Making a Plan to Stop Yelling at the Kids


This is a case example from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” It focuses on working with a couple on yelling at the kids.

Case: “I Think She Likes Yelling”

In this case, the consultant is working with a couple to address parenting issues and the mother discloses that she finds herself yelling too often at her two young (ages 6 and 8 years) children.

Mother (Nan): I try very hard not to yell, but I can’t seem to stop myself.

Father (Ed): She does yell a lot. I think sometimes she likes to yell.

Nan: [Gives Ed a blistering glare]

Consultant: Hang on a second. Ed, I know you’re saying what it looks like to you, but I don’t think that captures what it feels like to Nan on the inside. Most parents tell me that yelling happens when they feel desperation. My guess is that Nan doesn’t enjoy yelling, but that sometimes she wants so badly to get the kids to listen that she yells out of desperation and tries to get them to cooperate. It probably doesn’t feel enjoyable. [This is a risky, but necessary, confrontation and reframe.]

Nan: That’s exactly right.

Ed: Okay. You’re probably right. It just looks that way to me sometimes.

Consultant: And as you’ve both said, Nan is with the kids more often, and the parent who’s with the kids more is often the biggest target for defiance. With all that in mind, I’ve got some ideas about how Nan might start feeling a little more control over her yelling and get a little more cooperation from the kids.

Nan: That would be great.

Ed: I agree.

Consultant: Another thing that’s important to remember is that it’s humanly impossible to never feel angry toward our children. Anger is normal and natural. Usually we feel anger when we care deeply about something. Nan, you’ll feel angry again and probably soon, so a big part of this involves making a plan for how to deal with it when it comes up, because it will.

In this case, it was obvious that Nan felt out of control and Ed was feeling a bit smug or superior. The glare that Nan directed toward him when he volunteered his theory about her yelling was blistering. However, rather than drifting into marital conflict, the consultant moved through the conflict using empathy, reframing, and universalization, and by giving both parents new words to describe why Nan was yelling. To do this, she pointed out that yelling is a natural behavior that emanates from desperation and anger, and not from personal enjoyment.

The second key part of this intervention involves helping parents make a new plan.

Consultant: It’s important to remember that you’ll be angry again. You can’t stuff your angry feelings and say and do nothing, so you need a new plan for exactly what you’ll do next time your children misbehave. You can’t just decide to stop yelling. Most of us tried that and it doesn’t work very well. You need to come up with something else to do instead. Does that make sense?

Parents: Yes.

Consultant: Nan, this new and improved plan is all about you and only a little about your children. It should be a plan you feel good about and have a chance of enacting successfully. Your child’s misbehavior may or may not continue. You just need to do something different. What possibilities come to mind for you?

The consultant is using a solution-focused “Do something different” task and, while doing so, can engage one or both parents in a problem-solving process. In particular, the consultant is thinking in the back of her mind about ways Ed might be supportive by being available when Nan calls for his help (like tag-team wrestling). Additionally, this is a time when the consultant might share a brief personal story about how she effectively dealt with yelling (as long as the story is compassionate and joining, not condescending, and offers hope for positive change; see online resources at http://www.familiesfirstmontana.org/ for John’s favorite yelling story).

The third part of this intervention involves making a plan to practice the new plan.

Consultant: Okay. Now you both came up with ideas about what Nan might do to deal with her anger instead of yelling. Having good ideas is important, but ideas won’t magically cause less yelling. It’s really hard to stop yelling. Sometimes that’s because your kids are so used to it that they’ll automatically keep misbehaving until you yell—because that’s the established pattern. Because of that, unless you think it through mentally by imagining exactly what you will do and practice the behavior physically (with a friend or with Ed), you may quickly return to yelling because that’s what you all know best. Which of these new alternatives to yelling could you two practice together?

In this case it will be critical for Ed to support Nan as she experiments with alternatives to yelling. Like many spouses, he will need to be coached on what to say and do. Most importantly, he’ll need to agree to refrain from criticism and to notice and comment on her progress (as long as that’s okay with Nan) because his current attitude is likely contributing to Nan’s anger and yelling. Getting a commitment from Ed should be conducted in a direct and positive manner.

Consultant: Ed, can I be completely straight with you?

Ed: Uh, yeah. Sure.

Consultant: For couples, it’s always easier if both people make changes. I know Nan’s yelling is completely her responsibility. But, at the same time, you have the power to make this situation better or worse. If you just stand back and let Nan sink or swim, in a way, you’ll be contributing to the yelling. If you support her, if you take your share of time with the kids when she needs you, if you tell her you love her and how great she’s doing, you’ll be contributing to the solution. It’s really up to you. Can you step up here?

As with all interventions, the exact wording needs to be your own. Our tone may seem too direct and confrontational.  However, if you do brief work with parents, you’ll need to find the right words for talking with parents in a way that engages them in the change process. In fact, we’ve found that parents, especially fathers, appreciate a brief, respectful, and direct approach that acknowledges their power within the family system and challenges them to contribute to a healthier and happier family.

In the end, Ed agreed to take complete responsibility for the kids three times a week so Nan could go to the gym and work out. They also agreed to sharing the bedtime ritual more equally, because being on her own to put the children to bed was annoying Nan. For her part, Nan agreed to develop a monitoring system for her anger and to take a break on her own (if Ed wasn’t home) or to ask Ed to step in and take over the parenting responsibilities. Ed agreed to step in when Nan made the request.

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