Look – There’s No Need To Yell!

Look – There’s No Need To Yell!

In the middle of that embarrassing moment I realised something: MY KIDS are my most important audience – THEY’RE the ones whose opinion matters the most – and I should be more concerned about the impression I’m making on THEM!

(the Tale of the Orange Rhino … )

Mum: “Zach, I asked you 10 minutes ago to get off the computer and clean up the lounge – and you haven’t moved!”

Zach: “Yeah, hang on … I’m just finishing this game”

Mum: “Are you serious? You’re telling ME to HANG ON?!”

Zach: “Aw … but Mum, you said …”


Yelling! It’s something nearly all parents resort to at least some of the time … and, in many homes, most of the time. But do we ever stop and ask ourselves: 

Is yelling good? 

Does it actually work?

And what effect does it have on the yeller – and the yellee?

Well, recent studies show that yelling at children can be just as harmful to their emotional wellbeing as physical violence. Yelling raises cortisol levels (the stress hormone) – and kids who are regularly
yelled at suffer from higher rates of anxiety and depression. They display greater levels of aggression than those whose parents keep their cool. 

But it affects the yeller too …

Someone who knows first-hand how easy it is to yell at your kids is Sheila McCraith – a.k.a. ‘The Orange Rhino’. A habitual yeller, she knew she wanted to change. So, a few years ago she set herself the challenge to go 365 days straight without yelling at her kids (which she did!). Along the way, she mentored a community of parents, enriched her relationship with her own four young boys, and gained insights into (i) why yelling becomes a habit, and (ii) how to change that habit. 

She also ended up writing a book about the whole thing, Yell Less, Love More. 

We thought this was all pretty inspiring. So, after a few emails back and forth, we pencilled ourselves into her schedule for a chat about how to move from LOUD PARENTING to, well, something gentler …

GRAPEVINE: What inspired you to set this goal – to go a whole year without yelling?

SHEILA: We were at the end of doing renovations on our house, and one of the workers was still inside, although I didn’t realise it. During the nine months that construction had been going on, I had barely yelled – because the builders were around, and I was concerned about what these men might think of me and my parenting! But here they were out of the house – or so I thought – and suddenly I was caught red-handed, yelling at my kids. 

In the middle of that embarrassing moment I realised something: MY KIDS are my most important audience – THEY’RE the ones whose opinion matters the most – and I should be more concerned about the impression I’m making on THEM! 

GV: So you started ‘the Orange Rhino Challenge’. What’s the story behind that name?

SHEILA: When I challenged myself to quit yelling, I wanted a symbol – something that would remind me to stay on-track, and also something that would help me remain anonymous (because I was blogging about my experience). My boys were five and under at the time. One day, as I was getting all the kids buckled into the minivan, my oldest son screamed in my face. I responded, “Hey, if I can’t yell, then surely the same goes for you?” He had his finger up his nose (as kids often do), and he said, “Okay, I can’t yell at you … but I can still pick my nose!” 

I had to laugh. Later, I looked up ‘nose’ out of curiosity, and that led to ‘rhino’. When you look up ‘rhino’ you read that it’s “a naturally calm animal that charges when provoked”, – and if that doesn’t sum up parenting, then I don’t know what does! We all hope to be calm, but when we’re provoked or stressed, we often ‘charge’ with our words. 

I decided that the rhino was the perfect symbol – but I didn’t want to be a charging grey rhino, so I changed the colour to orange. To me, orange is such a positive colour, and it symbolises energy and determination – both of which I figured I’d need to reach my goal. 

GV: The challenge is to go a full year without yelling, right? What else does it involve?

SHEILA: My personal goal was 365 consecutive days of no yelling, but I really define the challenge as ‘choosing to yell less and love more.’ The goal, really, is balance. You just want more loving moments so that the yelling moments (which are going to happen, because we’re human!) aren’t what stand out in our kids’ minds. 

I encourage everyone to create both a big goal and smaller goals. For one person their big goal might be going a month straight without yelling; for someone else it might be only yelling once a day. No goal’s better than any other – anyone who’s setting a goal and going after it is making progress, and that’s what matters. 

Even though my big goal was 365 consecutive days without yelling, it helped to just think of the smaller goals: ‘I just have to get through the next hour,’ or ‘I just need to get through dinner, and then the kids have some TV time so it’ll be quiet and I can catch my breath.’ 

Those small successes have a snowball effect: as you have more and more positive moments, you can then upgrade to an even bigger goal.

GV: Okay. Let’s say we’re at that point where we’re ready to quit yelling. What’s the first step?

SHEILA: The first step is to share that goal with others. Telling others builds accountability and it makes it real. And the response is often really positive. People realise, sometimes for the first time, that they’re not the only ones struggling with this. And that in itself helps people to yell less. 

So, step one is to tell others so you have support and accountability. Then, start tracking your triggers …

GV: Triggers? What are they?

SHEILA: It’s really just what sets you off. An example from my own life is clutter – when things are messy and cluttered, I get anxious and uptight. Another thing that triggers a lot of parents and gets them into the yelling zone is when their kids don’t listen to them. Kids fighting, kids being too loud, kids complaining about what’s for dinner – all those things can set you off and get you to that place where you just start yelling.

GV: So some triggers are common to most parents, but others are quite individual?

SHEILA: Absolutely. No matter how many kids you’ve got or what combination of boys/girls and ages, there are always some things that pretty much all parents struggle with. But a big ‘aha’ moment for me was realising that it’s not only my children that trigger me. Sometimes I’m just not in a good place and everything’s setting me off! And, often, stuff that’s going on in my own life brings me to a point where I can’t tolerate what the kids are doing. 

I think a lot of parents have their own personal triggers. And, when they’re set off, their kid might be doing something that’s actually pretty normal – but the parent’s ability to respond calmly is greatly diminished.

GV: How does it help to know what our triggers are?

SHEILA: Once people have spent a few days noticing why and when they’re yelling, they can then create a plan to deal with their key ‘hot points’. For example, I know that my house being messy is a trigger for me, so one way I combat that is to make sure that every night I just take 10 minutes to do a little bit of picking-up. 

Some triggers aren’t as obvious. Let’s say your child struggles with school, and homework is a nightly battle (for both of you) because he doesn’t want to do it. One thing I’d suggest is to go through that scene in your head beforehand so that you can practise how you’re going to respond to it. Having a plan before the trigger occurs helps you be ready so you can avoid yelling.

GV: Your four boys have been alongside you in this whole journey. How has the challenge affected their behaviour?

SHEILA: All my kids use the Orange Rhino techniques – they’ve watched and learned. The other day I was getting more and more frustrated with the computer when I was trying to help my nine-year-old with something, and he said, “Mum, take a deep breath! Count to 10!” I burst out laughing and thought, “He’s totally Orange Rhino-ing me!” And when my five-and-a-half-year-old saw me getting agitated recently he suggested I go find a stress ball and squeeze it. They really get how these techniques work. 

They’ve also learned – along with me – about the value of perspective. You can use perspective to ground you and realise what’s not worth yelling over. 

A really helpful phrase to use is “At least…” For example: “Okay, he spilled milk on the floor – but at least the glass didn’t break.” Something bad will happen and my four-year-old will say, “Well, at least …” When you share a technique like this with your kids you’re really teaching them.
I think it’s awesome that my boys are becoming aware of perspective and learning how to manage their emotions. It’s important to get those messages in early. If I’m honest, they’ve learned some poor anger-management skills from me in the past, and I’m trying very hard to reverse that trend. 

GV: So, it’s had a positive effect?

SHEILA: They’re still kids – they’re not perfect. And we have our own challenges. But, in general, the whole house has been calmer. I’ve been more relaxed. There have been more loving moments. I’ve had more fun with my kids. And when I’m at my best, they respond faster if I ask them to do things. The tantrums are shorter. Everything’s just a little more positive. And, of course, the way that I’m seeing them talk about ways to calm down … that’s a huge win.

GV: Let’s say you’re having a bad day, and the kids seem to be winding you up deliberately … what do you do then?

SHEILA: What I really try to do is walk away and take a breath – making it clear that I’m not leaving them, but just saying, “I need a break right now so that I can respond kindly.” I talk about what I’m doing in the hope that they can learn how to handle a situation when they become frustrated, too. 

Sometimes I count in my head to calm myself down. I just try not to erupt. And, when I have enough willpower or mental/emotional reserves, I’ll try to lighten the mood with a little joke.

GV: So instead of mentally preparing ourselves for battle, we can purposefully steer ourselves into a more peaceful zone?

SHEILA: Absolutely! I do a lot of that – reminding myself to handle things peacefully, or telling myself to walk away from conflicts. I talk myself through it. I joke that there’s a little orange rhino in my head going, “No, no, don’t do that!” It helps a lot to listen to that little orange rhino.

GV: Any other effective techniques to keep from yelling?

SHEILA: I always make the point on my blog that I’m not a professional – I’m just a mum who’s figured some stuff out. But I’ve read a lot about this. Studies show that visual reminders really help the brain achieve certain behaviours. And I’ve learned a lot of visual techniques that help me stay on track, like using the colour orange as a visual cue. 

For instance, I put orange Post-It notes with little positive messages around the house to remind me not to yell during the morning rush or at mealtimes. Sometimes I even dress myself or my boys in orange! In actual fact, having orange things around really works as a mental cue to yell less. 

It’s just like the red of stop signs: red means stop. And the colour orange has become a simple but powerful symbol for ‘yell less’.

The important thing with visual reminders is to change them often so they don’t just become part of the background.

GV: Earlier you mentioned your son reminding you to ease your frustration with a squeeze ball. Are there other physical things we can do to keep from yelling and bellowing at our kids?

SHEILA: There are loads of them. My son’s in occupational therapy and I’ve learned a lot about how to send your body those signals that calm you and release tension. There are lots of things you can use – even things you can find in the kitchen! You can grab a tea-towel and wring it or pull it apart a bit … or a sponge and clean the benchtop – that motion can be very soothing! Vacuuming and that feeling of pushing something heavy can also have a calming effect.

GV: Some of us could end up with really clean houses!

SHEILA: I sure did! There are other things you can do, too. Like splashing water on your face, or gently pulling on your fingers – think of the relaxing things a beautician does when she gives you a hand-massage. I’ve even done push-ups! We can’t just go off on a 10km run while our kids are home – but we can do star-jumps. 

I started doing silly stuff like that. And I found that when I have fun with it I can turn things around for both me and my kids. Either they end up joining me in a silly sport session and reset their own bad moods through exercise – or they start laughing at me and get that benefit. Either way, it’s a win!

GV: How about verbal techniques that parents can use when they feel a yell bubbling up?

SHEILA: There are a few things you can repeat to yourself. Like, “It’s not you – it’s me!” That comes back to identifying my triggers and owning the fact that sometimes my yelling has nothing to do with my child. It’s simply me and my bad mood. It allows me to refocus my anger where it belongs instead of at the kids.

Saying your kid’s age is another great reminder to keep things in perspective. And, of course, I’ve taught my children to say, “Orange Rhino!” to remind me not to get to that place where I yell. 
Sometimes our kids know better than we do when we’re getting worked up. 

We also need to make sure we’re being kind and encouraging to ourselves in our self-talk: “I can do this. I’m not messing up. I’m not a bad mum, I’m a good mum trying really hard …”

GV: What’s the worst thing about parents who’re in the habit of yelling?

SHEILA: There are plenty of drawbacks. Firstly, yelling escalates any situation – it makes things worse. It’s more difficult to really communicate. And it means fewer loving moments, which is definitely a negative. When parents yell it teaches our children that we don’t know how to manage anger.

When I thought about becoming a mum I thought about all the lessons I’d teach my kids – how to hold the door open, how to say “please” and “thank you”. But I never thought about the lesson of anger management.

GV: Probably because most of us never had anger-management problems before we had kids!

SHEILA: That’s the truth! But even putting aside the scientific data about the negative effects of yelling, we all know that when people yell at us, it just doesn’t feel good. 

When we’re going around screaming at our kids it isn’t teaching them how to deal with their frustrations successfully. And, in terms of myself, I feel bad – I feel awful when I yell! It’s not how I want to behave, and it’s not how I want to treat people. 

So when I resort to yelling, it negatively affects my view of myself as a parent. And it just keeps spiralling downwards: I yell … it makes me feel worse … and then I’m in a bad mood and more likely to yell again. 

GV: How strict do you have to be with yourself when you’re doing the challenge? And what if you yell when it’s a matter of safety, like when your child’s headed off the footpath into traffic?

SHEILA: It doesn’t count against you in the challenge as long as you’re just using a loud voice to get attention – that’s not yelling to shame or scold or be mean or angry. And you need to follow up with a calm voice and talk to them so that they’ll learn the lesson.

One of the benefits of not yelling is that when there’s a true emergency and we yell, we’re heard! When we yell habitually, the kids ignore us. I’ve had to use an emergency yell several times, and it works – it’s so much more powerful now that I’m not yelling all the time. 

GV: What about other non-angry yelling, like shouting to our kids in another room to come for dinner?

SHEILA: Well, you can do it if you want, but I’d warn you: it’ll eventually set off a ‘proper’ yell! You yell for them to come – then they yell back – and pretty soon everyone’s yelling! It quickly gets to be too much from a sensory standpoint, and it becomes easy to lose your cool. The more we can stay calm, the better.

GV: If we can’t raise our voices, how can we get our kids to listen and to understand that we’re really serious?

SHEILA: It may be easier to yell, but it’s not better! You need to say what you mean and then stick to it. One thing I try to do is make sure that I get my kid’s attention. If I need to I’ll go over to them and get down on their level so I have eye-contact. I make sure they’re focusing, then I tell them once – and that’s it. It’s the ‘one and done’ rule. I don’t keep going on and on about something – because then they learn to ignore me. 

I also use the phrase ‘when and then’: “When you’ve picked up your toys, then you can watch TV.” But even with this, the environment needs to be right if kids are going to listen well. If your kids are in the middle of a game and you interrupt it, they’re not going to listen immediately. So you really need to say, “Are you ready to stop? Tell me when I’ve got your attention … okay, you’re listening. I need you to …” I’ve got a much better chance of getting their cooperation that way than if I just barge in and interrupt their game.

I’ve learned that my kids all listen differently. With one of my boys, I just have to ask him once and wait half a minute without nagging him, and he’ll do what I’m asking. If I nag or remind him he just shuts down.

GV: How has the Orange Rhino Challenge changed your life?

SHEILA: I’m really grateful for it. It’s taught me how to calm down and how to find perspective. Being able to find perspective is such a huge tool in life – especially when you’re handed a few challenges! Ironically enough, ever since I figured out how to yell less, life has thrown curveball after curveball at me – and yet I’ve been much better equipped to handle the stress. 

When I’m in a stressful situation, I now know how to think it through and how to fix it. I now know how to identify and deal with my triggers. And once you figure out how to change the things that affect your mood like that, life just becomes more fun. 

I dwell on things less – when something bad happens I don’t sit and think about it forever and let it ruin my day – I’m letting go faster. I have more positive interactions with my kids, and with others. Even from the beginning stages of the challenge I felt so much more at peace. 

The Orange Rhino Challenge showed me that I can do hard things, which I’m really proud of. Also, it introduced me to many people around the world. It amazes me to be part of a community where we’re all somewhat vulnerable, sharing something we struggle with, and supporting each other – it’s a beautiful thing.

GV: What would you like to say to all of us would-be non-yellers?

SHEILA: At the end of the day, it’s about yelling less and loving more – it’s about having more loving moments in the bank. AND YOU CAN DO IT! It might take longer than you hope, but every day you get up with the determination to try, and you reflect more about why you used to yell. Every yelling moment is an opportunity to learn about what your triggers are – you have to look at yourself as a student of yelling – you’re learning about what works and what doesn’t. And by acknowledging that, the next day you’ll do a little bit better. 

You will get there! And when you do, it feels so amazing. It’s worth the hard work.