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Showing your anger can be beneficial to kids for learning to behave

Jody Stallings (copy)

Jody Stallings

I admit it. Sometimes I yell at my daughter, usually when she’s done something I’ve told her a thousand times not to do. My husband says I shouldn’t, but when I try to quietly reason with her, it goes in one ear and out the other. Is it wrong for parents to yell?

I’ve written before about teachers raising their voices toward students. Today it’s parents’ turn.

Based on my experience and expertise (which is 21st-century phrasing for “in my opinion”), it’s generally fine for parents to raise their voices with kids. It often helps the kids. There are, of course, qualifiers.

Not that opinions matter. Unless you’re from the planet Vulcan, when your kids make you angry, you’re going to raise your voice. It’s a natural emotional reaction. That’s actually one reason it can help kids more than “quiet reasoning.” Nearly all children of any age understand emotion. Reason is a different story.

When parents take the emotion out of their voice, they’re depending on words alone to carry the message. Kids — especially younger ones — easily misconstrue such messages. Sometimes they aren’t developed enough to understand. Sometimes their attention spans make them stop listening after sentence one.

Raising our voices communicates disapprobation in a clearer, more primal way. Even dogs and babies know when they’re being scolded. When you raise your voice with a child, he may not get every aspect of your message, but he will know you were unhappy with him, and there’s a better chance he’ll avoid what caused your disapproval.

You might not like the sound of that, but non-verbal communication is important for kids. They don’t get nuance, irony, or abstractions, but they do understand emotion. So if you’re annoyed with them, express it. If you’re disappointed, convey that, too. And when you’re happy with their behavior, let it show all over. What you say may not stick, but they’ll remember how you felt and how you made them feel.

Imagine a stand-up comic who does a full set and no one laughs, but afterward everyone tells him it was funny. Though his audience expressed their satisfaction with quiet words, that comic is going to think he’s a failure. If his jokes were truly funny, people would have responded with a natural emotion: laughter. Telling him later how funny he was would reinforce his assessment, but it would never replace it.

Like comedians, kids need to feel as well as understand when their behavior is appropriate and inappropriate. Showing and telling are like the two sides of a pair of tweezers: without both, you’re not pulling out many splinters.

Obviously, there are caveats. Don’t bellow continually or it, too, will go in one ear and out the other. And don’t belittle children with your words. Focus on their behavior, not their character. Calling a child “stupid” will damage his self-worth and give him license to ignore you. We don’t listen to people who think we’re stupid or worthless.

Also, don’t scream at the top of your lungs or generally go ape. Screaming is for emergencies. Going ape is for gorillas. Take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and say only what you need to say (not, dear heaven, what you really want to say). The adage “loud and clear” should be the rule.

Above all, don’t let the sun go down on your anger. You can have it out with your kids, but once the dust clears and before the night has passed, tell them you love them.

Don’t confuse or undermine your message by dismissing the scolding or tossing gifts at them, of course. Just let them know your emotional response is a sign of love, not contempt. That may sound obvious to you, but children process things differently.

Expressing feelings is an asset of healthy families. When parents repress their emotions, children will do the same. This will have the effect of bottling up inside what should be outwardly expressed, which does no one any favors, not now and not later. Nor does constant berating. Balance, clarity, and control are critical to helping you express your emotions toward your children’s behavior in a way that will help them become the adults you hope they can be.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question, order his books, or follow him on social media, please visit