Michele Borba: How to Be a Calmer, Yell-Free Family — Are You Ready to Take the Challenge?

by | Jul 30, 2009 | Anger Management, Stress

Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: Murray A. Straus,[i] the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, found that half of parents surveyed had screamed, yelled, or shouted at their infants. By the time a kid reaches seven years of age, 98 percent of parents admit to verbally lashing at their kids.

These are tough times for us all, but they can be especially hard if you have kids. After all a big part of parenting is about wanting our children to be happy and shielding them from the more painful parts of life. But when you lose your job, car, home, savings, or your child’s college education, it’s heart breaking because you know that your kids’ lives will change. When our stress goes up, our tempers are prone to flare, but it’s also a sure way to shatter patience and family harmony. Research shows that both kids and parents alike are far more stressed than just a decade ago. Those studies also show that those family yelling matches and flaring tempers are especially prevalent during tough economic times–like now.

Let’s face it, yelling—though hardly a healthy or appropriate option–is one way to let off steam. But tolerating yelling just teaches a kid that the way to get what you want is by upping the volume. And beware: the more yelling, the more it must be utilized to be effective. So family members get used to the screaming, the pitch gets louder, the frequency gets longer and soon everyone starts using it so they can be heard.

If you want to boost family harmony and reduce yelling, then something needs to be altered in your kid’s environment and A.S.A.P. It will take a little commitment and a good plan but it helping your kids learn to handle stress in a healthy way is critical anytime but especially now. The first step to changing this vicious yelling cycle is to recognize how those screaming matches do affect our kids. And believe you me, they do.

How Conflict and Yelling Affect Kids … What the Research Says

University of California, Davis conducted a twenty-year study 450[ii] families with school-age kids hit who were hard by the severe Farm Belt Recession in 1980. They found that the emotional affects of financial woes on children can be considerable and can trigger depression, anxiety, adjustment problems and poorer peer relationships in the kids. The researchers also found one critical nugget: The parents’ constant conflicts, irritability and quick tempers during those tight times was what greatly increased the likelihood of their children’s emotional and behavior problems.[iii] And those problems remained with them through adulthood.  Our tempers do affect our kids.

What Families Can Do If to Tame Those Flaring Tempers

Yelling is contagious so chances are if stress in your family is high and your child or another family member has been screaming you may have caught the “screaming bug.” It’s time for a temper makeover. There are steps to reduce tempers. It will take commitment but it is doable

7 steps to reduce the yelling, temper tempers and be a calmer family 

Step 1. Take a “Calmer Family” vow. Begin by gathering the troops and convey your new “no yelling” expectations to all family members. Everyone must know you mean business that yelling will no longer be tolerated. Explain that while it’s okay to be angry, they may not use a yelling voice to express their feelings. If the member needs to take a time out to calm down, he may do so. Some families take a “no yelling” vow and sign a pledge, and posted as a concrete reminder.  Hint: Kids mirror our emotions. When you raise your voice, they raise theirs. When you get tense, they get tense. The fastest way to help your kids reduce anger is for you to be calm.

Step 2. Learn your stress warning signs. Stress comes before anger. Anger comes before yelling. The best way to stop yelling is to identify your own unique physiological stress signs that warn us we’re getting angry. Explain to your kids that we should tune in to them because they help us stay out of trouble. Next, help your child recognize what specific warning signs she may have that tell her she’s starting to get upset. For example: “Looks like you’re tense. Your hands are in a fist. Do you feel yourself starting to get angry?” Anger escalates very quickly: if a kid waits until he is in “Melt down” or a “screaming match” to get himself back into control, he’s too late—and so are you to try and help him. Here are a few common warning signs: Flushed checks. Pounding hearts. Louder voice. Clenched hands. Grinding teeth. Rapid breathing. Body vibrates. Drier mouth

Step 3. Identify family temper triggers. Yelling matches typically happen at the same time such as when you just get home from work, homework time, the morning mania or witching hour. It helps family members learn to recognize one another’s time vulnerabilities–or the time they are most prone to yell. For instance: John: First thing in the morning when he’s always grouch. Kenny: around 2 pm when he needs a nap. Mom: 6 pm when she’s trying to get dinner going. Members just need to be a bit more sensitive.

Step 4. Teach anger management skills. If you want your family to handle anger more appropriately and stop that yelling then you must teach replacer behaviors to substitute for those angry outbursts. The trick is to find one anger management strategy and practice it as a family over and over until you can use it the second those anger signs start to kick in. Here are a few

  • Use self-talk. Use a simple positive message to say to himself in stressful situations. For example: “Stop and calm down,” “Stay in control,” “I can handle this.”
  • Use dragon breaths. Sit in a comfortable position, back straight and pressed into a chair for support then inhale slowly to a count of five, pause for two counts, and then slowly breathe out the same way, again counting to five. Repeating the sequence creates maximum relaxation. Call them “Dragon Breaths” for little kids. “Blow out your anger like those big puffs a dragon takes.” Hint: Using bubble blowers or pinwheels helps a little kid understand that he should take slow deep breaths to blow the anger away.
  • Teach “1 + 3 + 10”. “As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re losing control, do three things. First, stop and say:  ‘Be calm.’ That’s 1. Now take three deep, slow breaths from your tummy. That’s 3. Finally, count slowly to ten inside your head. That’s 10. Put them all together and you have 1 + 3 + 10. Make one like a stop sign out of construction paper and hang it on the fridge. Red = 1 “Calm”; Yellow = “Breathe” Green = “Count.”

Step 4. Teach healthier alternatives to express needs. Many families yell because they simply don’t know how to express their anger another way.  So teach a healthier way.

  • Teach “I” messages.  Explain that instead of starting messages with “You,” begin with “I.” It helps your kid stay focused on the person’s troublesome behavior without putting the person down so the chances for emotional outbursts (and yelling) are lessened. The child then tells the offender what the person did that upset him. He may also state how he’d like the problem resolved. For example: “I get really upset when you take my stuff. I want you to ask me for permission first.”  Or: “I don’t like to be teased. Please stop.”
  • Label emotions. Encourage members to acknowledge their hot feelings to one another. “Watch out. I’m really getting upset.” “I’m so angry I could burst.” “I feel so frustrated that you’re not listening to me.” Labeling the feeling helps both the yeller and the receiver calm down and get a bit of perspective. Give everyone in your family permission to verbalize their feelings and then honor them by listening to their concerns. 

Step 5. Refuse to engage with a screamer. If your family has already caught the “screaming habit” then you have one option: a steady, calm resolve not to engage with the yeller. It will take some time to turn this nasty habit around, but keep in mind that the reason that member keeps screaming is because it works. Here are ways to turn the habit around:

  • Create a warning signal—such as pulling your ear, holding up a red card or a “Time Out” hand gesture—agreed upon by all family members–signifying an inappropriate voice tone. Then use it the second his voice goes one scale above a “normal range” give the signal. It means he needs to lower his voice immediately or you won’t listen.
  • Do NOT engage. If he continues using a loud, yelling tone, absolutely refuse to listen. Firmly (and calmly) explain: “That’s yelling. I only listen when you use a calm voice.”  The moment you yell back the yeller knows they won and the yelling cycle continues. If you have to lock yourself in the bathroom do so. The screamer needs to know yelling doesn’t work. Walk away and go about your business until he talks right. As long as he yells, keep walking.
  • Give permission to “Take Ten”. Let everyone in your family know it’s okay to say, “I need a time out.” Then take a few deep breaths or walk away until you can get back in control. Then give that permission. If the yeller doesn’t stop, ask him to go to time out. Set up a place where a yeller can calm down. 

Step 6. Reduce stress as a family. Find what is adding to your family’s stress that is triggering those yelling matches. While you may not be able to get dad’s job back or gain back your retirement fund but you can do things to reduce the stress in your home. Here are a few things.

  • Keep to routines. Sticking to a routine helps reduce stress because it boosts predictability and boosts security. While everything else around them may seem to be crumbling those bedtime rituals, nighttime stories, hot baths, hugs and backrubs remain the same.
  • Cut down. Too much going on? Cut one thing out of your schedule. Just reducing one thing can reduce those yelling matches because you’re cutting the stress.
  • Monitor news consumptions Limit viewing those stressful news stories or better yet, turn the TV off during the news hour. Kids admit those stories are scaring the pants of them (and us) and will boost our stress—and tempers
  • Find ways to relax. Find no-cost ways to reduce stress as a family. Meditate with your kids, do yoga with your daughter, ride bikes with your preschooler, listen to relaxation tapes with your kids. Not only will you reduce your stress but you’ll also help your kids learn healthy ways to minimize theirs. It will also reduce the yelling.
  • Rebuild relationships. Are your kids yelling because they’re not being heard? Or has yelling been going on so long and now relationships are jarred? Find one on one time with those family members who need you most.

Step 7. Stick your Calmer Family Challenge at least 21 days. Change is hard work.  Be consistent. Your kids need to know you mean business, so stick to your plan at lest 21 days. Get a monthly calendar and mark off each day you stick to the plan. You should see a gradual reduction in the yelling. If yelling continues despite your best efforts or escalates, then there is a deeper underlying problem. It’s time to seek the help of a mental health professional for your child or a therapist for you and your spouse or family. But commit to following through so you do temper those tempers and you become a calmer family.

Above all stay calm Kids mirror our emotions. When you raise your voice, they raise theirs. When you get tense, they get tense. The fastest way to help your kids reduce anger is for you to be calm yourself.

This article is excerpted from Michele Borba’s book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) available for order now: 


Follow Michele on twitter @micheleborba or on her daily blog at https://micheleborba.com

[i] Murray A. Straus study concerning increase in parental yelling cited in R. Sobel, “Wounding with Words,” U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 28, 2000, p. 53.




[ii] R.D. Conger, K.J. Conger, G.H. Elder, F.O. Lorenz, R.L. Simons and L.B. Whitbeck, “Family Economic Stress and Adjustment of Early Adolescent Girls,” Developmental Psychology, Vol 29(2), Mar 1993, 206-219.

[iii] R.D. Conger and others, “Economic Stress, Coercive family Process, and Developmental Problems of Adolescents,” Child Development, v65, n2, Apr 1994, pp 541-561.