Is yelling the new spanking?

Spanking has long since fallen out of favor, possibly due in part to research on the emotional damage it causes. Many parents instead resort to yelling when they don’t know how else to control their kids — but as a disciplinary technique it may be just as bad.

Kids at the receiving end of frequent verbal abuse may suffer long-term consequences, including a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes in later life, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which tracked 17,000 participants. One of the largest investigations of the links between childhood mistreatment and adult health, the study was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego.

Parenting coach Rona Renner, RN wants to help parents at their wit’s end stop the screaming. Renner is the author of “Is That Me Yelling? A Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids to Cooperate Without Losing Your Cool.” A mother of four children, she was the longtime host of a weekly radio talk show, “Childhood Matters,” and now hosts “About Health,” a live call-in radio show out of Berkeley, California.

SafeBee recently spoke with her about yelling and how to avoid it.

What made you want to write this book?

In the classes I’ve taught over the last 25 years, I frequently heard parents say, “Why am I yelling so much?” or, “I’m losing it all of the time with my child. I can’t stand the person I’ve become!” They wanted to yell less but just didn’t now how to do it.

Related: Solving the Sleepless Baby Nightmare

What's so wrong with yelling at your kids?

Many children are frightened when their parents yell, and this fear disconnects them from parents temporarily. This disconnection can be repaired, but if it’s not, a child may feel less safe in the world and may not learn healthy ways to handle angry feelings. Often children will tune out, withdraw, yell back or learn how to do what they want even if their parent yells.

Yelling causes our children to feel like there is something wrong with them. “Why would this person who I love so deeply make me feel so bad? It must be that I am bad.” Some children may wind up becoming more aggressive themselves. Or they may internalize parental anger and experience shame, depression or other emotional problems as a result.

There are ample opportunities each day for parents to lose their sense of calm and balance, especially when they are tired, hungry, feeling overwhelmed or trying to get the kids out of the house or to bed. Most parents will yell at their children at some point, and in no way am I saying that a parent is bad because of it.

Your book says that understanding temperament — ours and our children's — can help reduce yelling. Why is that so important?

Temperament is a person’s first and most natural way of responding. It’s the way we move in the world. It’s the “how” of behavior — for example, how adaptable, persistent, energetic, sensitive or intense a person is. Knowing this, there are simple strategies that can reduce power struggles, such as providing activities so the high-energy child stays engaged, or using a timer to help with transitions for a child who adapts slowly. Understanding temperament helps a parent plan ahead — for their needs and their child’s.

I worked with a father who came to my class because, as he put it, “I don’t really like my child.” What we uncovered was that he was highly sensitive, and his child was very loud and exuberant. When he would come home from work, his son would jump on him and shout about his day. This caused the father to cringe and yell and not want to be around his child. We came up with a few strategies — one of them being that before going into the house the father would sit in his car for a few minutes to relax and breathe and prepare himself for his son’s energy. Just understanding the issues made a huge difference for this father and son.

Related: Is Your Child Getting Enough Free Play Time?

One of the tools you teach parents to use is called the Yelling Tracker. What makes it so effective?

Say your 3-year-old melts down at least once on most days and won’t let you get him into the car seat. When he has a tantrum you begin to escalate and then you yell. If you track his behavior and your feelings for a week, your yelling patterns will become less of a mystery to you. You might notice that the tantrum happens every day around 11 a.m., when it’s time to leave the park. With that information you can experiment with a few things, such as giving your child a healthy snack before you leave rather than waiting until he gets home. Or setting a timer so he is prepared for the transition, or singing a song as you walk to the car to help distract him.

What are some of the other strategies you've come up with to help parents change their behavior?

A key component that I offer in my book is the “A-B-C-D-Es for Not Yelling.” It can help anyone learn to react differently when triggered by another person’s actions or words.

Briefly, the steps are:

1. Ask: “What am I feeling? What are my escalating thoughts?”

2. Breathe: Bring gentle awareness to your breath as you take 3 to 5 slow breaths.

3. Calm Yourself: Wait until you have calmed down before you discipline or communicate with your child.

4. Decide What Your Child Needs: A hug, a limit or help with a task?

5. Empathize: Try to sense what your child is feeling and thinking. Listen to what she is saying.

The trick is to remember to do these steps in the heat of the moment, when stress is high or when you’re in a hurry.

In your book, you share some of your own experiences as a parent, including a "wake-up call." Was it difficult to acknowledge some of your own less-than-perfect parenting?

It wasn’t difficult, because in teaching parenting classes for 25 years, I often talk about my own experience as a parent of four. Parents need to hear from “professionals” that we are human­ and also make mistakes. There is an unrealistic expectation to be “perfect” that women in particular have. This is unhealthy for everyone.

I am still learning to let go of shame and guilt for the mistakes I have made (and continue to make), and there is no better way that I know of than to embrace the truth while developing compassion for myself.

Related: Does Your Teen Need to See a Therapist?

Susan LaCroix is a writer, editor and psychotherapist living in Berkeley, California.