How to Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling

How to Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling

Many parents I work with confess to yelling at their kids upwards of ten times a day.

Parents say they do this most of all because they want their children to listen but they get zero cooperation. When promises, pleading and threats no longer work, yelling can feel like the only option. Especially if time is short, behaviors are out of bounds, and big power struggles break out  yelling becomes the go to way to get kids to start listening.

The problem is that yelling at kids really doesn’t help them focus on what you want them to do.

Katie Hurley, parenting educator explains why this backfires:

 A natural defense mechanism for children is to “tune out” yelling. Its a highly charged input. Children might yell back or they might even laugh in response, but they aren’t internalizing the message. Frequent yelling can trigger symptoms of anxiety in children and can lead to a negative cycle of communication that is difficult to break.

 

Here are some pro-active strategies to try if you want to  reduce yelling and encourage your kids to listen and cooperate:

Set limits early on

Sometimes we dread the potential tears, conflict or protest that may come with setting a limit. so we avoid setting the limit in the first place. The problem? This practice of avoidance until the last minute leads to frustration and resentment on our part. Then we yell and our child startles, cries or disconnects.

Setting a limit sooner means  the problem is eliminated well before it grows and triggers yelling.

Keep your Limits AND remember to validate feelings

Setting limits sometimes means children feel upset. Keeping limits however helps children learn to trust our guidance. While we cannot own or change our children’s feelings, we can strive to accept them, empathize and  lead confidently.

It’s very helpful to validate feelings and then trust that your child will be able to feel her feelings and move on.  Here is a conversation I had with my four year old recently:

me: “Can you please set the place mats on the table?”

four year old (with creative excuses): “Oh..but my legs hurt! And I’m playing with my playmobil!”

me (showing interest): “Oh no, your legs hurt? What’s going on with them?”

four year old (being honest!): “Ugh, I just don’t feel like table setting mama. it’s so boring!”

me (validating): “uhm.uhm..you don’t feel like it. It is boring. I understand. And it’s dinner time. So what’s your plan to get your job done?”

four year old: “I don’t wannnna. I don’t mama.”

me: “it’s a boring job. you don’t want to do it. Could you make it a fun job?”

four year old (understanding my request wasn’t changing): “Can my playmobil princess do it? You, know, with my help?”

me: “yes!”

See more about setting limits and supporting frustrations.

Adjust expectations

Young children touch everything, preschoolers ask WHY around 300 times a day, school aged children often have no interest in doing homework when WE think it’s the time to do it.   When expectations are in line with our children’s abilities (in that moment!) the better they can follow through with our requests and yelling is no longer necessary.

Ask questions that invite cooperation 

Questions can motivate kids to take ownership over their own tasks. In my new book 12 Alternatives to Time out, I share how this question ” What do you still need to do before ________?”  is one of my very favorites to motivate children.   This kind of question works because it invites cooperation while still allowing children to feel capable and competent.

In practice this means that  “WHY HAVEN”T YOU BRUSHED YOUR HAIR YET AND WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES, OMG WHY ARE YOU NOT MOVING YOUR FEET…. LET’S GO!!!!!”  simply becomes “What do you have left to do before leaving the house?”

Parenting educator and psychotherapist Andrea Nair  says this works because  “Yelling grows children’s defenses while clever language grows their cooperation.”-Yelling grows children's defenses while

Connect before making a request

Children are much more likely to follow through with a request when it is done face to face, even better at or below their eye level.  This is a very safe and connected way to make a request. What’s more, when you  speak kindly you are modeling a wonderful way for your  child to interact with classmates, siblings, teachers and friends.

Being up close also naturally means you will lower your voice which is really important.

Andy Smithson, of TRU parenting explains that volume makes a big difference. “The louder we are, the less they hear… We logically think a louder voice penetrates ears and increases hearing. The problem is that when we raise our voices, our kids’ freak out switch gets flipped and automatically puts them on the defense.”

Motivating children to participate in chores, get their homework done, play nicely with a sibling, can all feel like a never ending task. Children are growing and learning so they need positive guidance daily. While it may initially seem like more effort, being kind with your requests is less stressful in the long run and it also encourages more cooperation.

Are there any times of day or certain requests that you feel trigger yelling the most?

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

Recommended Resources

Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool
Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting

COMPASS: Positive Discipline E-Zine for Families (Free resource)

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

33 Responses to How to Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling

  1. I loved this article.
    I was raised in a yelling household and I vowed to change when I became a mother. I find myself worried about how I will be when my son (8.5 months), gets a little older. He has started crawling and I sometimes raise my voice after I have tried to get him to not go in certain areas. I don’t yell, but free gently speaking, re directing, distracting, and he still is determined to get into the dog food ( for example), I do sometimes raise my voice out of frustration.
    How can I display positive, gentle alternatives with my baby?

    • First I think it’s an amazing thing you are trying to do and well worth the effort for your baby! One thing I fin helpful with babies when they keep getting “into trouble” is to remember that Babies are on a never ending quest to learn. They are curious and touch and smash, taste, open, close, so they can understand and learn about things. House proof, provide lots of interesting play opportunities and remember that you can best control circumstances (place the dog food away, feed the dog behind a gate) because your baby is impulsive and wired to learn he will keep going to what interests him (this is a good thing, just not very convenient at times!) This post may be helpful to you as it covers discipline in the baby years: http://www.positiveparentingconnection.net/discipline-for-babies/

  2. Will this approach work for an almost 3 1/2 year old? I’m having a very hard time getting her to listen to me and it’s affecting her outside the home as well (not listening to other people/teachers). Her biggest issue at home is pushing/hitting/and basically antagonizing her 17 month old sister. I do end up yelling and using time outs which of course are ignored, turn into a screaming/crying match, and basically backfire on me. I just feel she doesn’t really have the skills yet to completely understand and communicate with me, and it makes it very hard to try to discipline her. I feel guilty everyday for how upset I get but I just don’t know what to do.

    • Michelle, yes, connecting with your 3 1/2 year old can really help increase her willingness to cooperate and listen to your requests. It-s not easy to share mom with a 17 month old sister 🙂 Especially when the 17 month old is probably becoming more mobile and more verbal herself, the 3 year old may be experiencing a new “wave” of sibling jealousy (very normal) that can bring up a host of feelings and emotions, like refusal to cooperate and getting into physically communicating that jealousy (aka bite, hit, push sister). I highly recommend trying to find a way to spend one on one time with the 3 1/2 year old, set limits early as the post suggests “I will not let you hit.” and offer some connection instead of time out “What can I help you with?” If you can, offer a predictable routine, enough sleep and plenty of fun playtime, both with you and time to play independently (not having to share with sister!) Hang in there!

      • Thank you so much Ariadne. You are so right as the younger sister has gotten more mobile and needing more attention, the older sister is having a lot more issues. I’m working on trying to find a way to have more one on one time with her which isn’t easy, but I realize now is something that we used to have. A lot of times she asks to do things, that we can’t do because her sister can’t participate in it. Not sure how it will work, but I have to try to come up with something. I just ordered and received your book on Alternatives to Time Outs and I can’t wait to read it. Thanks again for your advice.

  3. I’ve only recently found your site and am finding it really useful, and it has really helped to stop my husband from yelling at our girls. One problem I have with my nearly 3 year old is that she thinks it is funny to run away – along the beach, in the supermarket but most worryingly in the carpark. Do you have any advice for how to stop this? Thanks!

    • Melissa,
      Practice through play is a wonderful way to help three year olds understand parking lot / crowds / store dynamics. Through play, you can explain expectations, laugh and help your three year old understand that you want her to stay right by you. Many parents will reference “danger, hurt, worry” but 3 year olds don’t really get that, they assume they are safe because they have you and they run because their bodies were designed to do that too! At home, take turns following her, and asking her to follow you, you can play silly games like mother may I and animal actions… Make sure you are also setting your expectations in a clear way “at the store you can hold my hand or sit in the cart” and stick with that! You will have to repeat often because at 3 she is still working on impulse control….hang in there. I hope that helps!

  4. My 2yo is a pretty smart cookie, but can be very stubborn when I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do. (or stop doing something he DOES want to do) He is in the ‘no’ stage, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences like if he doesn’t help put his toys away when he’s done playing, we will put the toys up where he can’t play with them for a while. I TRY not to lose my patience and yell, but its hard when I’m doing the preventative steps, and he is being a …toddler.

    • Rachel,
      You are right in that 2 year olds really don’t tend to respond to consequences. At age 2, children are more likely to show cooperation when they watch us ( modeling) through play and working together. One thing that works very well at this age is breaking tasks down into very small, specific requests: ” can you hand me the red block?” and “let’s fill this tray with the blocks then dump it in the box, I will show you then we can do it together.” I personally found that I needed to allow for about double the time I expected things to get done when my children were 2 and continue to see this at tot playgroup each week – toddlers just really need more time to clean up, get dressed, brush teeth etc…rushing them makes them dig their heels even deeper into the ground!! As far as stopping them, kind and clear language works so well “I see you are pulling that, I can’t let you do it. Let’s finding something you CAN do.” hope that helps!

  5. I am struggling to find ways to motivate my two year old to come to me when I call him. I realize that if I need to take him to the bathroom or put a diaper in him, stopping him in the middle of playing can be a hard trasition… should I always go to him and say time to change your diaper or get dressed or clean up, etc or is there another way to get his attention and his cooperation.

    • How about a couple of pre-warnings?
      “That’s nice playing, Johnny. It’s nearly time to change your diaper”, then a few minutes later: “Two minutes until we change your diaper Johnny”, and finally: “It’s time to change your diaper, then afterwards we can go back to playing.”
      Use consistent wording, and use it for EVERY transition, even the ones he’s happy to make.

    • Meghan,

      while it may seem like extra effort in the beginning, I do think this time to approach your child and connect before transitioning is a really wonderful way to create a sense of true cooperation between the two of you. When we slow down and meet our child where they are (playing, exploring, wondering) and interrupt them with care, they feel much more respected and willing to shift gears. Just imagine you have just settled down with a warm cup of tea and a good book and right then the door bell rings, then the phone, then your child cries…you never quite get to doing what you had wanted to do. It can make you feel uneasy right? On the other hand, if you enjoy that time, relax a bit, you are more likely to move on to the rest of your day, content. Children even more so need time to transition and getting down to their level, joining in their play and then inviting them to change a diaper, get dressed and cleaned up feels like something nice, not forced and interrupting. Especially in areas of self care, we do our children a great deal by involving them respectfully as this preserves their sense of autonomy and self esteem. Hope that helps.

  6. I am not sure this approach works with my five yr old. I have tried this technique. However my girl is just as clever. She gets it that mummy is just using a way to get the work done. For eg, in your conversation so could you make it a fun job? her answer would be no or for an even clever question from my side – whats a fun way to get this job done?, her answer would be there is no fun in doing this.

    End of conversation. I would like to know what is the way to deal with too clever kids that know how to play the game themselves!

    • Priya,
      When children can’t choose one of the options we give them, AND the request is an important one, it’s alright to use kind and clear language. “You can make it fun, or not, as long as you get it done. If you need help I am here for you.” for example. This can also be an opportunity to pause and see if there is something behind the refusal to help, especially if it happens ALL the time, it may mean that limits and boundaries are unclear. Having a daily routine and set expectations can also help children better navigate what is expected of them because negotiations have already happened in setting the routine. Also, if you always step in and do things for your child that they could do for themselves, they will learn they don’t have to do them 😉 So…with that in mind, what do you think you might want to change?

  7. My 3.5 yr old son doesn’t stay with me in stores, despite that we discuss before we leave the car what is expected of him. He grabs everything, runs about and I resort to threats to leave in order to stop him from acting up further. When he disobeys and we leave the store (which happens so often I am fearful of even going out with him to try to run an errand now), he gets even more upset and yells, screams, hits himself, and makes up reasons why he had to do it (to surprise me, to upset me, to show me his ninja moves, etc). I try to remain calm and end up crying in an aisle, in the car, and trying to hide it. When he notices I am crying, he asks if I am sad because of his behavior making it feel like its a purposeful attack on me and my need to accomplish something with my son in tow. Being that I am his only parent and have no choice, I am at a loss. I feel the scornful looks of others asking, “Why does she let her son act like that?” I know no other way. I point out how other children are listening to the adult with them, holding their hand, walking beside him, and he sees and knows that he isn’t doing the same. I don’t know what to do to improve our situation and I fear waiting it out will only result in it not changing. Thanks for your advice.

    • Kate,
      It’s boring for 3.5 year olds to go to stores, on the other hand, you need to get your shopping done. My suggestion here is to start with small steps and build up how you work and shop together. Make a clear plan for yourself – use a stroller or sit him in a shopping cart. Get only a few items, engage your son in conversation and then leave on a positive note, because you choose to, not because things got difficult. This may seem annoying and inconvenient but crying and dealing with running away also sounds like it’s not working for you. I would highly recommend you don’t point out to your son what he is doing wrong or cry to show him your are not happy with his behavior (I know you mean well, and that you want him to learn) but at 3.5 years he isn’t going to hear the message in the way you intend. Instead focus on what he CAN do – hold a shopping list, hand you an apple, point to the bananas, hold a book, spy the cashier, hold a special wallet (with play money) etc…Because you describe the incident of your son hitting himself, I would also suggest you talk to your pediatrician, simply because having some individualized support from someone that knows you and your son well might be the most helpful to you.

  8. I have a similar perspective to Priya’s, so I’m interested in seeing the response to her question. If I said to my 3.5 year old daughter “What can you do to make X a fun job?” she will have turned her back and walked away from me before I got to the word “fun”. I try all the strategies – getting down to eye level, trying to encourage cooperation, being firm and sticking to limits, and very rarely resorting to a time-out or raising my voice – but sometimes she is 100% obstinate. How should this be handled?

    • Heather,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it sounds like you are really caring and working towards collaboration with your daughter. Most children, will have times when they just don’t want to do what is asked of them. This is developmentally normal for a 3.5 year old because, they are learning about their own sense of self…. if a child is running on empty (too hungry, too tired, too excited, too rushed, etc…) we can try to allow some flexibility for that moment as well. You say sometimes she is obstinate – does this mean she is often cooperative? I would encourage you to look at those good moments and see what goes well, and to accept that sometimes, our children will just really disagree and dislike what we are asking them to do. Our job when they dislike that is to provide calm leadership, not take their feelings personally and just help them as best as we can. It may mean making an exception, helping them, being playful or being firm and kind at the same time. This weeks upcoming post talks all about defiance and development in the early years so I will be expanding on this as well.

  9. This was a very informative article. I sometimes have power struggles with my 3 year old, to get her to cooperate to do tasks, etc without her screaming or going into a tantrum. I will try doing things differently.

    • I wish you patience and calm as you navigate things with your three year old. Sometimes I remind myself that 3 and 4 year olds are just trying to feel a little bit more in on control of the very few things they do get to have a say in. Finding a compromise often melts power struggles away! I don’t know if you saw this post, but it may be helpful too. the good news is the work you put into this now, will help you both navigate the next years with more ease! How To Stop Power Struggles.

  10. i enjoyed reading your article. Although, I always use the approach of eye level, soft voice, I give my son a time count down for when I ask him to do things, seems nothing works!! When I reprimand him and put him in his room he comes out constantly saying mommy but I want you, mommy I want a hug and a kiss. I don’t know how to get him to listen. Is feel like I’m a failure as a parent. My son is 4 and very independent, he likes doing things on his own from making his own bath to doing his own laundry he’s a very good boy but does not like the word no. Help me please.

  11. Hi,

    I couldn’t have found this article at a better time than now. Yesterday I literally broke down crying and ranting and raving to my husband because of the stress of my yelling. I am consumed with guilt and frustration. I have two lovely daughters – 4 years and 2 years. In the mornings when I am trying to get them out the door, then head to get my bus, I literally scream in rage at the tops of my lungs for the 4 year old to put her socks and shoes on or to go down stairs. I constantly have to repeat myself until I am at my wits end. I feel helpless, less of a mother and a terrible person with all this yelling. Sometimes when I tell them couple of times, then yell and ultimately scream at them, I can see them startle and rush to do what I am telling them and I break inside. We have such great times together – playing, reading, coloring, going places but mornings and when time is limited, they test me so much. I am almost depressed. Everyone around thinks I am such a great mom because I have a good steady rapport with kids, they love me, they listen to me and my girls are always having fun with me and then this monster rears it’s head.
    I can’t talk about it to anyone but my husband and he tried talking to them and explaining and ends up slightly yelling at them.
    I got some tips and am writing them down. Is wine the only answer left? (half-laugh)

    • Jency,

      You clearly care a great deal about your children. I wonder what you can do in the morning to find more time so things don’t feel so rushed? Is it a matter or sorting clothing out the day before? Having a ritual of how to put on shoes? Does your 4 year old need more help from you? Sometimes what we see as “defiance” or “dawdling” is really a misguided attempt from kids at asking for more help / more connection. In those times when you are having a great time, why not talk about the morning routine, maybe make a list or a picture chart so everyone knows what to do and maybe your 4 year old can be part of the solution? What do you think?

  12. Michelle,
    My son is just 3. Because of our prior living situation, he is used to getting what he wants when he wants it. Now living in a stable environment, he acts like HE rules the house and we are his servants.
    I get frustrated with telling him nicely, “please don’t stand in your chair.” “Off the table now please. I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.” “Can we try the potty? Pee and poop go in the potty, so we should try before we eat.” I try to give him a reason WHY the request is being made… my answer is a quick glance, “No,” just as friendly back. It almost sounds like the “No” in a “No thank you”… as he keeps at what he is doing.
    I don’t want to yell at him, BUT I do… I feel guilty that at the moment it seems to be the only way to even get his attention, but the frustration at his complete impertinence is just too much.
    He doesn’t use his words, and although we have tried hard to work with him on it, he PREFERS to scream at the top of his lungs to get OUR attention, presumably because he is used to being yelled at by us….
    How do we reverse the damage and maybe get a headstrong and independent toddler to be a tad more obedient while working with his limited vocabulary, as he is very behind on his natural speech and flat out refuses to sign, despite hearing loss of parents??
    Any advice would be welcome. Thanks for reading this….

    • Allysin,
      I hear you would really like to change some of the dynamics in your family right now. At age three children need clear boundaries and limits. If a child feels like they run the house and all demands are answered everyone feels very stressed. The good news, its not about reversing damange but instead creating clear boundaries and routines to help everyone get on the same page.
      As you have noticed, yelling and screaming models yelling and more screaming, so step one is to start working on how you want to make your requests. Step two is going to be accepting refusals and big feelings (tear and tantrums) with empathy and validation. this isn’t the same as giving in, its just acknowledging that what you are asking isn’t what your child wants. Step 3 is to make small, clear, actionable requests. “Sit in your chair. Thank you.” (skip the extra words of hurting, falling, because it’s just so much information, even if its good information!) Step 4 is to use respectful, phsysical touch. For example, if your child doesn’t get off the table? You take him off, but not with roughness, blame or yelling. Simply calmly place a hand on his shoulder, then say “I am lifting you from the table. this isn’t a place to sit” and then you follow through. The calmer you stay the more confidence you have in your limits – the more your requests will come from a place of guidance. Remember, 3 year olds LOVE to say NO to everything, it’s because they are growing and learning to be individuals. You get to offer guidance and set boundaries. Also as far as the speech if you believe there is a challenge there, I do highly reccomend you seek out help from your pediatrician, early intervention or a speech & language specialist. best wishes.

  13. cant stop yelling at my son. he’s turning 4 on January. Hope u could give me some advice on how to change everything & start a new strategy for him to listen to me. thanks in advance…

  14. Oh yes, I yell. There are days when I feel like I have mounds of patience and I am so happy with myself for taking things in stride, helping my girls (3 and 4) to work through big frustrations and ending with everyone happy. And then I run out. Sometimes, it’s due to some of my own person issues — I am struggling with bad hormone swings at the moment that I am addressing with my doctor. Still that doesn’t cushion the blow of hurt when I raise my voice and scare my own kids. It’s horrible. Sometimes I just get fed up. But I’m trying to stop beating myself up for losing patience. We can’t be super mom all of the time. And I have found that by apologizing when I have outbursts and telling them that it wasn’t their fault, etc., it has modeled some behavior in them, and now, when my 3-year-old has a meltdown and we do our thing together, she will come back to me and apologize, completely shocking me! I love every bit of advice you wrote here.

  15. […] Positive Parenting quotes parenting educator Katie Hurley to explain by yelling at kids isn’t an effective way of getting them to obey. “ A natural defense mechanism for children is to ‘tune out’ yelling,” she says. “It’s a highly charged input. Children might yell back or they might even laugh in response, but they aren’t internalizing the message. Frequent yelling can trigger symptoms of anxiety in children and can lead to a negative cycle of communication that is difficult to break.” […]

  16. Firstly thank you so much for sharing.
    I have twin girls, 2.5yr. They are so good girls but two things I have difficulty with tackling and don’t know what’s the ‘right’ thing to say, feel I have tried everything.
    At playgroup when I ask them to sit down and listen to the teachers they will just run around and no matter what I say they will start doing something totally different. So my question is what can I say for them to focus on what the teachers are doing?
    Second my girls have started to throw stuff on purpose and when I say that’s not nice to do, if you break that you wouldn’t have that to play with anymore. Or I would say, when you have picked that up do you want to paint or play in the garden?
    Please would be amazing with some inputs. Thanks

  17. Hi,

    I am struggling with getting my 7 year old to listen when I ask him to do things such as change your clothes, do your homework, etc. There is always a reason why he can’t do it at the moment (I want to finish what I’m doing, I want to say hi to the dogs, etc.). That leads me to keep asking him to do what is asked only for him to start crying telling my how unfair I am. When he does this, it gets me angry and I start to raise my voice.

    I’ve been reading articles on how damaging yelling can be and I really want to find another way to get through my son as I find that yelling does not help the situation, it only makes it worse for the both of us.

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