Sometimes it seems like parenting and yelling go hand in hand.
We have yet to meet a mom or dad who handles kids without having to raise their voice at one point or another. We’re not judging—it’s hard to resist the urge to raise the volume every once in awhile; in certain circumstances, it’s downright unavoidable.
Unfortunately, this can end up being a remarkably harmful habit.
Yelling models for a child that getting loud or emotionally aggressive gets you what you want.
We’ll explain why, but first, we have to make an important distinction: We are not talking about true verbal abuse here. That’s an entirely different subject. This is more for the parent who occasionally loses control and disciplines kids loudly, not for the troubled families that need professional help.
(If you find yourself in the latter situation, get help by calling 800-422-4453. That’s the National Child Abuse Hotline.)
Okay, with that bit of serious business out of the way, let’s take a look at what you might not know about yelling at your children.
1. Kids grow up to yell at people themselves.
There was something to that old commercial where the kid indignantly tells his father, “I learned it by watching you!”
Children, especially younger ones, figure out how to be people by watching Mom and Dad. If Mom and Dad yell often enough, kids get the idea that yelling is both acceptable and normal behavior.
Emily Griffin, LPC, a mental health therapist in Maryland, agrees with this assessment. She says she works with a lot of children in her practice, as well as adults who experienced yelling from their parents while growing up.
“Yelling models for a child that getting loud [or] emotionally aggressive gets you what you want,” she tells HealthyWay. “This is not a healthy message to be sent to them because this creates a cycle of children that grow into adults that do not know how to handle their emotions and communicate in a calm, effective way.”
Constant yelling at our kids actually impairs their intellectual and emotional development.
According to a study from the University of Pittsburgh, adolescents who experience “harsh verbal discipline” were more likely to suffer from “increased levels of depressive symptoms, and were more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior.” Another study in the journal Child Development came to similar conclusions.
2. Your child’s brain might become wired for stress.
Remember that your kid’s brain is still building itself.
Brains develop through a process of synaptic (or neural) pruning, in which certain connections get stronger while others are severed. That’s how one kid might get really good at violin while not picking up Spanish as quickly, for instance.
Kristen Race, Ph.D, founder of the lifestyle blog The Mindful Life, warns that repeatedly yelling at kids strengthens the function of the child’s limbic system. That’s the part of our brains that pumps out stress hormones to induce a “fight or flight” response.
“Because pruning has to happen, neurons will be pruned from structures like the prefrontal cortex where higher cognitive functions (attention, planning, decision-making, critical thinking) tend to be regulated,” Race writes. “When we let our own stress levels spike into the red, constant yelling at our kids actually impairs their intellectual and emotional development.”
4. Your child may become frightened of you.
There’s nothing scarier to a 5-year-old than an angry adult. That’s especially true when that adult is usually the one who gives the kid food, love, and comfort. You probably don’t know how scary you look when you’re screaming in anger., but Griffin says it actually creates a hostile environment.
“I have seen … my child [clients] and adult clients who have been yelled at as a form of parenting to have lower self-esteem because their primary support group is not keeping them safe emotionally, and to have more anxiety because they are unsure how people will receive them and their behaviors,” she says.
The loud bellowing and contorted face can be unsettling for anyone, let alone a small child you’re hovering over. Many children will begin to flinch at your touch or even before you begin to yell because they know what’s coming.
“Children do not learn to be resilient in an environment where they will not get the proper emotional support that they need,” she says.
5. You might actually protect your child from imminent danger, but it doesn’t work long-term.
Of course, sometimes you’ve just got to scream at your kid; if she’s about to drop a brick on her little sister, or if he’s running straight toward a busy road, you certainly get a pass.
“There are times it’s great to raise your voice,” Markham said. “When you have kids hitting each other, or if there’s real danger.”
Parents get driven to the edge of sanity, and over, on a daily basis. The kids keep us up all night. They do incomprehensible things, like color the dog with a permanent marker. They might even get themselves into real trouble. We’re bound to lose it here and there.
The important thing is to keep yelling from becoming your default strategy. Not only is it bad for your kid, it pretty much doesn’t work at all. In situations where their lives aren’t on the line, you’re way better off calmly discussing your expectations with your child.
“When parents yell, kids acquiesce on the outside,” Laura Markham, PhD, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, told Fatherly. “But the child isn’t more open to your influence; they’re less [open].”
Before you raise your voice next time, pause for a moment. Take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself if you’re reacting out of love or out of anger; if it’s the latter, look for another parenting strategy.
6. Even the most even-tempered people can sometimes fall victim to their anger.
Hunter Clarke-Fields, a registered yoga instructor and parenting mentor in Delaware, takes pride in her serene approach to life, but she admits that she struggled with anger as a mother.
“I discovered I was so triggered by my children,” Clarke-Fields tells HealthyWay. “I was really ashamed and it was so much harder than I thought it would be.”
She says she realized how yelling is something that’s conditioned in us, both environmentally and biologically, and it’s a stress response.
“It doesn’t make any sense when you think about it, but it’s just so ingrained in us,” she says.
The yelling often leads us to feel bad about ourselves, and maybe to even believe we’re bad parents.
“It’s nothing to feel bad about and have guilt about, but it’s something we can work over time to take care of,” Clarke-Fields says.
8. Don’t expect overnight results if you want to stop.
So you want to do better. What now?
Possibly the hardest part is realizing that you won’t immediately stop yelling at your child. Even if you do, your other communication methods might not be effective enough to see results. For example, you can’t remain calm and yet fail to address the situation.
“It’s not enough to just be able to calm down and pause, or just to have the communication skills,” Clarke-Fields says. “You really need both. You can’t have one without the other.”
She says she never would have believed before that it would be her parenting technique, but Clarke-Fields does not punish her children.
Surprisingly, it’s paid off.
“They are more cooperative than they have ever been,” she says. “It’s not perfect. They are immature human beings. I don’t expect them to be soldiers or robots, but they do cooperate with us, not because we’re threatening them but because we have needs and they recognize that and they help us out.”
Clarke-Fields says she has conversations with her children about family needs and how everyone can support each other.
“It’s more like we’re on the same team,” she says.
Griffin believes the best way to approach the situation is to try to understand why the child did act out.
“Maybe they hit their classmate because they were angry because they were taunting them,” she says. “So instead of yelling to reduce the hitting, reflect that they hit their peer because it hurt their feelings when they were picked on. This allows the child to feel heard by the parent and be more likely to feel supported and comfortable with talking about feelings in the future.”
Furthermore, she says if an adult puts a “label” on the feeling, it can help the child to identify the feeling when it happens again.
“The parent can then walk the child through the steps to take when they start to become angry or sad.”
It’s more like we’re on the same team.
To stop yelling requires a lot of patience and practice, though. There will be times when you start shouting before you’ve even realized what you’re doing.
Yelling, Clarke-Fields says, “is like a highway. It’s super easy and smooth to go down that way.”
The real challenge is taking the high road: staying calm and communicating effectively, even when your child isn’t.
Don’t brush it under the rug.
Knowing that we will likely yell again, what should we do in the moments after?
First, take a moment to breathe and calm down. Ask yourself why you became angry and how it might be dealt with the next time.
And importantly, don’t act like it didn’t happen. For some parents, apologies aren’t easy. We want to look like strong leaders without any faults.
But in reality, the strongest leaders are those who admit their faults and learn from them. Apologizing also teaches our children that it’s okay to make mistakes and we can have another chance to do better.
“You say, ‘Oh hey, I’m really sorry I raised my voice. I probably could have talked to you in a better way in that moment. Can we start again?’” Clarke-Fields says. “It’s about repairing that relationship.”