worth or their self-esteem.”

It may be particularly harmful for teens. Harsh verbal discipline – defined as a parent yelling, cursing and hurling insults, such as calling the child dumb or lazy – is a common practice among American families with adolescents, according to a study published last fall in the journal Child Development.

Some 45 percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers of 13-year-olds reported using harsh verbal discipline toward their child in the past year, but the study found this only increased the teens’ conduct problems and symptoms of depression.

Holden, who is an opponent of spanking, has not seen evidence that parents are actually yelling more because they’re trying to avoid corporal punishment. Both he and McCready say it’s appropriate to yell at children when there is imminent danger and you need to get their attention quickly, like “Don’t touch the grill, it’s hot!” But yelling out of frustration is not a sustainable strategy, they said.

Dr. Phil McGraw recently told TODAY that yelling causes children to go into shutdown mode.

So if you shouldn’t smack or yell, what’s the best way to discipline your child? The American Academy of Pediatrics, which does not recommend spanking, has some suggestions, including withholding privileges and time-out.

When you feel yourself getting ready to yell, try to step back and wait until you are calmer, McCready said. Misbehavior is always a symptom so think about why the child is acting out, she added. 

“We don’t have the time or we don’t take the time to really emotionally connect with our kids,” McCready said. “Our kids have this attention basket that has to be filled with positive attention.”

If there is an ongoing behavior issue, implement consequences and follow through each and every time, she advised.

Added Holden: “You want to promote a positive, good close relationship where the child is going to listen to you because they want to please you and not because they’re scared of you or afraid you’re going to start yelling at them.”