Yelling at Toddlers

Our children can cause us to get overwhelmed and anxious! Both Monika and I can get to the “YOU TAKE HIM!” stage that I think every parent gets to from time to time. But we have made a huge effort to never make him feel like he is unwanted or like he is a burden. We also make sure that being loud and even yelling is saved for only extreme circumstances. I will go over some information to hopefully get you on board with this plan. 

To show that I am not a terrible father, I will tell you the only time I screamed, and I mean SCREAMED at our two-year-old (one-and-a-half at this time). He was playing with his toy and I set him down by the front door to our split level. We always leave something heavy in front of the stairs that go down to the lower level. Well, we almost always do. I was so focused on finding my coat that I ran upstairs to grab it. The only thing in my head was “go go go, late late late.” As I grab my jacket off of the balcony, I see my son waddling toward the edge of the stairs. 

I had a flash of what could happen. Every parent knows the feeling of dread and a prophetic vision coming through their third eye of what could happen. In my vision I saw a smiling face turn to terror as his next step comes to a dramatic drop and his whole tiny body would tumble head first down eight hardwood steps. I yelled, and I mean yelled “Eli STOP! NO NO NO!” 

I genuinely didn’t know I could yell that loud, or at least I forgot. I can’t remember the last time I used my voice as loud as I could. It was likely a baseball game or some other loud event where I was being drowned out. 

The poor kid froze! He froze so hard that he shook. That thing that happens when you get a jolt of panic that shoots through your body and everything gets so stiff that it jiggles. I don’t think he took a breath for a solid five seconds. He just stared at me as I flew down the stairs and scooped him up. He didn’t even cry, he was too petrified.  

It was at that time that I realized two things: 1) I’m a terrible father that needs to pay attention more because everything kills them, and 2) That yelling needs to be saved for emergencies.  

I remember a friend that I knew throughout my life, from a young child to adulthood. His parents used to get into it without realizing their surroundings and they used to yell at him for stuff that wouldn’t even get me put in timeout. One time when I was probably five, his dad came in about…I can’t for the life of me remember. But he started hollering away. My friend barely noticed. I was pretty frozen and just wanted to ask if anyone else felt hot and cold at the same time.  

Monika would tell me about a teacher at the daycare where she used to work. This teacher would yell all the time and the children got accustomed to it very quickly. After they were used to it, the teacher could never get the class under control. If kids are use to a 10, it’s impossible to get them to take you seriously because you can never go past a 10. 

I saw a Dr. Phil where a family had the same issue. Fortunately, everyone’s favorite tough-love psychologist was there to berate the parents about how messed up it is for a kid to hear that and how bad of a sign it is that the kid didn’t react one bit. Now, I’m not terribly qualified to talk about this issue, but this is the internet and I can tell you all the stuff google can teach me in a few hours of searching and pretend I’m an expert too. 

The fight or flight response will be their automatic reaction to yelling. This will make them combative or run away from conflict, both with you and with others in the future.  This means that it will likely carry on to their future spouse and children. We really need to try to make it so that they can have the heathiest relationships. Remember, you only want to have them freeze as their reaction to yelling, it could save their life. Or at least it may stop them from falling down a few steps. They cannot freeze if they are fighting or flying. 

According to research, frequent yelling at children can affect them in similar ways as physical abuse can. This means that it will make them more aggressive both physically and verbally. It will make them feel insecure and unsafe as well. We have to be really careful. As parents or any other type of caregiver, we need to make children feel safe to have the best connection, trust and overall relationship. This doesn’t even count mental abuse that often comes with yelling. Put-downs and insults from parents and parental figures are almost a guaranteed way to make them have low self-esteem and anxiety as a long-term effect. We all have times where we feel those things already and adding to it will be detrimental.

It seems like people yell for three reasons: Sometimes we yell for discipline, sometimes people yell because we are so upset that yelling and holding onto that anger seems to give us a release. But sometimes people do it to drill a point/lesson into someone’s head. Turns out that doesn’t work on kids if yelling is a common occurrence. Again, they get tolerant to the abuse and it does nothing but hurt and they still don’t get it in their head any easier than if you sat them down and talked to them. 

I think that bothers me the most. Not being heard or understood is probably one of my biggest insecurities. It really cuts me to the core if someone just ignores what I said or forgets it. But I am going to make a strong effort to remember this as my little guy gets older. I obviously don’t hold it against him now, he is only two. Let’s face it, two-year-olds are really stupid. That’s probably not PC or something but come on, they’re really dumb. I don’t blame them. Although one would think with that adorably big head that is completely disproportional to the rest of their body would be enough to make sure they remembered some stuff. Apparently not, they are far too busy trying to lick outlets, turning on the stove, running up to strange dogs, etc.  

So, what is the solution? Well I have an amazingly short answer for you, there isn’t one. Well, at least not one that works for every kid. So that’s helpful. Dr. Dehra Harris, a pediatric psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital seems to really like the counting method. The basic idea is that you start with “one” and make sure to give them five seconds to process what is happening. Then comes “two” in case you forgot how to count. This means that if you do it again, something bad is going to happen. Then when the three comes, Dr Harris says “something in their world needs to change.” Leaving the store, putting them in timeout, etc. 

I’m not terribly certain this will work for my son. He doesn’t seem to care if he is getting a timeout. My wonderful son, whom I love deeply, can be a little brat sometimes. He was going through this stage where he was dumping his cup out after he was done drinking. He would act like a frat guy slamming his drink upside down to show he finished. The only problem was that the cup was never empty.  

He dumped it on the floor, he dumped it on the chair, he dumped it on the table and even dumped it on our bulldog’s head. The poor dog was sitting next to the highchair waiting for the messy toddler to inevitably spill food on the ground or even better, just start dropping it into her mouth if he was done. She was sitting there staring as if she hadn’t had a bite to eat in weeks. He looked at her goofy bulldog face, she perked up because that was usually the signal that food was coming. He then grabbed his cup full of milk, put his arm straight out and dumped his cup all over her head. She jumped back so fast, she slid on the hardwood. She’s not quite as dumb as she looks because she would step back when he would pick up a cup and move close after his drink was firmly planted on the table. 

 He was in this stage and nothing would stop him. I would see it in his eyes and he would go for the cup. I would say “No, don’t poor out your drink.” He would look right at me and pause. I would say “No, if you do that you will have to go to timeout.” He would give me this naughty smirk and dump it out. I would take him to timeout and he would just sit there watching his own foot twirl.  

One time he even told on himself. I thought Monika was watching him and she thought I was. I heard little footsteps running into the kitchen and I said “hi buddy.” His reply was “no no no.” I knew he did something bad. I asked him what happened and he started walking toward one of the bedrooms just repeating “no no no.” He took me to the corner of the room and pointed out the water. I think I handled it well. I said kindly “that’s right, that is a no no. But I’m not going to get you in trouble because you did the right thing and told me.” He probably didn’t understand. 

I digress. I picked up a few other alternatives as well during my research, because of my lack of confidence in the counting method. I mean, the kid can’t even count yet. But he is killing it with colors.  Healthline suggests four alternatives to yelling: 

Give yourself a timeout.” Basically, before you get so upset that you start yelling, leave. Don’t allow yourself to get to a place where you want to scream, yell and throw your own tantrum. How could one expect them not to have a tantrum if the adult can’t do it? 

Express your emotions.” I agree with this a lot. It works surprisingly well with my son. I frequently have to tell him that I can’t do something because of my chronic back pain. It doesn’t always work, but there does seem to be some empathy in there. Every time he sees me grab the Ibuprofen, he says “daddy owie.” It breaks my heart and melts it at the same time. I will get into this more in a future post. 

“Address bad behavior calmly but firmly.” Duh. If you can’t yell, what other option do you have? 

Use consequences but leave out threats.” I totally agree. I had a kid that lived near me and his mom would do the opposite. She would threaten him with all sorts of stuff but never would do it. He walked all over her. I could remember, at a surprisingly young age, thinking that she was doing that wrong. I love the guy, but he is still kind of like that.  

I am really glad I wrote this post. It made me sit down and contemplate how I am going to deal with problems when he gets older and I don’t have the “he’s only two, I can’t expect too much.” I had the privilege of growing up in a home where there was no yelling. I want to provide him with the same blessing. Now that I see the severe consequences of yelling, I will definitely put a big effort into making sure I don’t yell when that day inevitably comes.  

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