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How do I get my husband to stop yelling at our kids?

Yelling is abusive behavior. Period. Here's what you can do to get your spouse to stop.
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Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
September 9, 2015
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10 min
Minute Read

Q: How do I get through to my husband about his yelling?  He tends to yell out of frustration at my son (his adopted son now) who just turned 9. He used to be good about talking to him instead of yelling or getting loud, but now it doesn’t seem like he even tries to talk. He just goes straight away to the yelling. Mid-school year, last year, my son was diagnosed with borderline attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so he loses focus a lot and we need to tell him multiple times to do things…he just gets distracted easily. How can I get through to my husband about this?


My thoughts:

 

Sadly, this is a common concern among mothers. So you’re not alone in this. First, it’s important to understand the severity of the situation and the effects that yelling has on young kids.

This is abusive behavior.

 

The word “abusive” might sound strong here. I’m not saying your husband is an abuser. I am saying his behavior is abusive. Accepting this is important in order to move forward and take proper action.

The psychological effects of yelling at kids are dire. Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parenting, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She explains that when we yell at young kids, it ignites their fight, flight or freeze response—the anxiety response needed for survival. It’s incredibly stressful and confusing for a child to have such a strong anxiety response to his caregiver—the person who is supposed to be keeping him safe.

Yelling at kids is not an effective communication method. In fact, Dr. Markham says it’s not communication at all. Yelling simply causes distress. Because your child is in fight, flight or freeze mode, he isn’t actually learning anything from your husband in these moments, and he isn’t feeling motivated to change his behavior. He simply feels afraid. How good are we at listening when we’re feeling terrified?

In addition, because your son’s brain is not finished developing, yelling is especially damaging. He is internalizing this anxiety and fear response and yelling is being normalized for him. He could grow up thinking yelling is how you communicate. It’s normal to yell at your partner or child. You have to yell to be heard. This will greatly hurt his future relationships. It’s possible your husband was yelled at as a child. This behavior was normalized for him, and that’s why he’s doing it now. That’s no excuse for his behavior, but it could help to understand his motives.

Now that you understand how damaging your husband’s behavior is, approach him about it. Find a time when you are both feeling calm and are open to talking. It’s tempting to approach him right after he’s yelled at your son and you’re angry, but this is not the time to broach the subject. Wait until you are both watching TV or on a walk or running errands and aren’t feeling triggered. Tell your husband you’re concerned that his yelling is abusive behavior. Stress that it's his behavior that is abusive, not him.

 

Seek professional help

 

Your original question was “what can you do to get your husband to stop yelling”? The truth is, you can’t do much. This would require changing your husband, and while we can influence people, we cannot change them.

What you can do is seek professional counseling. And seek it now, today. Tell your husband this is a must. You will not tolerate being married to someone who treats your son in this way. A professional can help mediate between the two of you and dig into why your husband is yelling. It’s incredibly helpful to have a neutral, third-party advising him to stop yelling and one who can explain to him the damage of yelling.

Understanding ADHD

 

It also sounds like your husband doesn’t have a clear understanding of your son’s borderline ADHD diagnosis. Whenever we don’t understand something, we have a choice: we can try and understand the thing better through research and conversation, or we can be judgmental of it. It sounds like your husband has chosen the latter. Whenever we misunderstand something, it causes us fear and anxiety. This fear and anxiety can cause us to lash out at what we don’t understand, rather than seeking understanding.

If your husband understood what ADHD was and how it affects people’s brains and behaviors, he wouldn’t be so afraid of it. He would have more grace and understanding for your son. And he would lash out at him less often.

When you talk to him about going to counseling also tell him that you need him to understand what ADHD is. Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood through Adulthood is an excellent resource. You could read it together or go through it with your counselor.

 I have a strong feeling that once your husband understands ADHD and how difficult it can be to live with, he will better understand your son and be less prone to yell at him out of his own frustration, fear and anxiety.

Ultimately, he must want to change.

As I said earlier, you can’t make your husband change. He must want to change. This may happen while you’re in counseling. He may see his behavior for what it is—abusive—and become remorseful and want to change. Or he may let shame get the best of him, buckle down and continue yelling at your son. If this happens, set up an appointment with your counselor alone and ask your counselor what he or she advises you to do.

Ultimately, you must do what’s best for your son.

 

Ultimately, you must center your son in this situation. It’s tempting to center your husband and make sure he has what he needs. But your son is helpless. He is at the mercy of the both of you. He can’t advocate for himself. He doesn’t know what he needs. You do. What does your son need? What will keep him safe? What’s best for him, especially having a borderline ADHD diagnosis?

Being yelled at is certainly not safe. It’s certainly not what’s best for him. He needs to be in a place where his brain is sending signals of safety, not fight, flight or freeze. He needs to be in a home where he is understood, not berated for a condition he can’t control. Children with ADHD already face so much stigma at school, from their teacher and from their peers. The last thing he needs is to live in a home where he is judged, rather than accepted.

Taking your husband out of the equation, sit down and envision what you want your son’s future to be. What good things do you want for him? How do you want him to succeed? What will it take to get him there?

You are not responsible for your husband’s choices and actions. You are only responsible for your own. What can you do now to ensure your son thrives in childhood and ultimately adulthood? You may have to make some tough decisions to get there. It may take time. But with professional help and through prioritizing your son’s needs, you can create a future where he feels safe, and when a child feels safe, he can thrive.  

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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