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What Am I Doing to My Kid When I Yell?

Short answer: You're setting yourself up for a lifetime of shouting matches.

When kids misbehave, yelling feels like a natural response, particularly if parents are stressed out and their tolerance for nonsense has worn thin. A parent stressed over the state of the world might yell at a child before they even realize they’re doing it. But, despite the fact that yelling at your kids feels like a release, an attention-getter, and a form of discipline, it’s important to understand the psychological impact that yelling at kids can have. As provocative as some behaviors may seem, little kids simply don’t have the emotional sophistication to fully understand adult frustration. And the psychological effects of yelling at toddlers repeatedly can be long-term, with the potential to change the way their brains develop and process information. As hard as it can be to resist the temptation, ultimately, yelling at kids is deeply unhelpful.

According to Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, yelling at kids is a parenting “technique” we can do without. Thankfully, she has some anti-yelling rules to remember, and some tips for helping us learn how to stop yelling at our kids, no matter how frustrated we may feel in the moment.

Yelling at Kids Is Never Communicating

Nobody (except for a small percentage of sadists) enjoys being yelled at. So why would kids? “When parents yell, kids acquiesce on the outside, but the child isn’t more open to your influence, they’re less so,” says Dr. Markham. Younger kids may bawl; older kids will get a glazed-over look — but both are shutting down instead of listening. That’s not communication.

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Grown-Ups Are Scary When They Yell at Kids

The power parents hold over young kids is absolute. To them, their folks are humans twice their size who provide everything they need to live: food, shelter, love, Nick Jr. When the person they trust most frightens them, it rocks their sense of security. “They’ve done studies where people were filmed yelling. When it was played back to the subjects, they couldn’t believe how twisted their faces got,” says Dr. Markham. A 3-year-old may appear to push buttons and give off an attitude like an adult, but they still don’t have the emotional maturity to be treated like one.

Psychological Effects: Yelling at Kids Makes Causes Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Dr. Markham says that while parents who yell at their kids aren’t ruining their kids’ brains, per se, they are changing them. The psychological effects of yelling at kids, especially younger ones, are real. “Let’s say during a soothing experience [the brain’s] neurotransmitters respond by sending out soothing biochemicals that we’re safe. That’s when a child is building neural pathways to calm down.”

When parents yell at their toddler, who has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and not much in the way of the executive function, the opposite happens. “The kid releases 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. None of those are good for brain formation,” she says. If that action happens repeatedly, the behavior becomes ingrained. So if you’re yelling at your toddler every day, you’re not exactly priming them for healthy communication skills.

It’s Not About “Letting Them Off Easy”

A parent may feel like they’re putting their foot down and establishing some discipline when they yell at their kids. What they’re really doing is exacerbating the problem. Scaring a kid at the moment may get them to knock off what they’re doing, but it’s also eroding trust in the relationship. Learning how to slow your reaction and stop yelling at your kids isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

There is an alternative method that’s more effective and not as hardline: humor. “If the parent responds with a sense of humor, you still maintain your authority and keep them connected to you,” says Dr. Markham. Laughter seems like a more welcomed outcome than cowering.

How to Stop Yelling at Kids

  • Remember young children aren’t trying to push your buttons. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Consider that yelling teaches children that adversity can only be met with a raised and angry voice.
  • Use humor to help a kid disengage from problematic behavior. Laughter is better than yelling and tears.
  • Train yourself to raise your voice only in crucial situations where a child might get hurt.
  • Focus on calm dialogue. Yelling shuts down communication and often prevents lessons from being learned.

Parents Who Yell at Kids Train Kids to Yell

“Normalize” is a word that gets thrown about a lot these days, but it’s also applicable to a child’s environment. Parents who constantly yell make that behavior normal for a kid, and eventually, they’ll adapt to it. Dr. Markham notes that if a child doesn’t bat an eye when they’re being scolded, there’s too much scolding going on. Instead, parents need to first and foremost be models of self-regulation. In essence, to really get a kid to behave, grown-ups have to first.

When It’s Okay to Yell at Kids

While the majority of the time yelling isn’t prescriptive, “there are times it’s great to raise your voice,” says Dr. Markham. “When you have kids hitting each other, like siblings, or there’s real danger.” These are instances when shocking them works, but she points out that once you get a kid’s attention, modulate your voice. Basically, yell to warn, but speak to explain.

Nobody is going to stifle themselves around their kids all the time, nor should they. That’s not what it’s like to be a person. But failing to do so on a daily basis is probably a less than productive long-term parenting strategy.