This Is the Best Time of Day to Yell at Your Kids, According to Child Development Experts
Dasha Burobina

A real-life scenario that recently played out in my life: My 4-year-old was at the playground going down the slide when another child who was wobbly on a skateboard broke his arm. The entire playground sprang to action to help. My child, however, chose this exact moment to take off like a lightning bolt through an open gate and—gasp—ignore my frantic calls to come back.

We caught up with him quickly, but I found myself in a dilemma: Do I reprimand in this moment since it’s relevant and top of mind? Or do I cool off since I’m still in my fight-or-flight zone? I brought my question to two different child development experts, who both told me that not only should I hold off, but that I should hold out for a specific time of day: bathtime.

Why bathtime can be a caregiver’s magic hour

Especially for kids ages 3 and older “Bathtime can be a magic time for addressing tricky topics,” says Kristin Brady, director at Cobble Hill Playschool. “It’s typically when there is just one activity happening, no TV or iPads and lots of undivided attention.” Water can also be soothing and calming—the ideal atmosphere for a focused conversation.

So I have to wait until bathtime to stop a behavior?

“A parent has two goals when their child is doing something that is not OK: First, stop the behavior. Second, reach a shared understanding with their child about what was going on and why it wasn’t OK,” Brady explains. That second part, says Marjorie Brickley, an infant and family development faculty member and advisor at the Bank Street College of Education, should be postponed for when heads are cool. As Brickley explains, in moments when, say a child at the park breaks his arm and everything goes off the wall, the brain and body are only thinking reactively; the ability to problem-solve constructively has gone offline. That’s why it’s the right time to set a firm “stop boundary,” but the wrong time to discuss it.

How do I set a firm “stop boundary” without reprimanding?

Let’s take the example of me and my son. In that moment at the playground, I was upset, he was upset and tensions were high. Still, Brady says the focus should stay on stopping the behavior. Try, “I see how sad and frustrated you are. You wanted to run over there. However, I can’t let you run away from me because that is not safe. I put you in the stroller to keep you safe. We’re going to head home and try the park again tomorrow.” Later on, distraction-free bathtime is when you can dig in.

So, you got your kid in the bath. Now what? Yell at him?

While yelling happens to the best of us, pausing the interaction after your stop boundary will diffuse the situation so that you can have a productive conversation sans the ineffective drama. So, when bathtime comes, between bubbles and rubber duckies, you could start by “remembering” the event out loud, says Brady. “Do you remember when you ran away from me at the park today? That was a little bit scary for me. I’d like to talk a little more about that.” Next, prioritize information-gathering (“Can you explain to me what you were trying to do?” or “Can you tell me how that made you feel?”).

Really, it’s about opening up space for a conversation and giving your child a chance to share their point of view. Once they do, you can validate their feelings while also revisiting the boundary you want to set. For example: “Now I understand that you ran away because you were chasing a butterfly, but I still need you to remember to stay with me at the park.” (You can also invite your child to participate in honoring the boundary: “I will make sure I can always see you and you make sure you can always see me. We can do this together.”)

What if my kid hates the bath?

The right place to discuss can vary by child, Brickley says. Maybe you have a sensory seeker who listens best while fidgeting or doodling. Optimize the atmosphere for a calm and distraction-free discussion based on your child.   

But don’t over-associate bathtime with tough discussions

“Finding other times to talk is also important,” Brickley adds. “You don’t want to turn bathtime into your emotional processing space. Use it sparingly and mix it up.” Her suggestions: A bench while eating a snack, for example. (It’s also critical that you don’t let too much time lapse between the incident and addressing it.)

Bottom line

Ultimately, the goal should be to listen to your child, have them listen to you and solve the problem together. “If you have these conversations regularly, you can lay the groundwork for your child to discover who they are, what they need and the best problem-solving strategies for them,” Brickley says. A win-win.

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