How to Train Your Dragon: Yell at it?

by Kelly Bartlett on April 14, 2011

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Maybe,” [Old Wrinkly] said, “you can train a dragon better by talking to it than by yelling at it.”

“That’s sweet,” said Hiccup, “and a very touching thought.  However…from what I know about dragons…I should say that yelling was a pretty good method.”

“But it has its limitations, doesn’t it?” Old Wrinkly pointed out.

–An excerpt from How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell

It does.  Yelling is effective at pretty much two things: intimidating someone into doing what you say, and making them feel bad. No one, children or adults, likes to be yelled at.

Yelling, while an instinctual stress-reliever, doesn’t do anything to actually educate a person about the point you’re trying to make.  I had a teacher once who yelled a lot, and what I remember most about her class is the crummy feeling I had when I was in her room.  I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when she yelled at other students, and I became so afraid to ask questions or talk to her about anything, for fear of her then yelling at me.  One time, I thought my book report was late, and oh, the fear I felt then!  Just imagining what she would say to (yell at) me turned my stomach into knots.  Thinking back on it now, I can’t remember anything about that book report, not even the title of the book, nor any other academic lessons I learned in her class.  I actually can’t even remember this teacher’s name; it’s like a traumatic memory, suppressed. (By the way, my book report did not end up being late, so crisis averted.  I do remember the joy of that moment of realization.)

As a parent, it’s easy to have my buttons pushed by my kids, yet difficult to remember that yelling doesn’t actually do anything to help them meet their behavioral goals.

“We can’t teach kids to behave better by making them feel worse.” –Pam Leo, Connected Parenting

“Children do better when they feel better.” –Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline

I am nowhere near perfect at this…the yelling thing.  It takes a lot of practice to recondition the way we respond to anger, and I am in the midst of working on this.  It’s a many-years-long journey. What I’m working on first and foremost is reconfiguring my “buttons”; trying to take the triggers that usually make me angry and change them so that they, well…don’t.  This is a matter of understanding and perspective.  The more I understand about my children’s behavior–how their brains develop and why they do the things they do–the less they trigger my anger reflex.  And the more perspective I have over “the big picture”–the foundational aspects of raising children that are truly important–the more I realize that in-the-moment yelling doesn’t work toward meeting the long-term goals I have for myself, my children, and our family as a whole.

Yelling at kids doesn’t help them learn a lesson.  Just like my book report experience, what kids remember most is the feeling brought on by the yelling; the fear. That’s the piece of information that our brains hold onto and shape our future interactions and behaviors.  Even the joy I felt when I realized my report was not late and I was not going ot be yelled at was a positive feeling, but still brought on by fear.  Was I then motivated to make extra sure that I was never late on an assignment in this teacher’s class again?  Of course.  I do think fear is a very effective motivator…no argument from me there.  But that’s not the motivation on which I want my parenting, thus my relationship with my children, to be based.

Our most prominent memories stem from feelings around events: succeeding, failing, solving a problem, making mistakes, having fun, going through a difficult time, being held, getting yelled at.  After many years, the details of events are likely to become foggy, but the feelings remain. What do I want my kids to remember when they think back on their childhoods?  Less yelling and feeling afraid, more understanding and feeling supported.  Teaching by yelling does have its limitations.  Teaching through connection is limitless.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

nicoz balboa April 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm

wow this article happen in a day i yelled at my 2years old. i had a break down. and i felt so guilty i speak with here for explain myself, but the horrible feeling last the whole afternoon.
and, when i yell, i re-live my childhood as a child who gets yelled at. not very good memories!

so, your article is very well written and it gives me strenght!

:-)) (sorry for my horrible english!)


debe April 14, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Same thing experienced here…


Geta April 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm

guilty of yelling today too ;( oooh, how much I want to brake this habbit of yelling, for everyones sake, but it’s soooo hard, as I come from a really loud and screaming family myself…. Thanks for the post! Right on time!


Mgygdl April 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I have been talking to my husband about gentle discipline and the one thing that I do is yell at them when I’m overwhelmed (baby crying, 3 yr. old whinnig, while 2 yo demands water as I’m trying to cook) and I really need to stop it. And your article was a God-send just as the other parenting articles I have been coming across today.


Tara April 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Thank you so much for a timely article. My almost three year old watched How to Train a Dragon last night. And this afternoon while waiting for his Dad at the doctor’s he tried to ride every piece of furniture in there as his dragon. Yelling is not an option, but I must come up with something. I live in fear of being the Mom with the out of control child.


Rosanne April 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm

So, how does one deal with a 2 yr old in the grip of a temper tantrum? That is our current quandry and we’ve tried various methods; we’ve yelled at her once, which stopped the screaming but not the tears, we’ve walked away until she came to find us; we’ve tried distracting her, etc…All in all, it’s a challenge when she’s experiencing new and powerful emotions – frustration, sadness, disappointment, anger, confusion – all at once and it comes out in screams and kicks as she rolls around on the floor. Most of the time, I am able to stand back and react calmly, but sometimes, when we are trying to have dinner or go home, etc, it’s nearly impossible! How do we do it, consistantly and lovingly?


Kelly April 16, 2011 at 9:04 am

Hi Rosanne, that is so hard isn’t it? I remember feeling SO angry and frustrated when my daughter was as young as yours. What helped me the most is to learn about where she was in her stage of development. “Your Two-Year-Old,” by Lousie Bates Ames is a good one that might offer some insight. Basically, the connection between the emotional brain and the logical/ rational brain in a 2-year-old is very immature. It helped me most to remember that in the midst of a tantrum; that she is capable of experiencing BIG feelings, but not any way to control them.

Knowing that might give you a moment to pause and figure out what the best response might be. Fellow API blogger, Dionna, has a great list of alternatives to yelling on her blog “Code Name Mama.” Check it out for some great ideas!


Shannon April 15, 2011 at 7:00 am

This is a nice article in theory,but all it does is tell you what NOT to do. It would be more helpful if it gave you suggestions for what you SHOULD do when your 15-month-old has climbed the television stand for the 20th time this morning to try and knock over the flat screen, your back is breaking from pulling all 30 pounds of him away at 11 weeks pregnant, and there’s not one thing you can do to baby proof that area or keep him off of it. We all KNOW we shouldn’t yell, but what we need is some advice for situations like this! 😛


Bronwyn April 15, 2011 at 8:25 pm

I hear you Shannon, and I had the exact same thought while reading the article. I’ve tried a few things that help a little. I tried the opposite day approach where you whisper everything you want to yell. I’ve written notes to myself on the mirror to remember to just walk away when I can. I’ve prayed about it, meditated about it.blah blah blah. I still yell and I regret it each and every time.

I am not from a yelling family. In fact you could say that I am from an anti-yelling family. I did not become a ‘yeller’ till I had kids. My frustration and anger gets the best of me, especially by the end of the day. After I have gently explained, redirected, laid done the law, well….I just reach my breaking point.

I note that I am an only child (obviously an adult now) raising two kids and OMG, I seriously don’t have any life training for the level of chaos that comes with the sibling territory.

Some one please give me a list of things to try. Ugh.


Kelly April 16, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Shannon! Yes, it was more of a personal reflection piece than a how-to article. I know what you mean though, to be struggling with a certain issue and know all about what *not* to do! That’s great to think about, right?, but what you really need are some practical suggestions!

It sounds like you have your hands full with an active toddler. Children that age are hard-wired to explore their environment using all of their senses, and their brains are not physically mature enough to understand a “no” *and* be able to remember it next time. They’re not capable of that kind of logic and self control. So they’re going to keep trying the same “no”s over and over and over again…that means their little toddler brains are functioning normally! 🙂

The most helpful thing you can do for a child that age is to create a “yes” environment…remove the obstacles to his success and all opportunities for “no”s. For the TV, you might consider putting a gate around the entire area or blocking everything off with a wall of furniture so he simply can’t get to it. You’re setting him up for success, knowing that his immature brain can’t resist the appeal of the TV/ stand.

You may also just have to leave the room. When he wants to climb, you can “change the subject” by doing something elsewhere in the house or outside. Spending time in the kitchen or go do something outside, gating the room behind you if necessary.

Also know that this phase *will* pass! He won’t have this preoccupation with the TV forever.

For other ideas on alternative to yelling, see API blogger Dionna’s post here:


Rita Brhel April 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm

It is so easy to fell guilty about yelling, because we all do it at some point: Even the most calm parent can become overwhelmed by events in his or her life and a child’s tantrum may be the last straw to break the camel’s back. I’m an avid AP and Positive Discipline advocate, and I still have my weak moments. But remember to not feel too guilty because the important thing really is that we’re still working on becoming better parents. And kids really are so easily forgiving…thank God! Apologize, give a hug, and think of ways to avoid the yelling the next time.


Michele April 22, 2011 at 1:54 am

So hits a note with me – I come from a family of yellers (and they are coming to visit for the first time since November this weekend!)

So often I hear/read what NOT to do – when really wahat Ihave been asking for is scripts of what TO say or DO when the time hits. Examples that I can adapt on the fly, instead of faling back to that rut I never want to visit again.

(this thing is not allowing me to go back and correct, so it is what it is!)

The most important thing I’ve adapted is: take my son by the hand, lead him away from the activity he is engaged in, and ask him about something ENTIRELY different. He is climbing the box in front of the shelf and grabbing something (delicate) from there and playing with it. First: it is MY lack of baby proofing t hat has given him access. I can’t yell at him for not obeying some imaginary line in my mind.
Second, just because he is in a dangerous (well, in most people’s minds, not mine or his because this kid is like the proverbial CAT – he lands on his feet most of the time – but rarely because he falls!) position is no need to yell – it would grab his attention from what he is doing and make him more likely to fall/hurt himself. I have stunned my parents and simply taken him by the hand and helped him down (or away) from what he was doing and led him to something else or asked him if he is hungry – instead of yelling at him.

My son was active all through my pregnancy, and the only wish I had was that it was less buggy outside – so we were outside more often – and that I took him for more walks. Because a child – boy or girl – needs to get that energy OUT and be tired enough for nap. Because I needed a nap! I still do! it’s been a VERY long winter.

I was so angry with my husband for NOT redirecting – he would get into an argument with a 3 year old – and it sounds silly! I emulated it again (have been showing him what to do and generally he is just so relieved that he situation is over – but he didn’t PAY ATTENTION to how I did it so he can’t repeat it!) and spelled out the word R E D I R E C T for him so that he would finally hopefully prayerfully HAVE AN IDEA (deleted the word clue) WHAT the heck I am talking about – and expectnig him to use!

It is SO hard to work this on the fly without examples.

And it is so hard to get examples because everyone thinks they don’t have the situation perfect, so they don’t want to make a mistake.

That’s another bone of contention – not practicing AP because I or another person doesn’t know the perfect way to answer something/do something/be something/interpret something. Falling back to yelling bc it is easier, and because it was somethign that was used on me/us, because it didn’t kill us (another perfectionistic idea that short circuits AP!) And it gives vent to that little child who was yelled at and wants to pass it along.

I could write forever on what I’ve learned….


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