woman yelling at little boy
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 21, 2023 ·  8 min read

How Yelling at Your Kids Actually Affects Them

Parenting is hard. No matter how much you love your children, some days they test your patience until it has worn thin. During times like these, it is often tempting to completely lose your temper and yell at them. Sometimes, you find yourself raising your voice before you even realized it was happening.

While yelling may be effective in the short-term, and it might stop your kids from doing whatever it is that they’re doing in that moment, experts are cautioning against yelling as a strategy for long-term behavior change. Not only will it not result in permanent obedience, but it could be damaging your kids on a deeper psychological level.

Why Yelling is Ineffective

Although it may feel like by raising your voice you’re getting your point across more clearly, this is not the case. Yelling at kids (or anyone, for that matter), is not communicating. 

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, says that while some kids may cry, or others may get a glazed-over look when you yell at them, both are shutting down and not actually listening to what you’re saying.

“When parents yell, kids acquiesce on the outside, but the child isn’t more open to your influence, they’re less so,” she explains [1].

Yelling may make them be quiet and obedient in the moment, but it won’t make them correct their behavior or attitude. It teaches them to fear you, rather than understand the consequences of their actions.

Yelling Can Make Their Behaviour Worse

A study published by the Society for Research in Child Development found that thirteen-year-olds whose parents frequently shouted at them responded by behaving even worse over the following year [2].

Additionally, the more you yell at your children, the more aggressive they will in turn become. Research has shown that kids who are yelled at regularly become more physically and verbally aggressive [4].

Your children are constantly observing you and your behavior and they use it as a model for how they, too, should behave. If you are constantly losing your temper and shouting, they will learn to view this as a normal reaction to adversity, and in turn, will begin yelling, shouting, and becoming verbally aggressive when they are in a confrontational situation.

When yelling becomes normal, your child will learn to adapt to it. According to Dr. Markham, if a child doesn’t react, or reacts very minimally, to scolding, it is a good indicator that they are being scolded far too frequently: they’ve become desensitized to it [1].

“Your number one job as a parent, after assuring the safety of your children, is to manage your own emotions,” says Dr, Markham.

Read: These Schools Voted To Bring Back Paddling For Kids That Misbehave

Scaring is Not Disciplining

As a parent, you are the person your child trusts the most. When you frighten them by yelling, it affects their sense of security. 

It is important to remember that children do not have the same mental capacity as adults- they do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, and have very low executive function. Although it may seem like they’re trying to push your buttons, they likely don’t understand what it is that they’re doing, or why it is upsetting you so much. Kids do not have the emotional maturity to be treated like adults.

Yelling is a reaction of anger, and it makes children feel insecure. Conversely, calmness is reassuring and lets your child know that they are loved despite their bad behavior. Scaring your child into stopping whatever they’re doing erodes trust in your relationship [1].

Read: Mom Creates Household “Jobs” And Makes Her Kids Apply To Get Allowance Money

The Psychological Effects of Yelling

Yelling can actually have a physical impact on your child’s brain. Dr. Markham explains that when you shout at your kids, their brains release biochemicals that say “fight, flight, or freeze”.

“They may hit you. They may run away. Or they freeze and look like a deer in headlights,” she says. “None of those are good for brain formation,” [1].

This behaviour becomes ingrained if it occurs repeatedly, which negatively affects the development of good communication skills. 

Because humans process negative information and events more quickly than positive ones, exposure to parental verbal aggression has been shown to actually alter a child’s brain and increases their risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders [4].

Constant yelling also makes your child more susceptible to bullying, because they have a skewed understanding of healthy boundaries and self-respect.

When is it OK to Yell at Your Kids?

There are some instances when raising your voice is warranted, particularly when there is danger involved. Raising your voice is a way of relaying urgency to your child when it is necessary.

When your kids are hurting each other, or there is a real danger, shouting to shock them into stopping does work, but Markham says that once you have their attention, you should immediately change your tone and volume.

“Basically, yell to warn, speak to explain” [1].

Read: I Raised 2 Successful CEOs and a Doctor—Here’s One of the Biggest Mistakes I See Parents Making

How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids

No parent is going to be able to stop themselves from losing their temper all the time, and sometimes it may even be warranted. The problems arise when you use yelling as a long-term or daily parenting strategy.

Here are some ways you can switch from yelling to communicating with your kids and disciplining effectively:

Understand your triggers. Yelling is usually a response to a specific behavior, so if you can pinpoint which behaviors tend to make you lose your temper, you are more likely to be able to avoid it.

Nina Howe, professor of early and elementary childhood education at Concordia University, says that these triggers can be different for every parent.

“I’m tired, it’s been a stressful day at work, I’m coming home, and I’m going to have to make dinner. All these things are adding up, and there may be the likelihood you are going to lose it.” [5]

Once you’ve identified what upsets you, you can put strategies in place to solve the problem before it happens. Perhaps it means preparing something simple for dinner, or setting your kids up with an activity so you can cook in peace.

Warn your kids. If you can feel anger and frustration starting to bubble up inside you, give your kids a warning.

“Say, ‘You’re pushing me, and I don’t want to yell to get your attention. If you don’t listen now, I might lose it,’” says Howe [5].

Tempers often flare during transition times, like when it’s time to stop playing and get ready for bed, so warning them when a transition is about to happen (“you have five more minutes and then it’s bedtime”), can help prevent problematic behavior. 

Give yourself a time out. Often the best thing you can do is walk away and give yourself a few minutes to calm down before you react. Physically leaving the room and having a strategy to compose yourself, such as squeezing a stress ball or even sending in your spouse to deal with the problem, can help you to practice better self-control [5].

If you can’t leave the room, Calgary-based author of Parenting With Patience and Discipline Without Distress, Judy Arnall, suggests deciding as a family what kinds of behaviors are acceptable before you react, and writing it down on a “yes list”. She suggests things like jogging in place, throwing a ball for the dog to chase, or typing a social media rant you’ll never post.

“If you do things on your Yes List—go into the bathroom and deep-breathe—kids are watching that, and they’re going to pick up on those things and do them, too.” [5]

Read: The Era of Spanking has Ended

Prepare in advance. If the morning rush always results in a shouting match, for example, then find ways that you can prepare the night before so the morning is less stressful. If kids tend to get whiny while running errands, pack a toy to distract them while you get things done. When it comes to avoiding behavior problems, it is always better to “strike when the iron’s cold” [5].

Adjust your expectations, and recognize when you’re the problem. We often get upset when we have an idea of how something is going to go, but the reality doesn’ match the expectation. Be prepared that children may not always react the way you expect them to, and you may need to change course when things start to go sour (such as cutting your errands run short).

It’s also important to recognize when it’s you who is having an off-day. Perhaps you’re over-tired, or you’re stressed from work and small things that wouldn’t normally bother you are getting on your nerves. 

“Ask yourself, ‘What’s going on for me that I yelled at my kids for the past three days in a row? Did I not get enough sleep? Do I feel unappreciated? Apart from my kids’ behaviour, what else is going on for me?’” says Clinical counsellor Elana Sures [5]. 

Apologize when you lose your temper. You’re not going to be perfect all the time, and you will still occasionally lose your cool and find yourself yelling at your kids. When this happens, the most important thing to do is to apologize. 

“It takes the sting out of an ugly situation, and it reminds our kids that we’re human and sometimes emotions lead us to speak in ways we’re not proud of,” says Sures [5].

Talk to them about what prompted the yelling, why their behaviour bothered you so much, and work together to come up with a solution so it doesn’t have to happen again. This helps them to understand the link between the big feelings and resulting yelling, and that it requires not only more self-control on your part but also behavior change on theirs [5].

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