An Instructive But Possibly Patronizing Story About Yelling

The Wall Street Journal just ran an article about a study on disciplinary strategies out of the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan. The authors found that parents can inflict similar harm on their kids by yelling at them as they can through hitting or other forms of physical punishment.  “Harsh, verbal discipline” used on 13 year old children was found to be associated with increased levels of depression, behavior problems including fighting, lying, and problems at school when the kids were 14.

The article reminded me of an independent study on child abuse I did in graduate school. I looked at the research that examined factors involved in physical abuse and, not surprisingly, harsh disciplinary tactics were the biggest contributors. The dynamic behind abuse often begins with yelling. At first, it can lead to quick, temporary behavior change in kids, and parents find their behavior reinforced. The problems begin when kids grow accustomed to their parents’ yelling. They get used to it pretty quickly and parents have to ratchet up the volume and intensity in order to continue making the same impression. Eventually, the kids get used to that too and the cycle continues becoming more intense and punitive until it culminates in physical abuse. The study covered in the Wall Street Journal also found that the increase in children’s behavior problems stemming from the previous harsh discipline led to further increases in the use of harsh disciplinary strategies…and so it goes.

Research focusing on disciplinary strategies and their outcomes consistently points to positive reinforcement for good behavior as being more effective than punishment for negative behavior. When you present expectations clearly, comprehensibly, and confidently and apply logical consequences in a calm, consistent way, you usually go a long way in helping kids manage their behavior and maximize their success.

But not always.

In a small set of very specific circumstances, raising your voice can be an effective strategy in helping to redirect children who are in the process of spiraling out of control.

There are a number of different cognitive, neurological, or mental health issues in which social skills delays figure prominently. In my practice, the three we see most often are ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Non-verbal Learning Disorder. While these issues can be very different from each other, they all involve delays in the set of skills that comprise executive function. According to Wikipedia (the wellspring from which all knowledge flows), executive function is

“an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive processes, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions.”

One way these delays get expressed is through the process of “getting stuck.” When kids with executive function delays become upset or frustrated, their difficulty with the process of inhibition affects their ability to regulate their emotions. The challenges they face with cognitive flexibility can keep them hyperfocused, stuck, and upset for long stretches of time.  This can be enormously penalizing on a social level. Anyone looking for a good read on this topic is well advised to pick up a copy of Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. Even though the title of the book always makes me snicker – taken on a literal level, being explosive could be an unfortunate trait for any child – it presents a thorough, insightful description of this process. Dr. Greene calls this state of anger and frustration “vapor lock” and suggests that the best way of responding to it is to 1) prevent its occurrence in the first place by looking for and responding to warning signs before kids become unraveled and 2) failing that, waiting for a child to regain some control prior to engaging them in discussion or any other type of intervention.

In general, once a child starts heading down the path towards vapor lock, I’m in agreement with Dr. Greene that the best approach is to give him or her some space before trying to engage in any discussion. For the most part, there’s little you can say to a child when he or she is melting down that will do anything besides escalate things even more. However, if it’s possible to respond at the very outset of the vapor lock, a well placed, well considered raised voice can be effective at disrupting that cycle. Among kids with ADHD and executive function delays, the world wages a competition for their limited attention but once a salient stimulus reaches their awareness, it can be a major endeavor to draw their attention away from it. Raising your voice by calling their name or saying something like “Hey!” can sometimes be enough to draw their focus away from what they’ve become stuck on. If you do raise your voice, make sure it’s because there’s a good reason for doing it, not just because you’re getting frustrated. It’s also vital that you keep things concise and respectful and, most importantly, that you stay in control. If you find that it doesn’t work right away, stop. That’s the time to back off and give that child some space. Whether the strategy is effective or not in any given situation, it’s also important to have a conciliatory conversation with the child afterwards.

A counselor I know used a story about two farmers and a mule to illustrate the concept of a well-placed raised voice. It can sound patronizing but once you get past the condescension, it’s a helpful parable. So…here goes…

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One day, a farmer – let’s call him Farmer Ed – sells a mule to Farmer Bob. When making his sales pitch, Farmer Ed tells Farmer Bob that all he needs to do is to whisper sweet nothings in the mule’s ear and the mule will plow the fields for him all day. An excited Farmer Bob brings the mule back to his farm, anxious to put the mule to work. Once he gets the mule out to the field, Farmer Bob whispers sweet nothings in its ear and stands back to watch as the mule does…nothing. It just stands there. He tries again and again to no avail. He calls Farmer Ed and complains about the raw deal he thinks he’s received. Farmer Ed hurries over to Farmer Bob’s to check things out. Farmer Ed approaches the mule and whispers sweet nothings in its ear and again, the mule just stands there, completely unresponsive. He tries a few more times with no change. Then, Farmer Ed notices a 2 x 4 lying on the ground. He picks it up and hits the mule on the head with it a few times. Then he whispers sweet nothings in its ear and the mule sets out to plow the fields all day long. Afterwards, Farmer Bob asked Farmer Ed why hit the mule in the head with a piece of wood and Farmer Ed says “I just needed to get his attention first.”

I want to emphasize that a positive approach to discipline involving consistency, clarity, and as much positive reinforcement as possible is by far the best approach to behavior management that I know of. Fostering healthy relationships with your children or students will go miles in your ability to help them regulate their actions and I certainly am not advocating the use of  2 x 4’s as a behavior management tool. However, there are times when the only way to get to those positive strategies is to penetrate the sound barrier, raise your voice, and “get their attention first.”

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