Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parenting Tools

A national campaign to reduce yelling in our families?

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

yellingWhy not? I think the nation is ready for it. There are campaigns to reduce violence, gun availability, substance abuse, obesity and stress. So doesn’t it make sense that we would want to reduce the surfeit of yelling that hurts kids, harms their brains and destroys the trusting and loving climate that we want in our families?

Research shows that the huge majority of parents yells at their kids and feels guilty about it. Let’s join a campaign to reduce yelling at our kids. Start talking, buzzing, forwarding, tweeting and chatting this idea up, will you? I’m proposing a “one-minute solution.” But first, like a good psychologist, I’m going to explain the problem, and then propose a scientific solution.

The article this week declaring that “shouting is the new spanking” has caused quite a buzz. While doing a book signing yesterday for our new co-authored book “Getting to Calm," the audience seemed to be nodding their heads in synchrony when I mentioned the screaming problem. We all know what causes it: hurried lives, parents who want compliance, kids that are kids and dragging their heels, and essentially “the red zone” of emotions when parents are distraught. The big question is how to reduce the yelling, which the article did not address, but our book is all about.

The title of our book is the answer—parents need to know about the physiology of emotions so that they know how to “get to calm.” Only by getting out of the “red zone” can they enter the “cool zone” and override the impulse to yell. When we are distressed, our heart rate soars and adrenaline courses through our bodies. This emotional surge stems from an ancient artifact in our make-up, readying us for battle in the times of yore when we were facing danger constantly. Nowadays, we’re only facing a late carpool, sibling quarrels and teen ‘tudes, but our bodies trick us into thinking we’re facing a life-threatening event (or a least a major crisis which legitimizes yelling).

We make up little stories in our heads about how yelling is understandable given how “terrible” the provocation is, but we all know it accomplishes very little at best, reduces our credibility with our kids at the very least, and creates a lot of harm at its worst. When I’m coaching my patients on this matter, I start my tutorials with the slogan, “first biology, then the psychology.”

First, the biology: you must get your heart rate down in order to derail your yelling risk. Try just one minute of a breathing exercise. This is the hardest part. Bite your tongue and don’t talk. Breathe in deeply over five seconds and then exhale over five seconds, counting in that "1,000; 2,000" way, so you don’t do it too rapidly. My favorite exercise is called the "4-7-8" technique. Breathe in over four seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale slowly over 8 seconds. Focusing on precise counting insures that you won’t be reciting internally all your resentments toward your child when you are supposed to be counting and calming!

Second, the psychology: You are capable of firing neurons in your wise and reasonable brain (your neo-cortex) only when you quell your emotion brain (your amygdala and limbic system). Only when calmer can you choose effective methods for influencing your kids with respect ("I would appreciate it if you would…"), creativity ("let’s race to the car backwards") and natural consequences ("oops, you missed your chore, sorry about your losing that allowance").

Do you know what the biggest problem is? Parents lack the awareness of how to override yelling. All I’m proposing is a ONE MINUTE DELAY in parents’ dealing with the squabbles they are having with your kids. One minute! Can you tweet, talk this up and email this all over the nation, please?

But don’t yell.

Read the study here (pdf).

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